“Here I Am,” by Jonathan Safran Foer, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 571 pp., $28
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In Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2002 breakout novel, “Everything Is Illuminated,” the author’s most memorable character to date — an off-kilter young Ukrainian translator — says, “I do not think that there are any limits to how excellent we could make life seem.” Fourteen years later, Foer has apparently had time to reconsider: In “Here I Am,” his much-awaited third novel, life could not seem more un-excellent.
Jacob and Julia Bloch’s 15-year marriage is falling apart. In their early 40s, well-off — he’s a TV writer, she’s an architect — with three alarmingly precocious children, the Blochs have slowly been drifting apart. Then Julia finds a hidden cellphone with lewd text messages sent by Jacob to another woman, and soon the couple is rehearsing how to break the news of their separation to the kids.
What in the hands of a less capable author could have easily turned predictable — secret affair, discovery, angry fallout — is here dealt with humanely, which is to say complicatedly. The Blochs’ problem seems to be not one of trust — of whether or not Jacob cheated, and what the implications might be if he had — but whether being married to each other is still what they’re after. “The more comfort they found together, the more life they shared, the more estranged they became from their inner lives.”
There are glimpses of their life together pre-marriage, when “they were always either consuming each other or consuming the world together.” But since then, a case of yuppie malaise has set in. “Jacob and Julia were never ones to resist convention on principle, but neither could they have imagined becoming quite so conventional: they got a second car (and second-car insurance); joined a gym with a twenty-page course offering; stopped doing their taxes themselves; occasionally sent back a bottle of wine; bought a house with side-by-side sinks (and house insurance); doubled their toiletries; had a teak enclosure built for their garbage bins.”
Foer has a knack for describing status-confirming material comforts and the privileged claustrophobia they can generate. Yet his lists quickly begin to pile on, and to grate. “Jacob ... washed his face with Cetaphil Daily Facial Cleanser for Normal to Oily Skin (despite having Normal to Dry Skin), .then applied Eucerin Daily Protection Moisturizing Face Lotion, Broad Spectrum SPF 30. ... Julia’s regimen was more complex: a face wash with S.W. Basics Cleanser, application of SkinCeuticals Retinol 1.0 Maximum Strength Refining Night Cream” — You get the picture.
“Here I Am” is at its best when describing low-simmering marital strife (one gets the sense that Foer’s prose may have inadvertently benefited from his own publicized divorce, from the author Nicole Krauss). It is particularly effective when registering the slights and resentments that are often the by-products of parenting. Jacob, Foer writes, had “always known — always felt — that Julia believed she had a stronger emotional engagement with the children, that being a mother, or a woman, or simply herself, created a bond that a father, man, or Jacob was incapable of. She’d subtly suggest it all the time—it felt like she was subtly suggesting it — and would every now and then outright say it, although it was always couched in talk of all the things that were special to his relationship with them, like having fun.”
The novel’s delightful snippets of familial conversations — often of parents and children talking over one another — are reminiscent of DeLillo’s “White Noise” (with added adolescent precocity). A set piece depicting the elder Bloch boy’s masturbation rituals holds its own next to Roth’s Alex Portnoy. And the intellectualism that seeps from many of its chapters — though frustratingly almost always articulated by Jacob, who seems to take pleasure in mansplaining to his wife — are Bellowesque.
Too bad, then, that the latter part of the novel almost entirely forsakes the microscopic family narrative in favor of something “grander.” We get an inkling that this would happen from the very first line of the novel: “When the destruction of Israel commenced, Isaac Bloch was weighing whether to kill himself or move to the Jewish Home.” Isaac is Jacob’s grandfather. (This isn’t the only reference to the biblical Patriarchs; the novel’s title is a common rendering in English of Abraham’s response to God before being asked to sacrifice his son.)
Turns out the first part of the novel was nothing but a prelude to a dystopian plot twist: The destruction of Israel, ominously foreshadowed but not elaborated on until much later, will come in the form of an earthquake and subsequent mobilization of Muslim nations to attack Israel. Hamas declares allegiance to the Islamic State. A cholera epidemic grips Tel Aviv. As Foer puts it, “The groundwork was being laid for the greatest psychological experiment in history.”
At first, news of the earthquake seeps into the Bloch household through the radio and television. Then it gets closer. Tamir, Jacob’s visiting cousin from Israel, tries to convince Jacob to enlist in the impending war: “You need to come home,” he tells him, meaning to the Holy Land. Tamir is an insufferable walking stereotype, gruff, macho, blustering. Still, Jacob has always envied his cousin’s brashness, his tactless behavior. “His casualness knew no limits, there was nothing he couldn’t shrug off: death, natural catastrophe.” Suddenly, it’s not Jacob’s role as husband and father that is on the line, but rather his Jewish and liberal identities, as the question of divorce fades into the background.
If the novel’s first half was largely free of the self-referential, postmodern devices that we have come to associate with Foer’s previous books — the meta-named Jonathan Safran Foer character in “Everything Is Illuminated”; the open-ended final pages of “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” — its second half sadly reverts back to them. Chapters are broken down into increasingly clipped and headlined vignettes. (One title reads: “HOW TO PLAY FEAR OF DEATH” followed only by “‘Unfair! Unfair! Unfair!’”) We get the full verbatim speech of the fictionalized Israeli prime minister detailing the existential threat facing all Jews. We get a scripted dialogue between Jacob and Julia from the former’s autobiographical new TV show. We get brainy asides explaining science podcasts and the revival of modern Hebrew.
Lost in these narrative pyrotechnics is the emotional honesty that characterized the book’s first section. Instead, Foer begins to detour and meander. Why does a recent crop of successful American novelists — male, I should add — feel the need to clock in at no less than 500 pages? “Here I Am” would have been greatly served by a generous trim, and wound up no less ambitious for it.
The Israel plotline arguably raises the narrative stakes, which seems to be Foer’s intent, allowing him to delve into questions very much under recent debate, such as the fealty of American Jews to the Jewish state, and what happens when this fealty is challenged by liberal and democratic values, or comes at the expense of family. We don’t come away with any real answers, apart from a vague goal articulated by Jacob and Tamir, to be “someone who goes home, no matter how difficult.”
The definition of home, however, is clearly different for both men. The earthquake section reads more like an authorial exercise, a metaphorical rendering of the Blochs’ personal earthquake, than as an organic or necessary development. Much more powerful are the momentary gaps between hope and reality, between expectation and disappointment, such as when Jacob and Julia find themselves cleaning up after their son’s bar mitzvah. “Before they had kids, if asked to conjure images of parenthood they would have said things like ‘Reading in bed,’ and ‘Giving a bath,’ and ‘Running while holding the seat of a bicycle.’ Parenthood contains such moments of warmth and intimacy, but isn’t them. It’s cleaning up. The great bulk of family life involves no exchange of love, and no meaning, only fulfillment. Not the fulfillment of feeling fulfilled, but of fulfilling that which now falls to you.”
That is a devastating statement, and the novel is filled with such clear-eyed insights. Foer’s literary prowess is established time and again when he describes the shifting tectonics of marriage and of parenting, of the bonds that shape human experience. One wishes that he had stuck to that — to the gradual fissures, rather than the full-blown quake — in this deeply engaging but ultimately patchy novel.
Ruth Margalit is an Israeli writer living in New York. Her writing has appeared in the New Yorker, The New York Times and Harper’s Magazine.