Thursday, August 11, 2011

Bad Books On The Beach: No.3 - 'Everything Is Illuminated' by Jonathan Safran Foer

J. Safran Foer (right) in happier times.
Back in the 1970s, I was a keen reader of the weekly football comic Roy of the Rovers. Roy Race, the free-scoring striker with Melchester Rovers, was also the editor. Well, why not, it was named after him. It’s nothing Oprah hasn’t capitalised on. Except he wasn’t really the editor, because he didn’t exist. But he signed his editorial column every week, and expressed his opinions about his favourite players. The best striker in England, he maintained, was Portsmouth’s David Kemp. It’s possible that a few readers vehemently disagreed with Roy on this, but Roy was so determined to endorse the forward that he went to see him personally. And that’s how the picture to our left appeared as a magazine centre-spread, much to the delight of myself and my friends. And after that, we stopped buying it, both literally and figuratively.

We were prepared to believe that Roy could fire in a 40-yarder to win the game in the last minute, week after week. We accepted that goalkeeper Gordon Stewart, despite the panther-like antics that made him The Safest Hands In Soccer, only played for second division Tynefield City. We didn’t mind that Subbuteo-playing genius Mike Dailey of Mike's Mini-Men had absolutely nothing in his life besides table football (in fact I probably related to him more than I’d like to admit). We cared not that Johnny ‘The Hard Man’ Dexter’s Danefield United team were playing in the English top flight, just like Melchester Rovers, but the two teams existed in parallel worlds (one in colour, the other in black and white), and that the fixture list never brought them together. But we couldn’t take it seriously when Roy posed as a cardboard cut-out next to David Kemp. Like Danefield and Melchester, the two were never supposed to meet. Not credible. Not at all.

Jonathan Safran Foer’s widely acclaimed novel Everything Is Illuminated raised a similar credibility problem for me. The main character is a Ukrainian translator, Alex, who narrates
much of the book in what the jacket blurb calls “sublimely butchered English”. In fact he sounds like he would have made a good foreign signing for Melchester Rovers - the madcap eastern European with the comically weird way of expressing himself. Foer seemingly took a Thesaurus and altered Alex’s lexicon for laughs, Borat-style, and by the time things get serious you’ve long since given up on the idea of making an emotional connection, you just want to get the book over with. This book is so intensely annoying that I almost gave up 50 pages in, but it cost me $13.99 and I was on the beach with nothing else to do but stare at the seagulls, so I endured.

Alex is commissioned to translate for a visitor from the US who is looking to find the village of his Jewish ancestors, Trachimbrod, whose inhabitants were massacred during World War 2. The visitor is armed with only the photograph of a woman who might have saved his grandfather and allowed him to flee to the US, and his name is Jonathan Safran Foer. (Not former Portsmouth striker David Kemp, it’s true, but he might as well have been.) Maybe this post-modern literary trick is so hackneyed that it was studiously avoided for a couple of decades, and now it’s time has come again, but in this context it only serves to strangle an already tottering premise. The character Foer doesn’t do much at all except serve as a comic foil to Alex, refusing to complain despite the fact there’s nothing to eat for vegetarians in Ukraine (hilarious running gag), or that Alex’s dog Sammy Davis Junior, Junior (slapstick name! slapstick dog!) eats his passport and his money. These Animal Planet reality series episodes are written up by Alex, in that relentlessly and unhilariously butchered English, that he sends to Foer for criticism after the trip is over, while Foer sends back his fictional account of how his ancestors lived in the village in the centuries prior to and leading up to the massacre. These are critiqued in return by Alex, and he doesn’t think much of them, and in this respect at least I’m with him all the way. Not that the fictional Foer’s account of the fictional Foer family’s fictional history are bad, it’s just that they’re tiresomely derivative of all those family narratives down the generations that are Full Of Weird And Colourful Characters And Strange But Telling Magical Realist Events. Think The Tin Drum and Waterland  and 100 Years of Solitude and about 500 others.

When you read the true story this was based upon, of the actual village of Trachimbrod that was massacred during WW2, you wonder why a decent writer wouldn’t simply research and write a history of that village. There’s plenty of material. This book seems more like craven literary attention-seeking than an attempt to portray the tragedy of genocide. I loved Foer’s novel Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, (although there’s some merit to Anis Shivani’s criticism that it’s narrated by “a nine-year-old with the brain of a twenty-eight-year-old Jonathan Safran Foer”), but this book is not, as the New York Times claims, “a fearless, acrobatic, ultimately haunting effort”. Neither did I feel “altered, chastened - seared in the fire of something new”, as The Washington Post said that I would. I did, however feel irritated and cheated, and taken for a fool by the author. I felt like I was looking at a picture of Jonathan Safran Foer standing with his arm around the cardboard cut-out figure of Alex and his dog and his grandfather (or Alex and his dog and his grandfather with their arms around a cardboard cut-out figure of Jonathan Safran Foer), bound together by the belief-bending coincidence that leads us into the inevitable confrontation with the past, and the reckoning and redemption that rarely happens in life, but always seems to in books and films.

This ends the mini-series Bad Books On The Beach (in case you’re worried about my bad week on the sand, I did read one good novel: Der Kameramörder, by Austrian writer Thomas Glavinic). Everyone else I saw on the beach this year who was reading a book had their heads stuck in James Patterson. Maybe next year I should give him a try.


No Good Boyo said...

Snap, Pop. I read this book in Ukraine, where it was thrust on me by a dewey-eyed American. I was immediately revolted by the comic English of the translator. No one talks like that, not even Borat. Even if you're a prat and think its funny, you're unlikely to be able to maintain your mirth level beyond five pages.

I thought to recreation of Trachimbrod was well done, but as you say hardly original. Still, it came as relief from the pidgin gurning of the translator and the rural grotesques they met.

The ending is, of course, ridiculous. Unless you're Carl Jung.

There's a film version I'm tempted to see, if only because the translator's played by matey out of Gogol Bordello. On the other hand, it could be even worse.

Stay-At-Home Indie-Pop said...

Thanks, Boyo - glad it's not just me. By the way, I thought of you and Mrs Boyo two weeks ago when I was in New York and walked past the Ukrainian book shop on the Lower East Side. I would have popped in to big up my Ukrainian connections (in the following order: 1. I know you and Mrs Boyo 2. I once saw Shakhtar Donetsk in a Uefa Cup game 3. I may have been affected by fallout from Chernobyl when I was studying in Germany in 1986), but I still had a list of 27 second hand record shops I needed to urgently investigate.

Mark Sanderson said...

Hi Ian - I too saw plenty of James Patterson novels being read poolside during my summer hols. Don't know what they would have made of my Patrick Leigh Fermor travel anthology. Isn't about time your agent started hawking your next book?

No Good Boyo said...

You'd have got major kudos for saying Shakhtar not Shakhtyor, which is the Russian version. They'd have given you a volume of bizarre anti-Polish poetry and damaged your sinuses with some horseradish, garlic and chili vodka. You'd have been delivered home on a goat, possibly with a Hutsul brand on yo' ass.

nathan3e said...

I will take your word for this one as I was unable to complete it. My favorite beach reads this year have been Jar City by Arnaldur Indriðason and A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. Ms. Egan is a nice person, which always helps.

nathan3e said...

Addendum: Shakhtar Donetsk is a good side.

No Good Boyo said...

Dynamo Kyiv till I die!

Saw them beat Arsenal in Kiev in 2003. The second and last football match I attended. The first was Fakel Voronezh at home to Dinamo Minsk in 1985.