Book Reviews: Everything is Illuminated and Wonderstruck

“The images of his infinite pasts and infinite futures washed over him as he waited, paralyzed, in the present.”

– Everything is Illuminated

“Ben wished the world was organized by the Dewey decimal system. That way you’d be able to find whatever you were looking for, like the meaning of your dream, or your dad.”

– Wonderstruck

I was planning on reviewing Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated yesterday, but I got caught up in the next book I picked to read and by the time this morning rolled around I had already finished Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck. So now you get two reviews for the price of one (which, incidentally, is also the price of none).  

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

I don’t know why it took me more than half a year after I finished Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to finally read Foer’s previous novel, Everything is Illuminated. ELaIC rocketed to a top spot in my list of favorite books of all time and I had no reason to think that EiI would be any different when it comes to quality. It’s not. In fact, the two books work quite well together. It’s clear they are written by the same author since they tackle many of the same themes despite being wildly different in their characters and stories. Each book is multigenerational in scope, exploring the ways we love, lose, and live.

EiL is a novel told in three ways. The first is one side of correspondence from a young Ukrainian man – Alex, or Sasha, or Alexi-stop-spleening-me –  who, along with his grandfather and his grandfather’s dog, is hired by a young American man named Jonathan Safran Foer to find the woman in a photograph who saved his grandfather’s life when the Nazis rolled through the area. Foer the character is much like Foer the author, a writer, and the novel he is writing about his lineage makes up another part of the book. The final part is the story of how Alex and Jonathan search for the woman in the photograph. These three different methods of storytelling achieve a similar goal to the multiple perspectives in ELaIC, doling out information and emotions with extreme care and artful elegance. Events are foreshadowed and backshadowed and right-now-shadowed. Their emotional impact hits like a hammer, one that you saw coming and came out of nowhere at the same time, one that changes everything that you know about the characters and makes perfect sense with what you’ve seen so far. It’s not as emotionally affecting as ELaIC was for me, but it’s up there. There are not a few passage that brought tears to my eyes, though they never fell.way we love and lose across time and space. Each is a mystery novel at heart, with multiple characters searching for meaning in the face of great tragedy in addition to more physical bounties. And each is surprisingly funny for such sad topics as 9/11 and the rise of Nazi Germany.

The genius of the book comes from the humor, really. Alex’s bastardization of the English language is a pleasure to read. He uses words that are close to the right ones but always one or two degrees off the mark. Foer captures the foreigner’s tongue so well that I had no trouble understanding what Alex was saying while laughing at the silliness of his expressions. He goes to the most premium night clubs and describes the invention of a certain sexual position with hilarious misunderstanding and mistranslating:

“This is the sixty-nine,” I told him, presenting the magazine in front of him. I put my fingers — two of them — on the action, so that he would not overlook it. “Why is it dubbed sixty-nine?” he asked, because he is a person hot on fire with curiosity. “It was invented in 1969. My friend Gregory knows a friend of the nephew of the inventor.” “What did people do before 1969?” “Merely blowjobs and masticating box, but never in chorus.”

The humor in the book serves to make it feel real. Nobody’s story, no matter how serious, is entirely humorless. Even in the more emotional final third of the book the touching aspects are balanced with some jokes and funny situations. There are a few pages taken from the town of Foer’s ancestors’s book of history that illustrate just how concepts like memory and history can become so closely entwined that they lose all definition and meld into one concept. This comes in one of the book’s novel sections, the part supposedly written by Foer the character. These sections have a magical realist feel to them, with men living for years and years with a saw blade embedded in their head and light shining from the act of making love. It’s wonderfully written, like the rest of the book, and Foer’s effortless blending of style and timelines and stories and themes makes it tough to wait for his next book. I promise to read it sooner than I did this one.

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

And now for something completely different. Or not. On the surface this kidlit book would seem to be a world away from the very adult Everything is Illuminated, but when you look again there are a surprising number of similarities. It, too, spans time periods (this time 1977 and the late 20’s are the main settings) and tells of a young man trying to find a missing person. Wonderstruck is half told in regular prose and half in wordless pictures, much like Selznick’s previous work, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Ben, the boy in the prose section, recently lost his mother and he never knew his father. He also recently became deaf. He’s having a rough go. He decides to go off to New York City to find his father with only an address and his “museum box” to keep him company. Events conspire to bring him to the American Museum of Natural History where he meets a new friend and finds further clues to the identity and location of his father. Meanwhile, in the picture story, Rose is young and also deaf and also runs away and also visits the AMNH. The parallels in these two stories are a little more obvious than in Foer’s work, though they are almost equally moving by the end of the book.

It’s not hard to figure out where the book is going and how it’ll get there. It borrows semi-heavily from E. L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and the plot machinations are simple, mostly. But that’s not what matters here. The picture section feels a lot like a silent film, which suits the time period it covers and the story itself, which concerns a silent film star as well as the young Rose. Selznick implies a lot of motion in these still pictures, often showing only a foot or a hand entering or exiting a scene. And when the story gets to the museum there are some wonderfully detailed pictures showing the displays and exhibits. And when the two stories begin to crossover the magic of the book begins to take shape.

There’s nothing special about the story or the way Selznick writes the prose sections. Even the drawings aren’t breathtaking or anything. But the skill with which he combines them at the end of the book elevates them to become more than the sum of their parts. There are a few wonderful ideas and scenes in those final 150 pages (the pages fly by when the writing is so simple and the pictures take up about 3/4ths of the book’s girth) that make the book more than worthwhile. I don’t want to spoil the magic of the book, so I won’t describe what happens. It’s not even so much what happens as how it happens that really makes the book tick. It is predictable, but the execution and a few key details really land the punch to the gut.

8 thoughts on “Book Reviews: Everything is Illuminated and Wonderstruck

  1. OK, so I have to read Wonderstruck — bring it with you tonight please!!!! Thanks for the great reviews. I too loved “how concepts like memory and history can become so closely entwined that they lose all definition and meld into one concept.” I found it fascinating how the drowning accident turned into a town-wide mermaid celebration and the man with saw blade became an icon. Makes you wonder about all of our “traditions” and their realities.

  2. “In fact, the two books work quite well together. It’s clear they are written by the same author since they tackle many of the same themes despite being wildly different in their characters and stories. Each book is multigenerational in scope, exploring the ways we love, lose, and live.”
    I couldn’t agree more! We read the books in reverse order – I’d read Everything is Illuminated long ago and only just finished EL&IC. I am in awe of JSF’s writing and his adept way of capturing these huge themes in ‘manageable’ ways.

    1. Yeah, it’s kind of amazing how short and easy to read his books are for all the topics he tackles within them. There’s not a wasted word in them.

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