The publication of Jonathan Safran Foer’s first novel, Everything Is Illuminated (2002), announced an already mature writer, willing to bend literary form and grapple with complicated moral issues. Foer was twenty-five when that novel was published, yet his grasp of the Holocaust and its shaping of family dynamics decades later dared employ the comic, pushing readers’ sensitivities in the midst of rollicking humor. Foer’s second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), demonstrated the still young writer’s grasp of a national tragedy, 9/11, that left most Americans, four years later, reeling in a state of shock and fear. The nine-year old boy in the novel, whose father died in one of the World Trade buildings, tries to hold on to his pre-9/11 family order, constantly replaying his father’s last words that remain on the family’s answering machine. There was less humor, but the sense of a broken family permeated the novel’s daring humanity. One could say that two of the most horrendous events of the twentieth century are stuck in the craw this gifted Jewish novelist.
The same can be said of Foer’s most recent novel, Here I Am, which takes as its point of departure Abraham’s response to God’s call in the Book of Genesis, “before ordering him to sacrifice his son, Isaac,” and then subsequently followed by Isaac’s questioning why there is no apparent animal for slaughter. Father and son both respond, “Here I Am.” Fathers and sons, and even grandfathers and great grandfathers, play important roles in Here I Am, but also—since this is very much a novel about Israel’s identity and survival—the title extends to questions of nationhood and longevity, both groups threatened in this most unstable world where warfare and hate have become the new normal.
Jacob and Julia, the parents in Foer’s story, have been married sixteen years and reached a state of incompatibility, though it’s clear that they still love one another. Sam, Max, and Benjy (their three sons) have become buffers between their parents, not so much in a vicious state that often evolves in troubled marriages, but possibilities for the parents to avoid one another. Then two events occur almost simultaneously while the family prepares for Sam’s approaching bar mitzvah, both—one might say—involving sex. A piece of paper with obscene words written on it appears at the desk where Sam sits at school, and the authorities want to expel him. A cellphone, that no one has known about earlier but that belongs to Jacob, has been discovered with profoundly disturbing sexting messages on it (shades of Anthony Weiner). Sam denies that he wrote the dirty words; one parent believes him, the other does not. When Julia realizes that the obscene texting on her husband’s secret phone was written by him, Jacob denies that he has had sex with the woman who received the texts. Both become ugly incidents that threaten to destroy filial and marital trust in what we are led to believe has been a loving family, harmonious and protective of one another.
There’s another source of turmoil, potentially even more destructive for family cohesiveness. Jacob’s Israeli cousin, Tamir, and his son, Barak, arrive for the impending bar mitzvah and what should be a welcoming event is transformed into tension. Tamir accuses Jacob of not showing enough support for Israel, making Jacob immediately guilty. Tamir is a big oaf of a relative given to bear hugs that crush whoever he embraces and rhetoric that goes for the jugular, implying that American Jews have forgotten their heritage or—worse—are no longer interested in it. When an unexpected natural disaster grips his homeland, Tamir expects that Jacob will return with him to Israel, responding to the call that all Jewish males “come home” to help their country—all of this in the face of Julia and Jacob’s split, the break-up of the family and household as the parents go their separate ways, and the three boys attempt to understand what is unfolding.
Here I Am is a wondrous novel, one of the most memorable books in years. Jonathan Safran Foer is never intimidated by big, bold topics (Israel’s potential demise) but also unafraid to grapple with one of the oldest but smallest themes of Western literature (“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”). There’s no American novelist today who writes so profoundly about teenage angst (especially boys), about the dynamics of closely-knit families, about sibling relationships, about parental fears of failure with their children. Nor is there anyone who writes dialogue (quick repartee, puns, intentional non sequiturs, irony and put-downs) as well as Foer. Here, for example, a brief insight into teenage boys: “It’s very hard to have a productive dialogue with a thirteen-year-old boy, as every gently broached subject becomes an Ultimate Conversation, requiring defense systems and counterattacks to attacks that were never launched. What begins as an innocent observation about his habit of leaving things in the pockets of dirty clothes ends with Sam blaming his parents for his thirty-eighth-percentile height, which makes him want to commit suicide.”
There’s a four-page passage about Sam’s masturbatory habits that actually one-ups Alexander Portnoy’s similar obsession. Max and Benjy’s fixations on eating and death provoke an observation that sheds an insight on the entire narrative: “life isn’t a Wes Anderson movie,” although, perhaps, in this novel it is. Page after page of clever dialogue will leave you holding your stomach—or, as Jacob (a writer) observes in one of his scripts-in-progress: “Use humor as aggressively as chemo. Laugh until your hair falls out.” There’s even a dog, named Argus, who plays some significance in the unfolding of the plot.
Here I Am is a lengthy novel but a very fast read. Although most of the action occurs over several weeks, because part of the narrative is a script that Jacob is writing about his family, the time sequence projects events years later in his characters’ lives. The events surrounding the disaster in Israel are dystopian in an otherwise realistic narrative. As I said earlier, the title takes on dual meaning for both family and nation, suggesting that instability is the new norm, the negative change already explored in Foer’s two earlier novels.
Lastly, Jonathan Safran Foer has reinvented the novel about the American Jewish experience. His works are the rightful heir to the novels by Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow, deceased, and Philip Roth, who has said he has stopped writing. All three of those earlier writers knew how to mix the tragic with the comic, realizing that the latter made the former bearable.
Jonathan Safran Foer: Here I Am
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 592 pp., $28