Everything is illuminated
Dragos says this is the time to write – when the sun hits you straight in the head, and there’s 35 C in the shade and you can’t breathe. And while I think the picture he paints is entirely different from mine and looks like a great deal of fun, I have to say it doesn’t work that way. At least not for me. The sun kinda freezes my brain (or, more appropriately, melts it) and renders me totally and completely unable to put 2 coherent sentences together. Or to think them. Once I graduated from highschool summer kinda lost its appeal to me, to the point where now I’m desperately looking forward to September, when I’ll be back to my normal and less uncomfortable self. Damn summer! 😀
And since the sun stubbornly chooses to illuminate every tiny formerly dark corner, I figured it was about time for this book. (Well, in fact, i just picked it off the shelf, there was no decision process, but I tried -and failed- to connect the ranting and the book. Do I still get points for trying? 😛 )
There’s been heated (again, with the summer vocabulary!) debates about 6 years ago when the book first came out about whether Mr. Foer is a genius (as a blurb on the back cover will be happy to inform you, The TImes said: “A work of genius. A new kind of novel…after it things will never be the same again.”) or a fraud (Harry Siegel of the NY Press called him “a fraud and a hack”). And even though I don’t think I’d recognize genius if it poked me in the eye with a sharp sharp stick, I still don’t think he’s a genius. Or a fraud, for that matter. What I think is that Mr. Foer is a very ingenious, very clever writer. Sometimes, a bit too clever maybe, because, while he goes through a very generous range of post modernist tricks and gimmicks, you can sometimes lose sight of the story.
Basically, we have here a road trip novel that approaches still difficult and painful subjects with humour (not the inappropriate kind) and that does what “A clockwork orange” did before – reinvent, or put a new spin on English. In the New York Times review they picked up some of the best of Alex’s phrases: “In his idiosyncratic and persuasively consistent lingo, to sleep is to ”manufacture Z’s,” to have sex is ”be carnal,” good is ”premium,” nearby is ”proximal,” difficult is ”rigid,” and a certain downtown Manhattan neighborhood is, logically, ”Greenwich Shtetl.”” Funny stuff, no matter how grave the subjects of his writings are, you can’t help but smile, or even laugh out loud (for the first 50 pages at least, until you get used to it). Alex’s letters remind me of that episode of Friends, where Joey has to write a letter of recommendation for Monica and Chandler’s file at the adoption agency. He tries to make it look really smart, so he uses a thesaurus and ends up saying things like “they are humid prepossessing Homo Sapiens with full sized aortic pumps” when he meant to say “they are warm, nice, people with big hearts“.
Moving on from my Friends obsession, I guess I should say that the book is basically built from 3 threads: Alex writes about their journey in search of Augustine, Jonathan writes the history of the shetl Trachimbrod, from which his family originates – and the 2 stories are combined through Alex’s letters to Jonathan. But what journey, you might ask? The journey, the wheel that puts this book in motion, is Jonathan Safran Foer’s (the author and main character) desire to find Augustine, a woman who presumably saved his grandfather from the Nazis, while he was still living in Ukraine. He hires the Heritage Tours agency, a family owned business who uses the grandfather as a driver (and his “seeing eye bitch” as a mascot) and Alex, the eldest son as a guide and translator (when he speaks a very mangled English).
What I loved the most was the story of Trachimbrod – its rise and up until its complete disappearance off the face of the earth, with its eerie locals divided in Slouchers and Uprighters and its even stranger folklore, a story that spreads over 200 years and encompasses small family tragedies (as they can be read in The Book of Recurrent Dreams or in The Book of Antecedents) as well as major historical moments.
The more I try to write about it, the more I realise that it’s very easy to get lost in the details with this book. It’s catchy, it borders the absurd sometimes, it’s tragic yet funny and I expect it’s better than the movie version 😀 (which I plan to see one of these days and which, I now see, has actually cut out my favorite part. I guess it wasn’t all that cinematographic…Oh, and in the movie, Alex looks a lot like a gangster wannabe – also disappointing, since that’s not at all how I pictured him. 😦 )
Oh, and check out the website too: http://www.whoisaugustine.com/. It’s definitely one integrated novel – it’s got it all 😀