Jonathan Safran Foer is a modern master. I haven't read "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" yet, nor have I read his latest experiment in which he cut a bunch of words out of someone else's book to make an entirely new book. I want to, but that's not the point. They could very well be terrible and it wouldn't matter, all because of "Everything is Illuminated."
When I read it the first time, back in 2007, I loved it and was utterly moved by it. Then again, I had just had my tonsils out and was on some serious amounts of liquid Vicodin and, on top of that, was in New Hampshire for my grandfather's funeral while I read it. As I was saying, I loved it, but I couldn't quite discern reviews like the one from The Times (London) stating that "after it, things will never be the same." It was a great book, but sometimes a great book is just a great book. It was the story of a sometimes-narrator who happens to bear the same name and as the novel's author, as well as some distinguishing characteristics of his, but is, indeed, not the author. This is fiction, people.
I say "sometimes-narrator," because the story jumps around a bit. Some chapters detail Jonathan's travels in the Ukraine to search for the woman who maybe possibly saved his grandfather from the Nazis; some are chapters in the book he's writing about Jewish European shtetl life over a couple of centuries (give or take a handful of decades) leading up to the Holocaust; others, still, are letters written to Jonathan after the events of the novel take place from his Ukrainian tour guide, Alexander Perchov.
This, at least, seems to be what's going on. Upon rereading the book in 2011, I was faced with a different experience; I was faced with an entirely different novel. I felt like, after every page, a rug was pulled out from under me; upon rolling over, though, and seeing the old, splintery, wooden floor where the rug had been, I could understand something new about the ground on which I was standing.
Nothing is as it seems, and yet everything is as it seems. We're given an apparent time-frame for the story and then taken back in time in Jonathan's fiction and forward in time in Alex's letters and they're all the story and they're all the present; they're all now. We're given a character, a character with a name that draws attention to itself, and are told outright that he's the story's hero, and yet every fiber of our being screams at the top of its lungs that there's something more going on. We're given the story of a family, and we're given even more than the inevitable endless hallway of open-door questions that it opens up.
More than anything else, though, we're given something delightful and heartbreaking and uplifting and truly human. We're given a portrait of love and of misery and regret. We're dragged through the deepest darkness and yet, still, true to Foer's word, everything is illuminated.