But if Burgess's hero was an enraged, disaffected English youth bottom-feeding off the detritus of Soviet culture, Foer's narrator is an actual Russian or more accurately, a Ukrainian who could hardly be more affable, more engaged or more enchanted by everything American, from Michael Jackson and ''the greatest of all documentary movies, 'The Making of ''Thriller,'' ' '' to the career of the porn star John Holmes to the ''many good schools for accounting,'' one of which Alex dreams of attending. Alex speaks English like someone who has taught himself by painstakingly translating a really abysmal novel with the help of a badly outdated dictionary.
In his idiosyncratic and persuasively consistent lingo, to sleep is to ''manufacture Z's,'' to have sex is ''be carnal,'' good is ''premium,'' nearby is ''proximal,'' difficult is ''rigid,'' and a certain downtown Manhattan neighborhood is, logically, ''Greenwich Shtetl. No matter.
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Alex is ''fluid'' enough to be dragooned into working as a translator for Heritage Touring, the travel agency at which his abusive father arranges trips for American Jews ''who have cravings to leave that ennobled country America and visit humble towns in Poland and the Ukraine. After a first encounter that could hardly be funnier or more unpromising, Alex and ''Jon-fen'' set out across the ''totally awesome former Soviet republic,'' together with Alex's grandfather who, despite a case of psychosomatic blindness, has been enlisted as their driver and along with their overly amorous and malodorous dog, named Sammy Davis Jr.
The story of their trip is told in retrospect by Alex, who is writing chapters or, as he calls them, ''divisions'' and sending them to Jonathan, who, as we learn from letters that Alex writes and that accompany his ''divisions'' is editing and correcting Alex's account. Jonathan's emendations are partly concerned with factual accuracy and proper English usage. The Trachimbrod novel is, as Jonathan calls his fiction, very much an ''apprentice piece,'' one that is alternately and sometimes simultaneously sublime and ridiculous, and that, though enchanting, often makes us grateful when Alex reappears to voice questions and doubts we may have entertained on our own.
In any case, the Trachimbrod book gives the real and fictional Jonathan Safran Foer a chance to display a gift for invention, lyricism and eloquence beyond the reach of the linguistically challenged Alex. Any attempt to explain the complex narrative strategy of ''Everything Is Illuminated'' makes it sound more complicated than it is. Actually, it's not difficult to follow, since the structure reveals itself slowly, in stages, and each one of these small revelations is a source of surprise and pleasure.
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Indeed, one of the book's attractions is its writer's unusually high degree of faith in the reader's intelligence. Sections of the novel refer to other sections in ways that you have to think about in order to make the connections that, once you think about them, are perfectly obvious. The humor ranges from jokes that are, alas, too dirty to be quoted here to the loftiest literary allusions; Foer has so much energy that he doesn't care if we get all the jokes, whether we know that he is paraphrasing Heinrich von Kleist or if we pause to follow the zany logic of a rabbi's bawdy sermon comparing the glass partition separating his male and female congregants to the division between heaven and hell.
American Chronicle. Archived from the original on 13 August Time Out New York.
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Review: In ‘Everything Is Illuminated,’ family skeletons in the stage spotlight
Warner Independent Pictures. He regards. He collects. Alex is the active character, cheerfully inventing English as he goes along, making the best of the journey's hardships, humoring his grandfather, telling the rich American what he wants to hear.
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Eugene Hutz, a singer in a punk gypsy band, brings notes of early John Turturro to the performance. Elijah Wood's performance is deliberately narrow and muted -- pitch-perfect, although there is a distraction caused by his oversized eyeglasses so thick they make his eyes huge. He visits, he witnesses, he puts things in Ziploc bags.
Then again, perhaps the real hero of the film is the grandfather, unless by default it is the old lady, who is a Collector, too. For Grandfather, this is as much a journey of discovery as it is for Jonathan, and the changes that take place within him are all the more profound for never once being referred to in his dialogue. He never discusses his feelings or his memories, but in a way he is the purpose of the whole trip.
The conclusion he draws from it is illustrated in an image that, in context, speaks more eloquently than words. The first time I saw it, I was hurtling down the tracks of a goofy ethnic comedy when suddenly we entered dark and dangerous territory. I admired the film but did not sufficiently appreciate its arc. I went to see it again at the Toronto Film Festival, feeling that I had missed some notes, had been distracted by Jonathan's eyeglasses and other relative irrelevancements as Alex might say.
The second time, I was more aware of the journey Schreiber was taking us on, and why it is necessary to begin where he begins in order to get where he's going. This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland.