Everything is Illuminated, but maybe we should turn down the light a little.

In my rush to finish up as many books as I can before the beginning of 2017 (where I shall strip my “Have Read” shelf clean and start anew), I’ve finally managed to finish Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated. Foer’s made some waves in the literary community, so I was pretty stoked to finally get to it, and, I’m sure if I was still in college, I would have likely pretended to absolutely love it. I’m a bit older now, without as much desperation as I had in my twenties (don’t get me wrong, it’s still there), so I’m left a bit torn between my younger self’s desire to like it and my current self’s revulsion at the idea of a wonderful, touching story spoiled by the veneer of Art for Art’s Sake. Under the surface, Everything is Illuminated is a generational story (and how I love those! Ha Jin, Barbara Kingsolver, and Jeffrey Eugenides immediately pop into mind) about identity and love and being an Eastern European Jew during the Holocaust. But it’s covered in prose that, while sometimes beautiful and dazzling, is a little too much. It feels over-written. It’s frustrating, in a way, making me feel like Foer is being purposefully obtuse, showing me a glimmer of something and then building up a barricade of stylistic choices that block me from appreciating the glimmer as I’d like to.

So I went to read the reviews on Amazon. Reviews are funny things. Sometimes they’re helpful; sometimes they’re utter crap, but I like reading them to get a measure of what other people are thinking. I will brazenly admit that I care what other people think. Usually, in these situations, I read the one star reviews (I like listening to people bitch about things, especially if they’re things I agree with) and the four star reviews. Sometimes three stars. I always feel that four and three star reviews offer the most constructive considerations of the book. I have no interest in reading a five star review that merely praises the prose (or worse, the author), especially if I didn’t like certain aspects of the book. And, sure enough, within those four star reviews, my thoughts on the books were illuminated (ba-da-ching!) through other people’s impressions.

The thing that stuck with me the most was the frequency of a comment to the effect of this: “I can’t wait to see what Foer does once he feels he has nothing to prove.” Many people called it a “young man’s novel.” It was his first novel, so it’s very clear that he’s trying to be impressive. He’s trying to tap into the effortless absurdity that authors whose names he’s surely heard tossed around for year in similar classrooms to the ones I frequented and trying to live up to it. I still catch myself doing that sometimes, too, and that’s the crux of it. It’s a very personal story, so it’s clearly something Foer wanted to write, but was this truly how he wanted to write it, or was it merely the product of how he thought he should write it? This perspective makes me understand the choices he may have mad as an author so much more clear to me, and I’m really excited to dive into his other books to see if he finds more of his own voice rather than trying to capture the voice he thinks people think he should have. Or perhaps that is his voice. It’s entirely possible. But I’ll have to keep reading to find out.

It’s taken me a long time to embrace the idea that I should just write things how I want to write them. Every so often, I still second guess myself. Is my prose too plain? Should I be injecting more metaphors or allusions? I like to tell a good, solid story without too many bells and whistles, but do people enjoy reading that? Do the right people enjoy it? Does it matter?

Well, it shouldn’t. I am a staunch supporter of just writing a story the way you want it to be told. That’s why you’ve been given the story in the first place, so that you can tell it your way. And perhaps Foer did tell the story the way he wanted to, and that’s fine, but it’s not really for me. I like a little bit of that artsy-fartsy prose in my books (after all, I could also fill a post about how I don’t like bare-bones prose like you often find with big names like James Patterson and, to a degree, Stephen King), but sometimes it’s just too much, and I want to find the author and shake him and tell him that it’s okay, you don’t need to impress me. You don’t need to impress anyone. All you need to do is write a damn good story as you define it.

At least that’s my excuse for anyone who doesn’t like my own prose. Ahem.

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