The Holocaust isn’t a laughing matter, so it seems incredible that Jonathan Safran Foer was able to write a funny book about it. His novel, Everything is Illuminated, impresses audiences by intertwining three very different narrations into a complex, heartbreaking story that somehow blends humor with painfully harsh history. This book isn’t another Night or even a different take on the innovative Maus or Maus II; it’s a novel that both butchers the English language and brilliantly articulates an unforgettable truth.
Foer’s highly-acclaimed novel puts together small, separated snapshots of scenes that eventually form a mosaic. Some chapters are bits and pieces of the story that Foer, a character in his own book, is trying to write about his family’s vague past; others are letters written in broken English from an eccentric Ukrainian man, asking for writing tips and giving well-meant advice to Foer himself. Each voice is single and unrepeated. Characters make use of anything from onomatopoeia to words in all caps to distinguish themselves from the others. The story as a whole may seem incohesive and scattered at times, but near the end of the novel, its metafictive properties clean up the mess in such a powerful way that it’s worth the wait.
The broken-up narrative style is only one of many impressive feats that this novel exhibits. Foer is able to completely captivate his audience throughout every letter, scene, and dream. Many times I found myself laughing out loud at Alex, the aforementioned Ukrainian, and more times I noticed a heaviness in my heart as I read about a girl who had trouble loving the people close to her. Foer takes his readers on an emotionally-charged ride that crescendos faithfully; every stark example of malapropism and every little poetic memory add up to a satisfying sum.
This book will not teach you about what happened during the Holocaust. It does, however, illustrate a messy painting of love without a clear definition, of the meaning of truth, of the importance of memory, and of the incredulity of immeasurable sadness. At times throughout the novel, it hardly seems like the book is well-suited to discuss the morbid scenes of WWII. But when Foer’s cacophony of stories, stories that transcend history and time, finally reach harmony, you might just find yourself face-to-face with a Holocaust you can truly see. Maybe it will even be illuminated.