SEPTEMBER 12, 2016
THE DISINTEGRATING MARRIAGE PLOT has shown up at least once or twice before: having long been fed a steady diet of novels about highly successful fortysomething couples whose marriages come apart, readers cannot be relied upon to crave more, even if Jonathan Safran Foer’s fortysomethings have the advantage, at least in some eyes, of offering an à clef glimpse of the marital misfortunes of a celebrity couple. (According to Wikipedia, Foer and the novelist Nicole Krauss separated in 2014, and he has since dated the actress Michelle Williams.) Lacking the titillation factor of fame, some other novelist might have trouble getting the “this unhappy family is really different” idea past the gatekeepers, but in his most recent novel Here I Am, Foer has juiced up familiar materials by setting them against another, very different but likewise titillating narrative. This second plot line is announced with the novel’s first sentence: “When the destruction of Israel commenced, Isaac Bloch was weighing whether to kill himself or move to the Jewish Home.” What is most interesting about the novel — interesting apart from the cute jokes that Foer reliably delivers — is the logic that connects the two plots and the two not-quite-destructions, one marital and the other national.
Isaac is a survivor of the Holocaust. Grandfather of the protagonist, Jacob, and great-grandfather of 12-year-old Sam, whose impending bar mitzvah is in suspense for the four weeks that comprise the novel’s time frame, he is not so much a character as a claim to gravitas on Foer’s part, a pledge that behind abundant banter about Latina avatars, suppositories, Swiffer dusters, and sexting, we are supposed to see that the real stakes here involve nothing less than the survival of the Jewish people. But like “the destruction of Israel,” which doesn’t happen, the claim to high seriousness turns out to be only a tease, sometimes even verging on farce.
Joyce Carol Oates, who is credited with discovering Foer’s talent when he was an undergraduate at Princeton, has a well-documented interest in boxing. For some reason, the image of this thin woman intoxicated by muscle came back to me as I was reading Here I Am. Foer, from whom I borrow the phrase “intoxicated by muscle,” does not take his readers ringside, but he does describe a childhood scene at the zoo when an Israeli cousin, who is stereotypically muscular and masculine, threatens to punch the Jewish-American protagonist, who is stereotypically witty and wimpy, in the face if he doesn’t jump over the railing into the lion’s den.
The title Here I Am is self-consciously Biblical, and the novel comments extensively on the Hebrew hineni and the relevant Old Testament moments. Yet this childhood experience with the lions says more about Foer’s take on the Large Theme that the novel seems to think it is about: presence. The 42-year-old Jacob, a writer for television, is proud of how present he is to his three young sons, of whom and from whom we hear a good deal. His architect wife Julia, on the other hand, finds Jacob small and evasive as a person. After sexual revelations that send the marriage careening downhill, she tells him, “I don’t believe you’re there at all.” What does it mean to be there, to be present? The real answer, for the novel, is back at the zoo: “Inside the lion’s den, he felt surrounded and embraced by his own existence.” This is the most convincing account Jacob gives of feeling present — not about his love for his wife or his children, his religion or his work. It’s about Jewish cojones, which is to say about Israel and muscle.
Pro-Israel lobbyists in AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and its sister organizations have always presented the country as a tiny David surrounded by a world of blustering Goliaths. After 1948, this scenario never had more than a very tenuous hold on reality, and not just because Israel (everyone assumes) possesses nuclear weapons and because of the mind-boggling economic, military, and political support of the world’s only super-power, and by now this worldview has lost much of its public plausibility. It is an odd moment, then, for Foer to come to its rescue, but come to its rescue he does. He dramatically interrupts his report on conjugal unhappiness with big bad news from the outside world, news of a catastrophic Samson-and-Delilah event in the Middle East. I won’t spoil the fun by saying more, except that this event magically removes Israel’s advantage in military muscle, thereby encouraging its Muslim neighbors to unify, howling with bloodlust, in pursuit of Israel’s total destruction. Even by the standards of zombie post-apocalypse fiction, the episode seems lacking in realism. It is an AIPACian fantasy, a triumphant ideological “I told you so” that makes no sense as an event that might actually occur. It does make sense, however, as a revelation about Jacob and his role in the collapse of his marriage. It gives him a chance to go to Israel, to risk his life in the lion’s den, fighting Israel’s enemies, and thus to say (as he understands masculinity), today I am a man.
Jacob turns out to have been sexting with a colleague, expressing fantasies that favor the same non-canonical orifice that has earlier figured in the wishful conversation of his son’s pre-bar mitzvah cohort. The sexts, each a single line in italics, are introduced between paragraphs describing Julia’s tastes in architecture and interior decorating. The suggestion is thereby planted that they might represent what she really likes and wants, at some deeper level of her being, rather than what her husband does, or maybe that the superficiality of her concerns (with woods, ceilings, fixtures) has driven her husband to the anal-themed sexting. But the italicized voice that roughly demands the partner’s sexual submission and physical degradation turns out to be Jacob’s. The novel treats the content of the sexts as innocent role-playing. Even Julia, when she finds out, seems only disappointed that Jacob didn’t take his desires further. However, from the viewpoint of the novel’s larger concerns, the content matters, and it’s not that innocent. Rather, it suggests strongly that Jacob has not satisfied Julia (or himself), because he hasn’t managed to be as brutal and sadistic as, we now discover, he would like to be. What he really wants deep down, in other words, is to act like his own idea of an Israeli.
On some level, this dip into fascist role-playing is almost a relief. Jacob’s parenting style, of which we see more than we might have wanted to, is so relentlessly nurturing as to make brutality seem an attractive alternative — the displacement of care and attention onto each tiny detail of child and household management is cloying. Accusing a father of loving his children excessively may seem odd, but the novel itself comes close to doing so when it repeats a line about parents loving their children more than (or rather than) each other. If the word sentimentality can still be used as a pejorative, as I hope it can, it would have to be in cases where children and the feelings that go with them are not only instruments for evading grown-up relationships but also for evading grown-up writing about grown-up subjects. Foer treats the adultery itself like an “I didn’t inhale” moment that makes the novel seem as if it were both seeking a PG-13 rating and seeking to recover a 13-year-old’s putative innocence. As a result, the novel’s countdown to the 13th birthday and the bar mitzvah that may or may not come off seems an unintended stroke of genius.
To say the children are sheltered from life’s harshness would be an understatement. There is more everyday cruelty in a 1950s cartoon or a Nature Channel video than in anything Foer’s child characters say or do to each other or see around them. From this perspective, history becomes a boo-boo — to be more exact, a boo-boo that doesn’t happen:
“Why did I get a boo-boo, Mama?”
“You don’t have a boo-boo,” Jacob said.
“On my knee,” Benjy said, pointing at nothing. “There.”
“You must have fallen,” Julia said.
“There is literally no boo-boo.”
With one exception (a hand caught in a door), there are no real boo-boos at home, in the neighborhood, or in the nation. But pretending that the immediate vicinity is boo-boo free is not a good formula for understanding the world at large, including what is routinely done when military force is turned on the world’s children. When Jacob denies that life can be hard at home (Julia is more clear-eyed about this) and is slow to see that for many within walking distance, life is actually very hard, he gives himself permission to displace all life’s hardness onto the distant international stage, where Israel’s enemies can therefore be presented as one-dimensional fanatics with whom dialogue is impossible and who have nothing on their minds but the spilling of Jewish blood. And that is just what the novel does.
Ethnic nationalism is not Jacob’s official position — it is represented in the novel, loudly and fluently, by his father, Irv, a rabidly Zionist blogger. Supposedly, Jacob disagrees with his father. Supposedly, he also has inherited his father’s gift for quick repartee. Yet somehow, Irv is not answered. For once, Foer avoids giving Jacob any first-rate comebacks. Jacob’s inability to talk back to his father becomes a minor mystery that can’t really be accounted for by the presence of children:
“We don’t need another Einstein. We need a Koufax who pitches at the head.”
“Did it ever occur to you — ” Jacob began.
“Yes, it probably did.”
“ — that I don’t include myself in your we?”
“Did it ever occur to you that the meshuggener mullah with the nuclear codes does?”
“So our identity is at the mercy of crazy strangers?”
“If you can’t generate it yourself.”
“What do you want from me? To spy for Israel? To blow myself up in a mosque?”
What Jacob thinks he wants from himself is to be a good person. His father counters that it is better to be strong than to be right — in other words, it is better to be strong than to be good. Why is Jacob, who has an answer for everything, unable to find an answer for this? The only plausible explanation is that he does not ultimately disagree. After all, his father’s preference for muscle over righteousness is exactly what Jacob unconsciously echoes in his bizarre hyper-masculinist sexting. He seems to mock what his father wants from him (“To blow myself up? To spy for Israel?”), and this option is more or less the one he embraces when he decides, late in the novel, to imitate his Israeli cousin and go off to defend Israel against a putative world of angry anti-Semites. It’s not that Israel needs him; it’s that he needs Israel, or something like Israel. Nothing else will permit him to become his true muscular self.
Waiting for a special charter flight to the suddenly weakened Israel, surrounded by fellow Jewish-American volunteers, he thinks,
I had written books and screenplays my entire adult life, but it was the first time I’d felt like a character inside one — that the scale of my tchotchke existence, the drama of living, finally befitted the privilege of being alive. […] How much of myself, how many words, feelings, and actions, had I forcefully contained? I’d angled myself away from myself, by a fraction of a degree, but after so many years, finding my way back to myself required a plane.
Nothing if not self-conscious, Foer’s protagonist has anticipated that his hyper-articulateness might be construed as a defense against real emotion, real relationships, reality. Julia tells him: “Is this the person you want to be? Always just joking? Always concealing, distracting, hiding? Never fully yourself?” The character cannot seem to do anything about it, until he can. And, of course, it’s the wrong thing. Finding his way back to himself means finding a way to dominate, to take from behind, to kick sand in the face of the 98-pound weaklings. If you are tempted to rejoice that Jacob is no longer trying so hard to be good, it may help to be reminded that for him, being good has never involved anything more strenuous than being a sweetly understanding father. The Palestinians never played any part in it.
There is not much in the novel that this muscular epiphany doesn’t go pretty far toward explaining. The novel has one African-American character, a 12-year-old girl named Billie, who is even more preternaturally intelligent than the narrator’s about-to-be-bar-mitzvahed son, as well as much more mature. She quotes a bit of Jewish wisdom to him in the original language. He asks, “You speak Hebrew?” She answers, “As Franz Rosenzweig famously responded when asked if he was religious, ‘Not yet.’” If this exchange did not already carry a strong whiff of Jewish wish-fulfillment fantasy, that sickly sweet smell becomes unmistakable when at the end of the novel, this same girl gives a speech at a Model UN. The kids are representing Micronesia, a very small nation. Then, surprise, Micronesia acquires a nuclear bomb. Billie’s first reaction is: “we want this thing disarmed, pronto, period.” But Mark, an adult who is coaching them and also trying (rather artfully) to seduce Julia, says to the kids that not using the bomb is as bad as bombing yourself. He says that Julia, who disagrees, would “rather die than save her life.” In other words, he steers the children onto terrain that has become familiar to us through Irv’s playground-style tirades: stop being a pussy, stand up for yourself, don’t worry about right and wrong. Billie eventually goes along with this attitude: “Things are about to change, fellow delegates. Micronesia is saying enough. Enough being pushed around, enough subservience, enough eating scraps. Fellow delegates, things are about to change, beginning, but most certainly not ending, with the following list of demands …” The moral is: If you want to punch above your weight, get nuclear weapons and use them to threaten your neighbors. Let’s see, what other small nation might this apply to?
In one sense, however, the novel has a surprise ending. If considered an Israel-lobby novel, Here I Am would after all have to be found wanting. In spite of its generous contributions to the cause of Israel’s defense, contributions which are arguably all the more effective because disguised by the cover story of impending divorce, it suggests at the end that Jewish-American support for Israel, like the marriage, is faltering. Jacob — whose fate I will leave unspecified — asks himself, “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.” Then, after a certain point, they abruptly no longer feel like they are his. Neither Jacob nor Foer gives any substantive grounds for this de-conversion. The worst thing of which Foer accuses Israel, even in a post-apocalyptic future, is not sharing its medical facilities evenly with non-Israelis. As Irv says, wouldn’t any parent keep the Band-Aids for his own children first? No mention is made of more seriously incriminating evidence — occupation, settlements, invasions, blockades. Still, the possibility is raised that Jacob’s withdrawal from identification with Israel is representative, that for whatever reasons, American Jews in this near future will have ceased to care about Israel in an existential, jump-into-the-lion’s-den way: “The Times estimated that fewer than thirty-five thousand American Jews ultimately went, and that three-quarters of those were forty-five or older.”
In principle, this shift would seem to entail a retreat from militant Zionism to a smaller, more modest, perhaps more religious version of American-Jewish identity. One would like to hear more. Beyond quoting some very eloquent rabbis — rabbis in this novel are always wiser than they at first appear — Foer has little to say either about what such an identity might look like, beyond the observance of rituals even when empty of belief, or about the more critical position on Zionism for which he seems to be headed. Even in his final appearances in the novel, Jacob is still unwilling or unable to stand up to his father.