VINE VOICEon 28 February 2010
There is no doubt that this is a very clever book. It's clever in concept, clever in structure, clever in use of language and clever in composition. There are reams of congratulatory quotes all over the cover that announce it's cleverness. The question I'm left with having finished it is, is being clever enough?
The basic story follows Jonathan Safran Foer as he visits Ukraine to try and find the woman, Augustine, who saved his grandfather during the war and to research for a novel he is planning to write on his family history. He is helped in this search by a translator, Alex, driven about the country by Alex's "blind" grandfather and is repeatedly dry humped by their dog Sammy Davis Jr, Jr.
Immediately here lies one of the major problems with this book. Alex's grandfather isn't really blind, he just pretends to be, but continues to act as a driver. The dog is called Sammy Davis Jr, Jr as the original dog, Sammy Davis Jr, has died. As far as I can tell neither of these facts mean anything or serve any purpose other than being a little bit quirky and to me proved a distraction rather than an enhancement.
The story is told in a cleverly (that word again) fractured way. Alex narrates events from his viewpoint, in broken English. This strand is well crafted, but is essentially just one joke, which, since this book was released, has been firmly claimed by Borat. Then we see Alex's half of a letter conversation in which he discusses with Jonathan the accuracy of his narration and the finer points of his command of the English language. The third strand is the text of the novel which Jonathan is writing. This is written in a faux-high-literary style and concerns itself with the history of the town, Trachimbrod, from which his family originated.
So far, so clever. The problem is, that at the centre of this book is a really important and poignant moment in history, when the Nazi's massacred huge numbers of Ukranian Jews, and because of all the self-conscious cleverness which surrounds it, the impact of these events are totally lost. Rather than framing the horrors and drawing attention to the human loss, which I'm sure is what he intended to do, Safran Foer's linguistic flourishes instead only trivalise them.
Which is a real shame, because the scenes when the Nazi's roll into the Ukranian villages and we see the effects the resulting crimes have on the people there are superb.
Equally the way in which Alex matures throughout the novel, loses his awe of America and begins to address the problems in his own family rather than run from them, is beautifully handled.
Where this novel fails is a lack of restraint. The scenes from Jonathan's novel are lurid to the point of almost becoming magic-realism, and whilst there are some magnificent images you get the impression of a writer who is in love with his ideas, more than the constraints of form of the novel. There are so many wonderful thoughts in this book that I found myself wishing that he would show a little discipline and explore each one more fully rather than rushing headlong into the next exposition. The house full of boxes of items buried by the escaping Jews, each one fastidiously labelled and filed, is one example. The book of dreams another, the diving for the fake gold, the gold plated Dial statue another. In the end there are just too many of these ideas and they become a gimmick and muddy the story rather than build it.
There is a good tale in here, there are some fantastic uses of language, there are some memorable images, but it is all just a little bit too clever for it's own good and the end result unfortunately is a self-congratulatory muddle.