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 given to a small Jewish village in Eastern Europe—where his grandmother was murdered in the war (a trip Foer took himself while a student at Princeton) connected with the decade’s fascination with the Ur-Shtetl—the iconic, impossible, irresistible, vanished Jewish village from which a generation of American Jews claimed real or imagined descent.
The magical shtetl had been described in the stories of Sholem Aleichem, and then dramatised as the village of Anatevka in the 1964 hit musical Fiddler on the Roof, which defined a new history and set of traditions for American Jews from Eastern Europe. Philip Roth called the musical “shtetl kitsch,” but in Foer’s novel the portrayal of the tragic, obliterated shtetl of Trachimbrod deepened and darkened the legend. Today for American Jews the pilgrimage to Eastern Europe to find the ancestors’ shtetl has become as standard as the trip to Jerusalem. In 2015, Bartlett Sher’s prize-winning Broadway revival of Fiddler reframed it as a tourist’s search for Anatevka, and so Foer deserves credit for helping to create the Holocaust consciousness of his generation.
His second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), took 9/11 as its central theme. But in the intervening years his subjects have been smaller, focusing in non-fiction works on the visual arts, vegetarianism and post-modern experimentalism. Asked by The New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman in May why his third novel has taken so long to appear, Foer replied that for the past decade: “I devoted myself to my children, very much at the expense of my writing, although it never felt like a sacrifice.” Now the Foer children are older, and writing has resumed its priority. Here I Am is 570 pages long; it is dedicated to his agent Nicole Aragi, and his new editor at Farrar Straus Giroux, Eric Chinski. Foer is going on a major promotional tour. His emails with Natalie Portman have been published in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. He’s back!
Here I Am visits Jacob Bloch at a crossroads in his sedate existence: a midlife crisis. He regards his life as “pretty slow and uninteresting and undramatic and uninspiring.” He feels “smaller than life,” and he is painfully making his way towards separation from his wise and lovely, “immensely talented… perpetually unappreciated” wife Julia. Even worse than the separation is the agonising prospect of breaking the news to his precocious sons, Sam, Max and Benji. To cope with his discontents and obsessive sexual fantasies, Jacob has turned to that most familiar cliché of Jewish literature: the psychotherapist. Taking the talking cure with Dr Silver is as far as he can get in facing his feelings. Meanwhile, the Blochs are preparing to celebrate their eldest son’s bar mitzvah, despite his explicit rejection of the ritual. “I did not ask to be a man and I do not want to be a man and I refuse to be a man,” Sam insists.
Into this tense setting bursts Tamir, Jacob’s Israeli cousin from Haifa, who has come for the family occasion. Loud, hyperconfident, muscular, hairy and fearless, Tamir is the strong man Jacob imagines he might have become if he had grown up in Israel instead of the United States. Tamir pushes Jacob to take risks, to live large, to face danger and even death as a route to manhood. “If you were capable of standing up and saying ‘This is who I am,’” he taunts, “you’d at least be living your own life.”
And then, on the eve of the bar mitzvah, a massive earthquake destroys Israel and its Arab neighbours. With the West Bank flattened, Arabs flood into Israel, demanding support, medical care, apologies. Rumours spread that the earthquake is a Jewish plot, and the Arab nations unify to blame Israel, declare war against the “Zionist entity,” and to try and annihilate the Jews. In a stunning group of chapters, Foer alternates the speeches of the Grand Ayatollah of Iran calling for the destruction of Israel and the death of the Jews, with those of the Israeli Prime Minister calling on Jews to come back to their homeland: “one million Jewish men, fighting shoulder to shoulder with their Jewish brothers.” At the conclusion of the televised broadcast, the Prime Minister sounds a blast on a 2,000-year-old shofar (a musical instrument made from a ram’s horn), to summon the “molecules of every Jew who had ever lived: … warrior kings and fishmongers; tailors, matchmakers, and executive producers; kosher butchers, radical publishers, kibbutznicks, management consultants, orthopedic surgeons, tanners, and judges,” and call them home “not only to fight for Israel’s survival, but to fight for your own.”
Of course, Tamir urges Jacob to join in. Julia is adamant that he must stay with his family. To leave or remain (why does it always come down to these options?) is the most drastic of the choices Jacob must make at the midpoint of his life. Will he save his soul if he declares an allegiance to a homeland rather than a home? Will he become a man if he opts for epic combat over everyday responsibility? Can he be a man if he stays in the suburbs and says “Here I am” to his sons? Foer rises to the rhetorical challenges of this plot, paying full attention to its comic, apocalyptic, psychological, emotional and historic possibilities. It’s an exciting, masterful performance and his energy and power of invention never flags. As his editor Eric Chinski says of the style, “It’s got a kind of toughness, it’s dirty, it’s kind of funny, like [Philip Roth’s] Portnoy’s Complaint, it exposes American Jewish life.” Foer also takes on sickness, suffering, ageing and death.
But the book is too long, and buckles under the weight of the digressions, observations, images and schticks Foer attaches to it like the love locks on a Paris bridge. The tremendous crescendo of the catastrophe subsides into a series of further endings, rethinkings, additions and tonal shifts. There are four separate chapters called “O Jews, Your Time Has Come.” Jacob’s going; he’s staying; Israel is saved; it’s destroyed. And back again for another round. Finally, the political crisis is displaced by the introduction of Jacob’s secret weapon—a book called Ever-Dying People, his own “shofar blast from a mountaintop,” which takes up a late section of the novel. A by-product of Jacob’s work, it is meant as a Bible for the great life-drama he dreams of producing on television—a user’s manual for future creators. Literary destiny takes precedence over the international theme.
Foer’s vision implies that those future creators will be men. While he makes a sustained, insightful and largely successful attempt in this book to write from a woman’s point of view, giving Julia a strong voice of her own, his models and influences are male, from Don DeLillo (who depicted the catastrophe of an airborne toxic event in White Noise) to Steven Spielberg, who Jacob thinks he sees in the airport urinals. Just as his vision of heroic military action overlooks the fact that in Israel women are soldiers too, Foer’s creative pantheon overlooks literary models by women, such as Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, another examination of an individual confronting the separate fragments of sex, politics and history, and constructing a Bible that attempts to fuse them together. I’m fascinated by the announcement that Foer’s ex-wife, the novelist Nicole Krauss, is soon publishing a book of stories called How to Be a Man. There may be a different way of telling this story.
Yet Here I Am is more than a portrait of the artist as a middle-aged man. In its final sentence, Jacob says “I am ready.” Perhaps that’s an echo of the famous last line of Portnoy’s Complaint, when Portnoy’s shrink Dr Spielvogel interrupts his patient’s rant to ask “Now vee may perhaps to begin, yes?” Here I Am seems like a transition to a new kind of writing. Foer has declared his allegiances, and cleared the decks for new subjects and new stories. He’s ready to begin.