Saturday, July 2, 2011

What I (Couldn't) Finish Reading: Everything is Illuminated

Or a more apt title for this post: Too Much Personal Information … My Reading.

Jonathan Foer’s Everything is Illuminated is well-written, but only if you appreciate a broad, coarse humor. For me, it was too much, too heavy, and lost me about 100 pages in.

In addition, I had a serious annoyance with the type of characters he introduces. The one with the biggest voice in the novel is a Ukrainian man who tends to struggle with his use of English. This is all fine and funny, but it’s also when my own experience ruins an otherwise good novel.

I’ve taught English as a foreign language for the past 15 years overseas. I’ve met and befriended many people, whose range of English is from near perfect to horrible. Many of my closest friends are Polish, and while that obviously is not the same as Ukrainian, it’s damn close. What all this preamble means is that the author’s character rang mostly untrue to me. Oh, there are parts of this ad hoc English usage that he gets correct. But mostly, the Ukrainian’s overuse of a Thesaurus for even the simplest words comes across as unbelievable. It’s meant to be funny, but it’s more annoying.

My experience has shown me, time and again, that foreign language learners may struggle, but they nail down the easy stuff like adjectives: hard, soft, tall, short, love, hate. In this novel, even the simplest words were replaced with such weird alternatives that I found it impossible to continue. This most easily found in those sections that represent the letters exchanged back and forth between the author and the character. Oh yeah, it doesn’t help that the author inserts himself in the novel, as a character, as himself, as a plot device. I’ve never liked that at all – with the exception of Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, but that is a masterpiece.

As an example of what I'm talking about, here’s a quote:
It is a queer thing how I wish everything for my brother that I wish for myself, only more rigidly.

Okay, I have problems with that. First, where are the spelling errors. Believe me, in the many emails I get from my Polish friends, sometimes it takes me 15 minutes to decipher what word is what. In addition, the use of “rigidly” just does not ring true. Examples of this type of mistake are prevalent and they are more a reflection of what a native English speaker guesses the problems are, rather than what the real problems are.

Anyway, that’s just my opinion.

Overall, it’s a shame. There were parts of this novel I really enjoyed … like the late 1700s history of a Jewish village in that part of Europe. I would’ve loved to read a ton more about those characters. Yet, I couldn’t go on.

Finally, I know it’s kinda pretentious for me (an unsuccessful author) to be criticizing a novel that has received rave reviews. But I know that I like. And I don’t like this novel.

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