Jonathan Safran Foer is at a tricky place for an author, one both enviable and precarious. He’s experienced the kind of wunderkind success writers dream of, with his first two novels—2002’s Everything Is Illuminated and 2005’s Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close—both acclaimed and successful. Anointed a voice of his generation, he evidently concluded he could take whatever materials happened to be at hand—say, a middle-aged intellectual writer of Jewish heritage—and turn it into something worth reading. At the same time, the chatter around his first novels wasn’t due to his depth of insight so much as their surface-level originality, the singular voices he gave his narrators and his stylistic quirks. He was a virtuoso, but one suffering from Newton’s third law of pop culture: success offset by an equal backlash. Faced with the risk of being deemed a trickster, he seemed to decide it was time to put his childish gimmicks away and make a grand statement about the way we live today.
Here I Am, Foer’s first novel in 11 years (not including the nonfiction Eating Animals) is a study in contrasts, pairing the breakdown of a marriage against a global crisis, and ideas that have been contested throughout civilization with the ticker tape of a modern neurotic’s fretting. It feels like his Kavalier & Clay—a conscious upgrading of scope. But while it’s a work of real vision and feeling, it only occasionally realizes its ambitions. To paraphrase a thought from the book (“not to have a choice is also a choice”), looking away from truth is also a truth, but a lesser one.
The book tracks a TV writer named Jacob who suffers from spiritual ADD. Like Larry Gopnik—the hero of A Serious Man, who also undergoes a crisis of faith while preparing for his son’s bar mitzvah—his marriage is ending and he’s both obsessed with and ambivalent toward his Jewish heritage. His general wishy-washiness repels his wife, Julia, while his antipathy toward Judaism drives tension between him and the other men of his family, including his controversial public-intellectual father and a macho cousin visiting from Israel, who tells him that not only would Jacob not die for his country, “You won’t die for anything.”
Seeing parallels between Jacob and Foer seems almost mandatory (to the point that Foer prepares a response: Jacob is writing an autobiographical TV series that he plans to claim is either “my life, but not me” or vice versa depending on who asks). It’s a deeply personal work, tormented by what one’s responsibilities should be—to himself, to his family, to Israel (both as a place and an ideal). Foer’s first novels were not devoid of substance—Illuminated dealt with the legacy of the Holocaust, Extremely Loud with 9/11—but they approached it in glancing ways, the sincere emotions maturing behind a thick layer of playfulness. There’s no such protection here.
Here I Am begins by pairing small things together—studying “good” texts like the Torah, obsessing over “bad” texts like a secret phone’s explicit messages—and gradually builds in intensity. Just as the marriage problems come to a head (like Bright, Precious Days, another account of a volatile marriage, Julia’s desires and temptations are explored, but take a backseat to Jacob’s), there is a literal rupturing in the form of a catastrophic earthquake in the Middle East. The disaster upends the region’s geopolitical order, and as the unrest grows, Israel’s very existence becomes threatened. Where the book is messy and scattershot elsewhere, there’s no denying the power of this section, as all of the threads come to a head and Israel’s prime minister calls on all the world’s Jewish men to fight for their homeland and “come home.”
While Here I Am lacks the tricks Foer’s known for, it still reads as very novel-y, leaning on overt symbols and allusions—an aging dog Jacob can’t bring himself to put down, a flashback where someone, like the biblical Daniel before him, literally enters a lion’s den. There are character traits that are too neat by half—a shoplifter who returns his loot “to prove that he could, and to prove that he was horrible, and to prove that no one cared”—and douchy phrasings like “he plugged his speech orifice with a burrito.” What would be the book’s most compelling section is given over to the show-offy literary device of a show “bible,” Jacob’s in-book explanation of his TV show, which allows for Foer’s various themes and ideas to be spelled out explicitly. If that sounds masturbatory, know there is a multi-page section describing how one character pleasures himself.
For some, this will be grist for the hater mill, and even fans will wish Foer showed more discipline. At the same time, his willingness to swing for the fences and embrace sincerity are among his strongest qualities. He’s intentionally not going for subtlety, and he knows how to mine emotional impact from obviousness.
As always, Foer fills his book with amusing factoids, as in a funny bit exploring how Jewish astronauts should worship in space when their orbit creates a Shabbat every nine hours. The cultural debates are interesting, regardless of the reader’s faith. The family wrestles with representation, considering how the most famous 20th-century Jew (Anne Frank) was a victim as opposed to a more forceful personality (“We don’t need another Einstein. We need a Koufax who pitches at the head.”)—though these musings can get to be too much. It’s one thing for Julia to complain, “I walked seven circles around you when we got married. I can’t even find you now.” It’s quite another to refer to a dying pet as having “one paw in the oven.”
This insight and confusion extends to the title, derived from the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, in which “here I am” is the response Abraham gives when called by God. The statement is significant, we’re told, as it demonstrates unquestioned subservience. It’s a potent idea, and one senses that this is Foer’s attempt to offer himself up with the same purity. And at times he does, but just as often he turns “here I am” into “look at me.”
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