Here I Am
HERE I AM, the first novel by Jonathan Safran Foer since 2005’s EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE, is big. Sure, it is a physically big book at just under 600 pages, but more than that, it is full of big ideas, events and characters. It chronicles the end of the marriage of Jacob and Julia Bloch as their three young sons begin to come of age, as the patriarch of the family dies, and as Israel suffers from a cataclysmic earthquake and terrible war. The results of each --- the breakup of a marriage, the new autonomy of the boys, the sorrowful death of Jacob’s grandfather, and the threat to the Jewish state --- give each character (though Jacob is given a special voice), the opportunity to philosophize, ponder and suffer, trying to understand love, family, identity, responsibility and, not in the least, happiness.
Jacob and Julia have been married for 16 years when Julia discovers that Jacob has been sexting with a co-worker. Though the affair was never physically consummated, the discovery finally fractures their routine and increasingly passionless union. Jacob wants to stay married but Julia does not, and readers are privy to their understandably confused reactions and responses to the situation and to their long history together. But HERE I AM is hardly concerned with the logistics of the split. Instead, it is the story of an even more profound dissolution as Jacob wrestles, every biblical allusion explicitly intended, with his self-image and self-understanding, his Jewishness, and his place in his family and in his family and tribal history.
"There is much to admire and enjoy in this incredibly smart book, and there are moments of great sorrow and wonderful humor. It is realistically messy, and the characters are nicely flawed."
Swirling around Jacob are his three sons, father Irv and grandfather Isaac, as well as his cousin Tamir. Each man is a Jewish type: Isaac, the lonely Holocaust survivor whom the family aims to protect from further hurt; Irv, the self-important and raging bigot; Tamir, the hyper-masculine Israeli cousin; and, of course, Jacob, the wounded and emasculated good guy. The women are often just shadows of the men, figures that reflect back the male needs or foil them. Julia is depicted as both caring and fearsome in the unreliable assessments of her sons and husband. The three Bloch boys --- Sam, Max and Benjy --- are compelling, intelligent and charming, and all are strangely earnest and deeply philosophical. Sam may be the novel’s best character.
The inevitable divorce is set against the backdrop of the Bloch family’s growing concern that Isaac won’t live long enough to see Sam become bar mitzvahed, a ritual Sam himself is ambivalent about. Then a devastating earthquake in Israel threatens the very existence of the Jewish homeland, and Jacob must decide if the call “home” is strong enough to leave his family and fight for Israel. As each danger, from the personal to the spiritual to the geopolitical, piles on, Jacob must confront his identity as a husband, father, son and Jew.
HERE I AM is sprawling yet precise, encompassing a vast emotional landscape. Foer does a great job capturing the particular Jewish-American banter that brings his characters to life and is also successful plumbing the depths of inherited cultural trauma. He seems to more broadly want to capture the American Jewish experience as a whole: its agnosticism, complicated relationship to Israel, survival guilt, and degree of assimilation. But in doing so, the novel privileges an insider perspective into a cultural and religious minority with which not all readers will be familiar. This is not necessarily a negative and is perhaps less troubling than the writing style that often flirts with pretension.
There is much to admire and enjoy in this incredibly smart book, and there are moments of great sorrow and wonderful humor. It is realistically messy, and the characters are nicely flawed. At times, however, it feels as if Foer is writing for himself, or for such a small audience that the book has the potential to alienate others. Still, Jacob’s swiftly flowing and generally narcissistic introspection has some universalities that transcend Jewishness. Complicated and ambitious, HERE I AM gives readers lots of big ideas to wrestle with.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on September 16, 2016
Here I Am
- Publication Date: September 6, 2016
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 592 pages
- Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- ISBN-10: 0374280029
- ISBN-13: 9780374280024