Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Written Word Wed. - Not Quite as Premium

Last month I was inspired by the movie version to check out the novel. As expected, some things in the movie were verbatim from the novel, and quite a few others were vastly changed.

Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safron Foer

This is the story of Jonathan Safron Foer, a young Jewish writer who has traveled to the Ukraine to search for Augustine, the woman who saved his grandfather during World War II. It is also the story of Alex, a Ukrainian man hired to act as Jonathan's interpreter; his grandfather, their driver and guide, despite the fact that he has claimed to be blind ever since his wife died; and Sammy Davis Jr. Jr., his grandfather's borderline psychotic seeing eye dog. But, perhaps most of all, it is the story of Trachtimbrod, the small shetl that is both the ancestral home of Jonathan's family and the end point of his quest. As Alex narrates their journey, and Jonathan narrates the history of Trachtimbrod, old secrets are unburied and both men find their worldviews changed.

Everything is Illuminated is a literary novel which alternates between Alex's straightforward (if inventively phrased) narration, Jonathan's fictionalized (and stylized) version of his family's history, and Alex's letters to Jonathan which serve as a commentary on the other two narrative streams. Much like The Toy Collector, although the author and main character share the same name and some similarities, this is not a true autobiographical novel; while Foer did indeed once travel to the Ukraine to track down the woman who once saved his grandfather, he says the real life journey and the journey in the novel are quite different.

A book like this can be a hard sell; the shifting of narrative voices and styles can alienate as often as it entrances. For me, I enjoyed all of the sections told in Alex's voice; his unusual take on the English language, his false bravado, his outsider's perspective, and his sense of humor all combined to make an entertaining read. I can't quite say the same for the Jonathan sections; there was humor there, and interesting characters, but the language just did not flow as well as the Alex sections. It was the literary equivalent of speeding down the highway only to have the road turn to mud underneath you; you can still get where you're going, but it's going to be a bit more hassle than what you've come to expect.

I do have to wonder if my preference for Alex's tales was influenced by the fact that the film only references Alex's point of view; the tales of Trachtimbrod are never touched upon in the movie. Was I just put out because the Jonathan sections were depriving me of more Alex? Possibly. Is that a sign of weakness on the part of the story, or of the reader? Who knows? I think I'm glad I saw the movie first; otherwise I might have been upset at the fact that the secret held by Alex's grandfather was changed from the novel; having already enjoyed the film, I was able to look on the change with more forgiving eyes.

In the end, I enjoyed Everything is Illuminated quite a bit; I would have been happier if Foer had stuck with one voice of the other for the entire novel, but hey, that's just me . . . I'm guessing your mileage may vary on that one.


Flunky lover said...

I'm still waiting for that movie but in the meantime I watched or should I say tried to watch the new Pride and Prejudice. It was so awful. I feel like they took an integral part of the story out which is the manners of the time.
I also recently read Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. I've just read 2 of her books and can't believe I haven't done it sooner. I don't know if I'll watch the movie though. So often books are better especially one like this where one own's imagination is part of the story. If only Hollywood would learn that and stop butchering those great sci fi books out there.

Cap'n Neurotic said...

The only one of her books I've read is A Sudden Wild Magic, and that was back in high school; I remember thinking it was OK, but wasn't overly wowed by it. I'll have to give some of her other stuff a try.

I was thinking about the whole "book vs. movie" thing earlier this week, both because of Everything is Illuminated and a post on a comic blog; I'll probably write up something about my feeling on the topic soon.