Reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s debut novel, Everything is Illuminated, can be a bit disorienting for the casual reader. Foer manages to cover over 200 years of history (and fantasy) through the eyes of dual narrators (one writing in mostly broken English), with four distinct narrative modes alternating and interacting with one another. Through all of these narrative gymnastics, though, Foer manages to tell a compelling story. In fact, it is the interchange between these narrative modes that gives the novel its depth and richness of meaning.
The novel is comprised of two intimately connected story lines. The first is the history of the shtetl of Trachimbrod, a Jewish village in the Ukraine. This story line is fanciful, yet tragic, and spans the 151 years from the naming of the village (through a mysterious disaster in the river) to the destruction of the village (through the disaster of Nazi bombs which drove the villagers back into the river). The story is told by Jonathan Safran Foer, the author’s eponymous narrator. Within the novel, Jonathan (the character) sends sections of this story (as a novel-in-progress) to Alexander Perchov (Alex), a Ukranian travel guide who is learning English. It is Alex who (using an apparently outdated dictionary) is writing the second story line. His story is the story of Jonathan (the character) and his search for Augustine, a woman Jonathan believes helped save his grandfather from the Nazis in the last days of Trachimbrod. In reply to Jonathan’s letters, Alex mails his novel back, chapter by chapter. This interaction results in four distinct narrative modes: Jonathan’s narration of the history of Trachimbrod, Alex’s narration of Jonathan’s search for Trachimbrod, Alex’s letters to Jonathan explaining his narrative (meta-narrative), and Jonathan’s letters to Alex critiquing Alex’s narrative (the reader never sees these letters, but Alex refers to them and their contents frequently).
Clearly, this arrangement is complicated, and in the hands of a lesser writer would have surely failed. But Foer (the author, not the character) manages to use it to his advantage. The true narrative of this novel is the story of trying to harmonize the two stories. The story tellers are actively aware of this very problem themselves, and the reader can tell early on that the key to the themes of the novel lie there as well. So, this complication is not only beneficial, but it is in fact the purpose of the novel. Foer is here exploring the nature of memory, things forgotten (both purposefully, and not), and how people shape the past to suit their beliefs or perhaps to just keep their sanity. This is most clear in the final pages of the novel as the truth is “illuminated” to be the surprise key character, Alex’s grandfather. He, for the first time in fifty or more years, faces the truth about the connections between his past (connected to Trachimbrod) and his present (his relationships with Alex and Jonathan). Had he not come to this realization through the congruence of narratives alive in the story, his subsequent suicide would have had far less impact.
A further benefit of this structure is the opportunity that it affords Foer to contrast the tones of the two story lines. When Jonathan is telling the story of Trachimbrod, the language is lush, the events are bizarre (approaching Magical Realism), and the tone is fanciful even in the face of great tragedy. The distance between narrator and subject allows for this style – Trachimbrod is the “stuff of legend.” Conversely, Alex’s story of Jonathan’s search for Trachimbrod and Augustine is straight-forward, even halting, as it approaches the dark truths that are so painful for Alex. Although it is at times quite humorous, Alex’s account grows more and more serious (and erudite) until it finally gives way to the final words of a man whose next act will be to commit suicide as a direct result of the story that is being told. The contrast between these two tones is yet further commentary on the nature of memory. In essence, the two different tones represent the two possible ways to deal with the memory of the same terrible event.
Foer makes things complicated, that is a certainty. But he does so for good reason. In fact, this amalgam of narrative modes is the only way he could have possibly told his story effectively. The confusion of perspectives is not a distraction; it is the point of novel.