This past week, I finished Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer, which was an astounding, moving, and powerful book. It detailed one man’s journey back to his family’s homeland of Ukraine to uncover the truth about his family’s past, before his grandfather escaped Ukraine from the Nazis. The other central characters include his guide and translator, Alex, who speaks in an hilarious and idiosyncratic style of English, and Alex’s grandfather, also named Alex. It has been described by critics as a postmodernist magical-realist novel. I want to examine for a bit where the “magical-realism” part comes in and where the “postmodernist” part comes in and why the author uses these genres to the effect that he does.
First things first: the postmodernist aspects of the novel. The most obvious postmodern trope that Foer uses is inserting himself in the story as a fictional character. Much of the story tells Foer himself writing the story that he is going eventually going to write, the book that the reader currently reads. The other postmodern trope that Foer uses is the metafictional element of having one of his characters, Alex, write to the author with his commentary of the previous chapters. Alex analyzes the writing, the nature of the plot, and adds his own emotional response of the previous chapters to Foer. The novel itself is actually spit into three: Alex’s letters to Foer, Foer’s fictional account of his family history, and Alex’s account of the group’s Ukrainian travels. Another postmodern element that we can consider is the fact that Foer fictionalizes an historical account of his family. The act of merging historical fact and fiction and blurring these lines is a very common postmodern trope. Postmodernism asks what the difference between life and art is, and concludes that there may not be much of difference as you think.
Magical-realism runs rampant throughout the entire novel, and is one of the shining, most vibrant aspects of the novel. The novel creates these extremely fantastical and creative situations that are equally hilarious, mind-bending, poignant, and awesome. The novel starts off with one very magically-realistic event: a man is pinned underneath his cart at the bottom of the river and presumably dies. Out of the chaos and debris of his carriage floats a fully born baby, unscathed and crying. The villagers adopt this child as their own. The book itself explains that the wife of the man whose carriage ran off the roads was pregnant, and in her stress, gave birth to the baby while drowning. As the reader does or does not learn later, most of what Foer describes as a factual history of his family, is false. It becomes increasingly clear as the novel progresses that Foer is only using these magical-realism tropes so that he can make sense of his family’s past and how he can reconcile with his present. If you make your past fantastical and unbelievable and outrageous, you can laugh at it and thus learn from it and move on. Because what better way is there to learn from something than to laugh at it?
I recommend Everything Is Illuminated highly. It’s a perfect book for anyone who wants to read a novel that blends humor and heartbreak, seriousness and levity, devastation and creation, reality and magic, magic and postmodern seamlessly and beautifully. The novel broke my heart countless times, and then in the next chapter repaired it only for the purposes of breaking it again. It is wonderfully and masterfully written, and you will learn how important the relation between your family’s past and your present is and what indeed to do with this knowledge.