A Strange Way to the Promised Land

Here I Am

by Jonathan Safran Foer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 571 pp., $28.00
Jonathan Safran Foer, Park Slope, Brooklyn, March 2012
Chantal Heijnen
Jonathan Safran Foer, Park Slope, Brooklyn, March 2012

Some two hundred pages into Here I Am, Jonathan Safran Foer’s third novel, the film director Steven Spielberg materializes in a restroom at an airport Panda Express. Or at least Jacob Bloch, the forty-two-year-old onetime-wunderkind writer whose anxieties give the book a fretful pulse, suspects that the man standing next to him is Spielberg, which prompts a small crisis.

The cause is not proximity to greatness, although Jacob seems to have squandered his own, having won the National Jewish Book Award at age twenty-four (like Foer) and then frittered away his talent writing episodes of a TV show about dragons. What unsettles him is a quick glance that suggests that Spielberg—who, since Schindler’s List, is “not even he anymore, but representative of them…of us,” the Jews—may be uncircumcised. When Jacob scurries out to share the news, his father, Irv, a pro-Israel saber-rattler, professes himself “shaken,” and his cousin Tamir, who has just arrived from Tel Aviv—and whom Jacob both idealizes and belittles as a kind of noble savage, “ignorant or unselfconscious”—charges into the men’s room to settle the question.

This is written as farce, not satire, with a piling on of Jewish tropes: the backdrop of Chinese food, so essential to Jewish identity that it’s invoked by Irv in his fulminations against Israel’s enemies (“we love kung pao chicken and they love death”); the contrast between meek, assimilated American Jews like Jacob, with their “vegetarian” physiques and linguistic dithering (“It depends on what you mean by homeland”), and their strapping Israeli relatives, able “to grow a full beard while a bagel toasted”; the insistent intrusion of history, whether the stranger in the restroom is in fact Spielberg or, as Jacob first thinks, a ghost out of his wife’s old family photos from Eastern Europe who has “traveled through time to deliver a warning.”

The bite comes when Jacob remembers Schindler’s List as “schmaltzy, overblown, and flirting with kitsch.” Nevertheless, he admits, the film moved him, as it did the world: “Everyone was moved, and everyone was persuaded that being moved was the ultimate aesthetic, intellectual, and ethical experience.”

“Schmaltzy, overblown, and flirting with kitsch”—these are charges that have been leveled at Foer’s previous novels, Everything Is Illuminated (2002) and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005). Is the author trying to inoculate himself against similar criticism here, by criticizing himself first? Or is he acknowledging his proclivity for schmaltz and kitsch, but arguing that ends justify means—that for the story he wants to tell, these are the necessary qualities?

Here I Am is more ambitious than its predecessors—thornier, funnier, and less susceptible to whimsy. It’s also more conventional, at least on the surface. There are no interwoven timelines, no metafictional pawn of a character named after the author (see…

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