Book Review // Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer
Here I Am
Jonathan Safran Foer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
2016, pp. 592, $28.00
The Divorce Plot
by Geraldine Brooks
A glass slips from your hand onto a granite countertop. You see the bright line of the break etching up the curve of the vessel, and yet the glass hasn’t shattered. It holds its shape. It might even still hold liquid. But you know it’s only a matter of time; that the glass is done. Sure enough, as you toss it into the trash, it falls into lacerating shards.
The greater part, the best part, the sometimes brilliant part of Jonathan Safran Foer’s new novel Here I Am takes place in this moment between that crunch of impact and inevitable fragmentation. What’s at stake is a marriage. The crunch of impact is the moment when a wife finds her husband’s secret second cellphone and reads the graphic sexual messages it contains. On this fulcrum turns one of the most complete, and completely satisfying, novels of modern love and family. As the novel unfolds in the month that follows the phone’s discovery, Foer creates a tension that is as essential as it is unbearable. We want to believe that, just this once, the laws of the material world might be proven wrong, that the damage isn’t, after all, irreparable.
Like all good novels, this one is both particular and universal. It’s tightly focused on a singular class, culture and moment in time, yet capacious enough to contain timeless emotional truths. As the Bovarys are to 19th-century rural French bourgeoisie and the Karenins to Tsarist Russian aristocrats, the Blochs are to affluent Jewish intellectuals in 21st-century Northwest Washington, DC. You don’t have to have attended a funeral service at Adas Israel to appreciate Foer’s deft rendition of that scene in Here I Am, but there’s an extra frisson of recognition and admiration if you have.
As the novel opens, there are four living generations of Blochs, and as 13-year-old Sam staggers toward his bar mitzvah, his great-grandfather, the fading patriarch and Holocaust hero Isaac, is preparing for a dreaded move to the Jewish Home. Foer builds up the character of each member of this family—even the ailing dog, Argus—with the exquisite detail of a Mughal miniaturist, layering on the light and the dark with piercing exactitude. The result is a book that is as humorous as it is tragic which is to say, at its best, a mirror of life as we actually live it.
There’s no doubt that Foer has planted a flag here: Philip Roth is retired, and here cometh Foer to take his place as chronicler of contemporary Jewish manhood. If there was any doubt that this is his intention, the long riff on Sam Bloch’s ingenious experiments with techniques of masturbation lays it firmly to rest. What’s different is that Foer, born in 1977, gets women right in a way that mostly eluded male writers of Roth’s generation. Julia, the wife, is as fully realized a character as Jacob, her husband, and Foer holds our sympathies for both in deft equipoise.
The novel is not flawless. It begins uncertainly. It’s almost a hundred pages before the glass falls, and that, to me, was too long. Until it is clear that the marriage really is at stake and why, the quotidian bickering of this over-privileged, self-absorbed family was more tiresome than involving. To be honest, had I not been reviewing it, I might not have persevered through these halting and seemingly trivial early pages to reach the deep heart of the work.
I loved the strangeness of Foer’s two earlier novels, the experimental risk-taking with voice and structure. In Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, these elements served the story and fused with it to create a seamless narrative. In Here I Am, an imagined earthquake strikes Israel and opportunistic attacks follow. Foer is at his most creative in rendering these scenes through speeches, half-heard broadcasts, computer chat-room dialogue. But it is not organic to the family crisis of the Blochs. It seems stapled on. Yes, the changing relationship of American Jews to Israel is a fascinating issue, and concern about the drift away from identification among an increasing percentage of younger American Jews is a preoccupation in many families. But when Foer widens his viewfinder and takes the focus off the Bloch family to explore these questions, the intensity of the narrative weakens and blurs. He writes about the Blochs with authenticity and intimacy. He writes about Israel like a stenographer of Likudnik hasbara, his portrayal of Iranians reading like a Bibi-rant ditto.
In such a nuanced book, this is jarring. While everything he writes about Northwest Washington chimes true to a lived experience you can feel on your skin, the writing about Israel is full of false notes. One example: When Sam talks to his Israeli cousin, who is doing army service, they speculate about what would’ve happened had he been serving in the West Bank when the earthquake struck. The soldier says he would have had to occupy a building and create a temporary base while awaiting rescue. Huh? This exchange made me doubt that Foer has ever been to the West Bank, or even troubled to Google Earth it. The West Bank bristles with hardened military bases to house the soldiers serving there, not to mention the militarized Israeli settlements surrounding every Palestinian village like a noose. Such mistakes pull a reader out of the rich world of this novel, and that is unfortunate.
Write what you know. When Foer does this, everything is indeed illuminated. Is it right to speculate about a novelist’s personal stake in the experiences his fiction explores? Is it possible to refrain from doing so? Foer has said in an interview that he writes the book he needs to read, which made me wonder about the state of his own marriage and why it might have called forth this painful treatise. I made myself get to the last tender and affecting page of the novel before I gave in, Googled the details of his private life and found that, yes, he and his wife Nicole Krauss were recently divorced.
Jacob Bloch is nobody’s idea of a mensch, yet this is a menschy novel, absolutely honest about male flaws and the ever-imperfect, always essential work of shoring up the intimacies on which our souls rely.
Geraldine Brooks is the author of eight books, including March, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Her most recent novel is The Secret Chord.