Distraction can prove to be such a cruel bitch while I'm reading a novel. I'm a pretty fast reader, but I go through periods where almost anything can keep me from turning the page...people-watching on the trolley, current anxieties, imagining what life would be like as a piece of fruit (for the record? DELICIOUS). It took me a month to get through this one, despite my enjoyment...but I found myself actually distracted by the story itself. I couldn't stop imagining Foer's writing process. What made him name a character after himself, how did he get into the mind of Alex so well, did he research life in shtetls, etc etc. Foer has a knack for diving head first into his characterizations with a self assurance and buoyancy that is admirable in a writer so young. I read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close a few months ago and was blown away by little Oscar and his heavy boots, so I was more than thrilled to finally read this, his debut novel.
Alex Perchov is a young Ukrainian translator hired by Jonathan Safron Foer to assist him in his journey to find the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Searching the desolate regions of the country for a place called Trachimbrod, they're accompanied by Perchov's grandfather, an old man tortured by his personal experiences of the war and the loss of his wife, and Sammy Davis Jr Jr, their equally beloved and reviled vodka drinking dog. The book is a story within a story within a story, but Foer manages to avoid alienating his readers by writing with a fluidity that effectively binds the different narratives.
The journey of the four travellers is recounted by Alex, while the rest of the book is written as excerpts of Jonathan's novel that conveys the life of his ancestors in the small shtetl. Tying these together are Alex's letters to Jonathan that act as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting and sometimes reproaching him for his writing style. Alex is a desperate-to-be-loved young man whose dialogue is a hilarious and often affecting mix of broken English and malapropisms. He was undeniably my favorite character; his honesty (which often bordered on lack of modesty) is punctuated with a sense of humor and an unfortunate grasp of the language that provides the novel's funniest moments. Declarations such as:
had me choking with laughter on the subway. What was greatest about Alex is that through his letters you can witness him growing...as his language improves his innocence wears away. Best of all is his personal investment in the story of both Jonathan's great-great-I-forget-how-many-greats Grandmother Brod and his Grandfather Safran. It gives the book its heart and nearly echoed my own feelings toward the story. Everything is Illuminated is so rich with colorful characters and written with such grace and poetry that I was moved to tears more than once. Extremely Loud is still my favorite, but this book cements my belief that Foer is one of the most talented and exciting authors in recent memory. I can not wait to see what he does next.