The critics praised its ‘startling originality’, but Everything Is Illuminated is nowhere near equal to the sum of its borrowed parts
Few debuts have been so fulsomely praised as Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated. My Penguin edition comes with page after page of orgasmic appreciation: a tidal wave of “impressive”, “smart”, “wildly exuberant”, “wonderful”, “extraordinarily brilliant”, “extraordinarily moving”, “achingly heartbreaking”, “shocking”, “linguistically brilliant”, “rambunctious tour de force of inventive intelligent storytelling”. This flood of adjectives reaches its spate in the reviewers’ attempts to convey just how fresh and new the book is. It isn’t just original, it’s “of startling originality” (that from both Jay McInerey and Nicci Gerard writing separately in the Observer). It’s “dazzlingly imaginative”, “marvellously inventive”, “intensely inventive”.
This hymn-sheet-singing is – as just about every broadsheet critic of the book would express it – “extraordinary”. Time after time the same sentiments and words and adjectives crop up – and time after time, as far as I can see, they bear little relation to the poor book.
The question of originality is the most striking. Safran Foer (who is clearly a well-read, intelligent and sensitive writer) must have wondered what the hell was going on. Here he is, diligently weaving a tapestry of other people’s stories, styles, ideas and imagery. And there is the critical mass claiming never to have read anything like it. It’s weird. Foer has taken from everyone from Lawrence Sterne to (oh mercy) Dave Eggers: there’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magical realism; there’s a plotline plundered from William Styron; there are repeated borrowings from the Tin Drum (right down to having a character hide under someone’s skirts). There’s gimmicky referencing of his own name just like every achingly postmodern male US writer who began his career after the millennium. And so on. And so on.
That shouldn’t be taken as a criticism of Safran Foer. One of the more pleasurable things about the novel is spotting his influences. There’s also no denying that he weaves them together with skill. But what it does show is that those salivating critics were either ignorant, lazy, thoughtlessly following the herd – or a combination of all three. So when they also suggest that this book is “a game changer” and “the next great American novel” we can disregard them. Especially since – sadly – this book isn’t much cop. In spite of Safran Foer’s obvious talent, it’s nowhere near equal the sum of its parts.
The problems start on page one as Foer allows Alexander Perchov to introduce himself. Alex is (in yet another reference) a Ukranian Sancho Panza; a singularly ill-equipped tour guide and sidekick. He will accompany the novel’s hero (yes, Jonathan Safran Foer) on a quixotic quest to find the village Safran Foer’s grandfather used to live in before the war – before the Nazis came along and destroyed it, along with just about every other Jewish inhabitant. Here’s how we meet him: “My legal name is Alexander Perchov. But all of my friends dub me Alex because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name.”
Alex uses these inappropriate words thanks – we are supposed to believe – to an over-dependence on his thesaurus. Throughout, he says “dubbed” instead of “called” as well as “rigid” instead of “hard”, “miniature” for “little” (as in “miniature brother”). And so on. And so on. The trouble with this joke (aside from it’s not being particularly “original” or funny) is that it just won’t ring true for anyone with an ear for language. Or at least, for anyone who has ever struggled to learn a foreign language or heard anyone else struggling to speak English. Alex rarely mixes tense or person or number. He just gets the words one beat wrong. He sounds more like a foreigner imagined by someone who has only ever spoken English to English-speaking people than a real person.
Alex is unconvincing on other levels too – as are all the other Ukranians in the book. They are all antisemitic con-artists whose main ambition is to get to America and/or rob Americans. Oh, and they aren’t very bright. And they drive rubbish cars. It’s like Borat, only less funny and more patronising.
Or at least, that’s how it starts. Because, with “startling originality”, Safran Foer is knocking these characters down only in order to build them up. Gradually, but inevitably, their pratfalling falls away: they’re revealed to have beating hearts – just like Americans! – and begin more serious discussions of the Holocaust and the fate of Safran Foer’s ancestors (whose story we have been picking up along the way in over-written chunks of magical realism). We end with a very serious book – and in this, Foer is more successful. There are moments of raw and touching humanity. OK, the tragic climax is a less convincing and watered-down version of Sophie’s Choice, but still there is real emotional force and sadness within it. From time to time the writing is good enough to make you hope that one day Safran Foer will produce an “extraordinarily brilliant” novel, instead of Everything Is Illuminated: a ragbag of old tricks; a clever book for dumb reviewers.
Or maybe it’s just me? Do say if you think I’ve got it wrong. Comments and thoughts will be most appreciated, as they’ll help inform John Mullan’s final book club column this month.