Book Review: Here I Am

Jonathan Safran Foer’s powerful third novel depicts the American- Jewish experience – and its troubled relationship with Israel.

By
September 29, 2016 12:24
Jonathan Safran Foer

Jonathan Safran Foer. (photo credit: JEFF MERMELSTEIN)

Where is home? What is a Diaspora? Can Jews from around the globe be called to “return” to a country neither they – nor their ancestors – ever lived in? These are just some of the questions percolating through acclaimed novelist Jonathan Safran Foer’s much-anticipated third novel, Here I Am.

But first, Foer drops the reader into the lives of Jacob and Julia Bloch. The Blochs live in suburban Washington, DC, with their three impossibly precocious children, Sam, Max and Benjy. Jacob is a needy, middle- aged, borderline neurotic author who now makes a living writing for a popular TV show, while Julia is an architect who instead works on home renovations. Jacob’s parents, Irv and Deborah, live nearby, as does Irv’s ailing father, Isaac.

“You realize I won a National Jewish Book Award at the age of twenty-four?” Jacob tells one of his sons, when he questions his ability to understand the video-game alternate reality that occupies much of their lives.

When Jacob expresses some puzzlement at Max’s explanation, his son retorts: “I wonder if the winner of an actual National Book Award would need to ask.”

Indeed, throughout the sprawling, almost 600-page tome, the Bloch family interacts mostly in quips and jokes, quicker with a punch line and snark than with any emotional intimacy. When we find the Blochs, they are in the process of disintegrating, as the fissure in Jacob and Julia’s marriage grows over time into a gaping canyon.

Foer writes in lilting, eloquent prose, painting the American-Jewish experience with such exquisite detail, it is hard to imagine how anyone who didn’t grow up in such a household could relate.

“German horticulturists had pruned Isaac’s family tree all the way back to the Galician soil,” writes Foer, of his grandfather, a Holocaust survivor. “But with luck and intuition and no help from above, he had transplanted its roots into the sidewalks of Washington, DC, and lived to see it regrow limbs.”

Foer references little lightbulb-lined memorial plaques in the synagogue, raking in bar-mitzva money – “I can’t remember the figure, but I remember that it was evenly divisible by eighteen” – the loophole of an eruv and a car horn honking outside to the blasts of the shofar – “Shevarim, Teruah.”

“Cool Moshe Dayan outfit,” Irv tells his grandson. “I’m a pirate,” he replies.

While Jacob and Julia have been drifting apart for years – retreating into their own worlds and ceasing to share the everything they once pledged to – the discovery of Jacob’s graphically lewd text messages with a female coworker is the ultimate catalyst.

Jacob swears, however, that it never became anything more.

“You are the only person I know,” Julia says, “who would be capable of writing such bold sentences while living so meekly.”

The novel gets its name from Genesis, when God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. God calls out to Abraham, and Abraham responds simply: “Here I Am.”

Here I Am is certainly about fathers and sons, about religion and family, about sacrifices and choices and balancing the responsibilities every human carries. It is a novel about a divorce, but also about a bar mitzva, about the death of a grandparent, about a crisis in Hebrew school and an ailing, incontinent dog.

Oh, and it’s also about the destruction of the State of Israel. About 250 pages into the weighty tome, just as the Blochs’ Israeli family members arrive for Sam’s upcoming bar mitzva, a devastating earthquake hits the Middle East.

The infrastructure of Israel crumbles, leaving it uniquely vulnerable to its neighboring enemies, and soon enough it is facing war amid the disease and destruction already wrought by the earthquake. Jacob’s Israeli cousin, Tamir, is stranded in the US, and the whole family watches – some more intently than others – as catastrophe besets the Jewish state.

This is some of the weakest writing, the detached recounting of the imagined crumbling of the State of Israel. Some sections feel more like an Onion-style parody – though admittedly, so can the real thing at times.

“The Israeli Ambassador’s response: ‘Perhaps we should ask the thirty-six Japanese citizens we “unilaterally, clumsily, and brutally” rescued, at the expense of our own blood, if they would prefer to be airlifted back on to the Temple Mount,’” Foer writes.

Foer’s first two novels – Everything is Illuminated (2002) and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005) – were set around historical catastrophes: the Holocaust and 9/11, respectively. Here I Am tackles an imagined one, and while it is done somewhat clumsily, the resulting examination of Diaspora Jews, their connection to Israel and its people is profound.

“You want to be part of the epic, and you feel entitled to tell me how to run my house, and yet you give and do nothing,” Tamir told Jacob. “Give more or talk less. But no more referring to us.”

Tamir argues forcefully with Jacob that his fate is tied to that of Israel, but his combination of apathy and fear were difficult to overcome.

“What was Israel to him? What were Israelis? They were his more aggressive, more obnoxious, more crazed, more hairy, more muscular brothers... over there. They were ridiculous, and they were his. They were more brave, more beautiful, more piggish and delusional, less self-conscious, more reckless, more themselves. Over there. That’s where they were those things.”

Foer’s novel is engaging, even riveting at times, but drags at others. The grappling over Jewish identity and obligations to Israel are weighty and intense – and would have been enough to sustain the entire storyline.

Tackling the dissolution of a marriage, the death of a relative, the struggles of parenting and the implosion of the Mideast is a Herculean task; life may come at you all at once, but it can’t all fit in one novel.


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