Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer (Hamish Hamilton £20)
The title of Jonathan Safran Foer’s third novel comes from the scene in Genesis when Abraham answers God’s call to sacrifice his son Isaac. “I am here,” he says. That declaration, Foer explains, means, “who we are, who we are wholly there for, and how that, more than anything else, defines our identity.” Even in extremity Abraham’s identity is clear, his obedience to God’s will absolute, and his allegiance to his faith transcendent.
Foer’s semi-autobiographical protagonist Jacob Bloch is not a man of faith; at the age of 42, he is a writer of a popular television series living a comfortable life in suburban Washington DC. Jacob is casually observant of Jewish rituals, holidays and customs, but very distant from the religious convictions of his great-grandfather Gershon who was the rabbi of Minsk, his grandfather Isaac who escaped the Holocaust and made it to America, and his father Irv who retains a passionate attachment to Israel and an urgent belief in the dangers of anti-Semitism (his mantra: “the world hates Jews.”) Irv Bloch accuses his “immensely talented, deeply feeling, profoundly intelligent” son of wasting his life on mere entertainment. “You should make something that befits your abilities, and expresses your definition of substance,” he reproaches Jacob. “You should forge in the smithy of your soul the uncreated conscience of your race.”
Foer certainly doesn’t lack chutzpah. That audacious, self-flattering, Joycean injunction sets the bar high for his hero and for Foer himself. The very secular, profane, laid-back Jacob is challenged to define his identity, declare his allegiance to Jewishness and to an Israel under threat, and dedicate his art to a higher purpose. And through Jacob’s story, Foer tests his own boundaries of spirituality and sexuality, ambition and sacrifice, originality and influence, revisiting themes and techniques from his earlier books. With this novel, he is stepping up to compete for his place in literary history.
Some critics and readers might say he has won it already. By the age of 24, Foer was already seen as a literary wunderkind, an inspiring spokesman and even a gossiped-about celebrity. His wildly inventive, comic, and heartbreaking first novel Everything is Illuminated (2002) became an international bestseller. Moreover, its narrative of a young man’s trip to Ukraine to find the shtetl—the name…