SEPTEMBER 12, 2016
“HERE I AM” is how Abraham responds to God when he hears the Divine call. Thus begins monotheism and thus, several thousand years later, Jonathan Safran Foer announces the arrival of his third novel: Here I Am.
And it’s precisely conceits of this kind — comparing his protagonist, a middle-age Jewish father in the contemporary United States, to the legendary father of Judaism — that both underpin and spoil Foer’s latest offering.
As with his best-selling novels Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, as well as his nonfiction Eating Animals, Foer’s scope is ambitious and his writing is sharp, but his affectations are often exasperating. Like a beautifully crafted music box with a catchy tune, the novel is delightful and annoying in equal measure.
Foer’s preciousness mars his effort in two specific ways. First, his obvious identification with his protagonist narrows the novel’s range: Jacob Bloch’s limitations are too often the novel’s own. Second, his exquisite use of montage for comic effect undercuts whatever insight the narrative may otherwise promise.
The novel’s title alludes to the Bible and to a Stevie Wonder song, but it is also a nod and a wink — a “Here I am” — to the similarities between Jacob Bloch (a DC-raised writer, with three sons, looking back on a divorce) and Foer (a DC-raised writer, one of three brothers, just going through a divorce).
A number of characters, and especially his father, idealize the purity of Jacob’s first book, which won the National Jewish Book Award in 2001 (Foer himself won the award for Everything Is Illuminated in 2001). Jacob is now working for television, writing a show that “isn’t his show” but which pays the bills. All the while, though, he is writing the show that is his show — in fact the show of his life. A complicated and massive undertaking with separate instruction notes for each of the characters to explain the rules of engagement within the show and all the motivations — this show is the analogue within the novel of the novel itself.
Jacob’s personal drama in Here I Am eventually unfolds in the context of Middle Eastern cataclysm. This allows Foer to produce some flight-of-fancy set-piece speeches and, more importantly, add drama to the comparison between Jacob’s family and their Israeli cousins. The Israelis live by carpe diem where Jacob is barely even carp in bathtub. Israel’s geopolitical turmoil reminds the Americans that their travails are First World problems and the cousins’ geography is a constant reminder of the Biblical chosenness that frames both sides of the family.
The “Here I ams” illustrate the way that Jacob is put in perspective.
In the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son, the patriarch gives the same response to Isaac that he had earlier given to God. Both times the response is one of such explicit attentiveness — being totally present for the voice that calls out — that it marks Abraham as perfectly suited to the tasks of founding Judaism. We learn this from Sam Bloch’s bar mitzvah speech, because the story of Isaac happens to be the Torah portion he is set to read for his rite of passage. For Jacob, the one time he responds in a similarly present way with his family is at the moment of his son Sam’s traumatic injury.
That moment of injury is also a moment of guilt. Like Abraham who takes Isaac up the mountain, Jacob and his wife Julia feel as though they have put Sam’s hand in the door to be crushed. However good their response was — and Jacob seems to believe that it was the sole moment of parenting for which he deserves absolute credit — the situation was their fault. This credit, though, is anomalous. As the novel begins, Jacob is caught by his inability to extricate himself from the mild professional impotence and personal unhappiness that he is also unwilling to diagnose explicitly. He is unable to be fully present for work or for home.
“To be, and not to be” is how Jacob and this son Sam express the ideal response to the Hamlet-like crux of Bloch’s existential crisis. (Though it’s probably misleading to call the doubt that pervades the book a crisis; it’s rather a foggy melancholia in denial of its own urgency.) The simultaneous necessity and impossibility of keeping himself open to what’s important lies at the book’s heart. Bloch struggles to deal with conflicting obligations, to triangulate between his wife, his children, and himself, and to make himself fully present and available in those other, mundane, moments.
But, though the melancholia is skillfully evoked, its causes and effects remain obscure. The characters gathered around Jacob — especially the women — are scant and barely sketched out. Jacob’s three sons are largely unbelievable, stuck between caricature and deus ex machina. Julia is described sympathetically enough that Nicole Krauss — the award-winning novelist formerly married to Foer — will not be upset over any roman à clef slurs, but the character is drawn thinly enough that Krauss may not even recognize it.
The book is a portrait of a Jewish family. It adapts its cover from the work Life? or Theater? by the great Holocaust artist Charlotte Salomon, takes its title from Genesis, and its subject from the vicissitudes of contemporary Jewish experience. Foer makes a valiant attempt to inject the banalities of suburban DC life with biblical drama or the epic qualities of geopolitical events. And it partially works. The epic drama of our time is distributed and played out across the network of society. It’s not a single champion in a ring, or even a single election, it’s the billion-person, decade-long fight for decency and self-realization in personal relationships.
But neither Bloch nor Foer is Abraham. Neither — in a book that starts by placing contemporary American Jewish life precariously between the Holocaust and the “destruction of Israel” — are they Ben-Gurion or famous partisan leader Abba Kovner. And they aren’t supposed to be heroic, but somewhere in the mix, the comedy and profundity get confused. Here I Am is, in subject and tone, closer to the work of Foer’s contemporaries Shalom Auslander and Nathan Englander than either of his previous novels. It’s especially reminiscent of Englander’s short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. But, unlike Auslander and Englander, Foer never quite gets to the heart of the matter — whether the dark enigma of Anne Frank’s identity in Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy or the nature of Israeli expansionism in “Sister Hills” from Englander’s collection.
Here I Am is funny. It is elegant. It also makes the implicit promise that it will be Foer’s equivalent of the work of genius that Jacob has been secretly writing for decades. But it doesn’t have the frightening, raw revelations that Jacob claims for his work. And it is as annoyingly self-satisfied as the throwaway entertainment shows that Jacob produces on a daily basis. The novel says, look at how I play out the destruction of Israel (but Foer, like Bloch, doesn’t quite get to it), look at how I provoke you with filthy sexting (but Foer like Bloch, doesn’t follow through), look at how I cleverly replace the biblical figure of Isaac with the classically named Argus the dog.
And so to Foer’s second strength and foible. The meticulous preciousness of the prose, especially the first 200 pages, is a delight but also a tool for distancing the reader from the subject. Like Japanese packaging, it’s so beautiful that you lose all desire to peer inside.
Foer’s favorite method of describing a situation is through montage, and his execution is brilliant. Sergei Eisenstein, the foundational Russian filmmaker, defined montage as “an idea that arises from the collision of independent shots [in which] each sequential element is perceived not next to the other, but on top of the other.” Foer does just this, introducing one subject and then cutting away to another before joining them both with a punch line of collocation. The resulting juxtaposition is often funny, and sometimes genuinely illuminating.
Many writers use montage, but Foer uses it incessantly; it is his dominant device. Conversations, scenes, even different worlds overlap and interpenetrate. In the chapter “Here I Amn’t” [sic] Sam’s physical world is interrupted by life in his virtual world, Other Life (a fictional version of Second Life). And within Other Life, the stream of text conversations interrupt and ignore one another and Sam. It’s a virtuosic portrayal of the cacophonous egotism of 21st-century adult life, of which pre-bar mitzvah Sam is wary, but which he can navigate with precocious ease.
This constant intercutting makes Foer’s prose eminently readable — even when the topic is dismal (as it often is), the reader is never forced to dwell long on the gloom of the developing tragedy. But, at the same time, the strategy gives the novel an aura of glibness. Even when, perhaps especially when, Foer deliberately talks dirty through Bloch’s sexting, or when he writes about masturbation through Nazis (also through a funeral) the prose seems too pure to partake in it and to be doing it for effect.
“Here I Amn’t” ends with Sam and his brother Max riffing on a phrase the latter finds funny:
“That’s not funny.” [Says Sam.]
“Maybe you don’t get it.”
And maybe some of us readers don’t get it either. Then again, maybe we just aren’t given anything to get. There’s a lot of play on the surface of Foer’s prose, but his occasional gestures to profundity often seem to point to more surface. For example, one chapter concludes with a beautifully worked juxtaposition of, on the one hand, the description of a noisy fridge and, on the other, the drama of an incipient divorce. It concludes with the youngest son, Benjy, mouthing the words, “The sound of time. What happened to it?” Which is, in context, an exquisite and piercing “out of the mouths of babes and sucklings” comment. But it feels both like it took a lot of writing to reach the punch line and, after the momentary sublimity, like it only actually refers to a humming fridge.
Eisenstein thought that montage was important because it could realize the principles of dialectical materialism in cinema. Most montage has less ambitious aims, but even if Foer doesn’t always achieve Hegelian sublation, he does succeed in breaking down the dichotomies of Jew or American, Israeli or Jew, domestic or epic, dog or man. One of the clearest ways that Foer disrupts these tired oppositions is by bringing into question the multiple levels of reality that he presents. While Sam takes part in a model UN in which Micronesia (Sam’s team) accidentally gets hold of a nuclear bomb, Jacob is at home and kills off Samanta, Sam’s avatar in Other Life. Neither of these “games” is real, but neither is it all game either: their fictions are deeply felt.
Foer took on the Holocaust in his first novel, 9/11 in his second, and here he takes on pretty much everything else (plus the Holocaust again). Partly because they are all part of life, but with an air of épater le bourgeois, he includes graphic sexting, adolescent masturbation adventures, pervasive Nazis, rites of passage like the bar mitzvah and divorce, epic Biblical natural disasters, and coming-of-age adventures at the DC Zoo (don’t try any of this at home, kids). It’s wry entertainment expertly done, but don’t found any religions on it.