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 the hapless neophyte writer Jonathan Safran Foer in Everything Is Illuminated), no photographs or the kind of typographic disruptions—red proof marks, strings of numeric code, gaps between sentences, pages of solitary sentences afloat in white space, nearly black pages of overlapping words—that occur so often in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
Absent, too, is the texture of fable, either folkloric, as in Everything Is Illuminated, in which a river in Ukraine gives birth to the most beautiful girl in the shtetl and a man survives a flour mill accident only to have a saw blade forever implanted in his head, vertically, like a plume; or conspicuously allegoric, as in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, in which a dim-sighted woman writes her life story on a typewriter without knowing that the ribbon has been torn out, producing a thousand blank pages, and a man rendered mute after the bombing of Dresden approximates conversation by pointing to phrases in a notebook.
Strip away the literary gestures and these books are essentially quest stories, featuring young, hopeful protagonists, their lives still ahead of them. With Here I Am, Foer enters the dusk in which there are no more quests, when the prizes (wife, house, children, outwardly enviable career) have already been won—what Jacob calls the “Great Flatness,” and we might call a midlife crisis.
The new novel cleaves to the present, with events unfolding over a few weeks. Much of the action takes place in the hermetic enclosure of the Blochs’ house in Washington, D.C. Little of the outside world filters in, beyond the background noise of CNN (and morning news shows on which Irv is a raving pundit) and the disembodied babble of “Other Life,” an online multiplayer virtual world that is a sanctuary for Sam, Jacob’s eldest son.
But the movement of the book is not so much chronological as musical, contrapuntal, and governed by motifs. Jacob is working on a manuscript that he keeps locked in a drawer in the basement, while his wife, Julia, an architect whose career has never gone past interior design, draws fantasy floor plans of “imaginary homes for one.” At age thirteen, Sam is resisting his impending bar mitzvah ceremony, at which he must declare “Today I am a man” (“the singular sense in which Sam wanted to become a man was sexual relations with a person who wasn’t himself”), while his great-grandfather Isaac, a Holocaust survivor, is resisting a move to the Jewish Home and a reversion to childlike dependency.
As the novel opens, the bar mitzvah is threatened by the discovery of a list of racial and sexual epithets (e.g., “chink, cunt, jap, faggot”), apparently in Sam’s handwriting, on his desk at Hebrew school; Jacob’s marriage, already in trouble, is threatened by Julia’s discovery of a cell phone with sexually explicit texts to another woman; and the nation of Israel, to which Jacob has never been able to sort out his loyalties, is threatened first by an earthquake that nearly razes the Middle East and then by the massing of more than thirty countries in war against it.
These strands make up the overt narrative. The other, possibly truer narrative—or the one that seems to matter more to Foer—is propelled not by the characters’ actions but by the recurrence of phrases and images. So Isaac’s “snow-globe-quiet” house is a precursor to the snow-globe party favors made for Sam’s bar mitzvah, each with a tiny leak; the water slowly evaporates, leaving them desiccated dioramas, a sad counterpart to what Jacob calls his “tchotchke existence.” What seems like an idle detail—a reference to Isaac’s aging copy of the 1989 movie Enemies, A Love Story—comes back as a punch: when Julia confronts Jacob with the illicit texts he dissembles, then screams, “You are my enemy!” Later Sam uses the term “enemies” to describe his love-hate relationship with his own sperm and the “mystical” pleasures of jerking off, which he has recently discovered at a shiva (“like Moses receiving the call to a needy bush, Sam galloped to his bathroom”) and which he chronicles at great length and in great despair.
At times readers may feel they are following a trail of crumbs. A crucial scene, in which Jacob remembers being dragged to the zoo on the eve of his own bar mitzvah and dared to jump into the lions’ den, is the culmination of scattered, seemingly inconsequential details, such as a joke about “the most incredible zoo” that trails off and finishes fifty pages later (punch line: the zoo has only one animal, a dog; “it was a shih tzu”). Finally, in a flashback, Jacob finds himself inside the lions’ den and watches, horrified and exhilarated, as a shape emerges from the darkness, “an animal that didn’t deliberate and expound.” No angel manifests to shut the lion’s mouth, as saved the prophet Daniel. Jacob’s cousin helps him back to safety, but he is effectively ruined, as nothing in his life thereafter can rise to that height of feeling.
In the eleven years since he published his last novel, Foer has tried his hand at other forms, writing a vegetarian manifesto, Eating Animals; the libretto of an opera, Seven Attempted Escapes from Silence, about inmates who can’t speak (they sing, but not words); and a never-produced TV comedy, All Talk, about a Jewish family who presumably do nothing but. He is particularly effective working in a choral vein here, as when three generations of the Bloch clan talk all at once or a gang of filthy-mouthed boys, trapped “in the zero-sum game of puberty,” try to one-up each other in their knowledge of sex acts, while still getting chills “from so much as thinking about the epilogue of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.” (That epilogue also depicts a version of the “Great Flatness,” with Harry grown up, married, and a father, his days of adventure behind him.) Foer’s child characters are still precocious but for the most part more wisecracking than wise, although the youngest, Benjy, is too often deployed as a kind of unwitting Shakespearean fool, asking what happened to “the sound of time”—he means the refrigerator, which has stopped humming—and trying to guess the terrible, unsayable “n-word”: “Is it married?”
Part of the frustration of reading Foer is how close he can come to brilliance, only to get in his own way. The opening paragraph of Here I Am is masterly, a long unspooling of Isaac’s life that takes him from his lost home in Galicia, Poland, “with books touching the ceilings, and rugs thick enough to hide dice,” to hiding during the war in a hole “for so many days his knees would never wholly unbend,” to toiling in American grocery stores beside “a woman who rechecked the locks until she broke them, and died of old age at forty-two without a syllable of praise in her throat,” to a long decline in that “snow-globe-quiet” split-level, with Enemies, A Love Story “demagnetizing in the world’s last functional VCR.” To take the sweeping view, without cuteness or mugging, is a powerful new mode for Foer, who has previously shown himself most adept as a ventriloquist. But eventually the omniscience slips, as the narrative voice gets closer to and more complicit with Jacob’s sweltering consciousness.
How are we to square Foer’s technical skill with his penchant for bald symbolism and sudsy revelation? Much of the writing here is vital and precise. Jacob remembers Isaac in a child’s intimate close-up, “how his fingernails were as thick as quarters, and his eyelids as thin as tinfoil.” There are beautiful, incidental descriptions, like Jacob’s memory of floating in the Dead Sea “among the ancient, elephantine Jews reading half-submerged newspapers bleeding Cyrillic.” But Foer also writes, “The columns of Jacob’s legs couldn’t bear the weight of his heavy heart” and “If I could open my fingers, my heart’s fingers could open.” It’s not enough to speak of the weight of a heart; it must be heavy. It’s not enough to speak of a heart; it must acquire fingers, as if that would make the sentiment—if I could open my fingers, I could open my heart—less trite.
Elsewhere in the book, Foer undercuts characters who toss off platitudes. “Living the wrong life is far worse than dying the wrong death,” says one; “nobody is like you, and you are never like anybody else,” texts another. They’re immediately ridiculed (“I got the same fortune cookie last night!”). But this isn’t a renunciation of sentimentality. Instead, the ridicule is portrayed as defensive, humor wielded as a way of avoiding uncomfortable truths and genuine expressions of feeling.
Foer is fond of preaching and dispensing knowledge, and ever ready with a metaphor to elevate personal anecdote to parable. The manuscript that Jacob is writing, like Here I Am, consists of narratives overt and covert. The first part is a fairly straightforward TV series about his family; the second is an accompanying instruction manual (“bible,” he calls it), with chapter headings that teeter between earnest and self-parodic, like “How to Play Incommunicable, Felt Memories”:
The notes were Jewish-motherly in their irrepressibly naggy didacticism, Jewish-fatherly in their need to obscure every emotion in metaphor and deflection…. The explanatory material overwhelmed what it attempted to explain. So Jewish.
“Shouldn’t the work speak for itself?” Julia asks. “Nothing speaks for itself,” Jacob replies.
Sam, for his bar mitzvah, has been assigned the portion of the Torah known as the Binding of Isaac, in which God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son. Abraham’s words to God and to Isaac—“Here I am”—give the novel its title, and the book can be read as an exegesis of the text, asking, as Sam does in his bar mitzvah speech, how Abraham can give himself fully to both God and his son, “without conditions or reservations or need for explanation.” For Jacob, who’s not really a believer, the conflict is blurrier, between a numb, quotidian existence and what he thinks of, vaguely, as “the promise of a felt life.” A cousin says, “Did you ever stop to ask yourself why you put such an emphasis on feeling?” And Jacob might as well reply, like a character in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, “Aren’t my life and my feelings the same thing?”
Which leads us to the moral problem of the novel: To be good, is it sufficient to feel bad—to recognize one’s faults without making any attempt to correct them? In Foer’s world, no one ever is to blame. The list of epithets supposedly written by Sam is a prop, not a springboard for soul-searching. Jacob and Julia don’t do much more than press Sam for a pro forma apology. And when the person who wrote the list finally owns up to it, he offers no contrition, only more explanation: he wanted to see how it felt to “say the hardest thing.” So it was just a literary exercise.
Foer seems too eager to forgive everyone’s lapses. Jacob’s psychiatrist soothingly says, “Most people behave badly when wounded.” Sam excuses himself from hurting his friend’s feelings by saying, “It was a cowardly way to hurt myself.” There’s a wistful reference to a collection of online videos in which “guilty dogs express shame”: “The ‘shaming’ was always funnily overdramatized and good-spirited, and they all ended with reconciliation.”
While Jacob feels shame, it’s solipsistic, a cycle of self-loathing and self-justification. He never expresses a need to atone for what he’s done. Instead, he wonders who was hurt by the epithets (“There’s a world of difference between breaking someone’s nose and shadow boxing”) and how his marriage could founder on “the arrangement of a few hundred letters” into those salacious texts—this from a man obsessed with the power of words, who keeps compulsively tinkering with his secret manuscript, thinking, “So many more words were needed.” Late in the novel, we learn that Jacob has taught himself sign language and has been attending, under false pretenses, annual conventions for parents and teachers of deaf children. This is intended as a quirky aside, underscoring Jacob’s search for connection, but it’s hard not to see it as a form of “dark tourism,” trawling for tragedy while safely knowing that he has nothing at stake—that he’ll emerge unscathed.
There’s a similar moral shallowness to Foer’s concoction of a war on Israel. Its function is to bring Jacob to his personal catastrophe, the moment when the prime minister of Israel calls on all Jewish men of the diaspora to return to fight for their homeland. Jacob decides to enlist, not because he suddenly feels a sense of duty, but because finally, he thinks, he will reenter the lions’ den:
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.
Here I Am is a political novel only in how it highlights its characters’ detachment from politics. “I skipped right over the article about Syrian refugees,” a player in Other Life muses. “I know it in theory makes me sad, but I can’t find a way to have an actual emotion about it.” This might read as a criticism if Foer didn’t likewise treat the war as some distant airborne toxic event.
As always, we should be wary of confusing an author’s concerns with his characters’. But in each of his novels, Foer has been drawn to tragedy on a grand scale—September 11, Dresden, the Holocaust—as if his characters’ struggles would be too trivial to consider without such an ennobling backdrop. Jacob imagines that if Julia cries when they tell the kids that they’re separating, “the kids’ lives would be ruined. Tens of thousands of people would die. Israel would be destroyed.” After a dispute, Sam’s best friend texts him to say that she has no words for how much he has hurt her: “actually, it’s guernica.” To liken hurt feelings to atrocity befits the melodramatic tenor of adolescence. It’s another matter for the adults in the book to behave in such a way.
In the last half of the novel, at a funeral, a rabbi speaks of the long shadow cast by The Diary of Anne Frank. Many would call it the defining Jewish book of the past century, he says, but “has it been good to align ourselves with poignancy over rigor?” Foer seems to want both—poignancy and rigor—and the result feels like an evasion.
Nowhere is this starker than in the closing scene, which mirrors that of J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, a book that Foer mentions offhandedly as one of the possessions Jacob and Julia must divvy up. (Jacob has never read it.) Both novels concern men who fall from grace after a sexual transgression. Where Jacob is diminished—his marriage ends, but on friendly terms, and he gets joint custody of the kids—in Disgrace the protagonist is broken: publicly censured, deprived of job and stature, and later badly burned during a violent invasion of his daughter’s house.
In the final pages, each man must euthanize a dog he has come to care for. Coetzee refuses abstraction, writing with poised, efficient brutality:
Something happens in this room, something unmentionable: here the soul is yanked out of the body; briefly it hangs about in the air, twisting and contorting; then it is sucked away and is gone. It will be beyond him, this room that is not a room but a hole where one leaks out of existence.
Even the sound—yank, contort, suck, leak—is hard and unforgiving. Foer takes shelter in soft, shushing sibilants:
Argus’s eyes rose to meet Jacob’s. There was no acceptance to be found in them…. Their relationship was defined not by what they could share, but what they couldn’t. Between any two beings there is a unique, uncrossable distance, an unenterable sanctuary. Sometimes it takes the shape of aloneness. Sometimes it takes the shape of love.
A confrontation with a dying animal: this is a moment when Jacob, who throughout the novel has expressed disgust at his physical failings—his nightly use of suppositories and a hair-loss cream that has left him impotent—might be forced to openly acknowledge the body’s limitations and understand love not as some obscure geometry but as a series of practical, necessary gestures, of duties met “without conditions or reservations or need for explanation.”
Instead, he retreats to the arcane metaphor of “an unenterable sanctuary.” Foer is trying for one last allusion, reaching back to an earlier reference to the Well of Souls, or Holy of Holies, under the Dome of the Rock, which Jews are not allowed to enter. It’s too far away, and too late.