Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer
Whispers of “literary gimmickry” have followed Jonathan Safran Foer endlessly, involving his choices in narration, typesetting, and vocabulary. Eleven years after his previous novel, we get Here I Am, a comparatively mammoth work with a noticeable reduction in his signature bells and whistles. Foer and wife Nicole Krauss split in 2014, and though this novel’s exact scenario varies from its real-world analogue, it’s not hard to see Foer working through the existential quandaries involved when calling it quits.
Longtime spouses Jacob and Julia Bloch acutely recognize a sobering distance between what they seek and what their existing partnership provides. On the brink of divorce, they are less concerned with their personal heartbreak than with the foundation-shattering effect it will have on their three adolescent sons. Their oldest, Sam, slogs through Bar Mitzvah preparations for which he has minimal genuine interest, instead spending considerable time immersed in an MMO stand-in for Second Life. Elsewhere in the genealogy is Sam’s great-grandfather Isaac. Resistant to the prospect of life in an assisted living facility, his remaining hopes are banked on the fulfillment of his great-grandson’s Bar Mitzvah. For Sam to cross that milestone into manhood would serve as the final crystallization of the family tree Isaac sought to establish.
Commitment vs. self-interest, religious obligation vs. secular modernism. The battle lines are drawn, and throughout the novel’s initial sections, Foer appears well-equipped to make a memorable statement here. 570 pages is no small reader investment, but to this novel’s credit, the experience flies by smoothly. This is in part due to the vast amounts of white space on the pages throughout. Many scenes are structured upon continuous dialogue, which keeps things immediate and engaging. There aren’t an imposing number of sequences in which the characters take the back seat to narrator-driven scrutiny.
The issue is that the Freudian analysis you’d expect from the narrator is instead delivered directly through the characters’ spoken words, which often stretches past boundaries of believability. The married couple at the center of the story ought to charge by the hour for the unsolicited psychotherapy they offer. When a reader’s gut says “people don’t talk this way in real life,” it’s a red flag. Eventually we witness a veterinary doctor make a crafty allusion to The Odyssey, before acknowledging he may have been a classics professor in former life. As justification for the elevated speech habits of this otherwise unremarkable community, it’s too little too late. Not since DeLillo’s White Noise have we seen adolescents as wise beyond their years, but this time around, there’s no wink of acknowledgement to the audience. At age 13, Sam intellectually one-ups his parents (with solid footing), ponders comparing life to a Wes Anderson film, and is far too often used by the author as a means to point out and exacerbate his father’s neuroses.
Here I Am initially succeeds in weaving together a dynamic set of family members trying to function as a unit with their personal interests intact. But it’s also an intriguing instance of history entering the living room: You can easily read the Blochs as a synecdoche for the modern American nuclear family, and the current torch carriers of Jewish identity.
Foer then undermines the stage he has set, abruptly zooming the camera all the way out to a satellite view. What enters abruptly is the geopolitical struggle of Israel, thrust into a catastrophe that tests the mettle of both its native citizens and the descendants who have long since emigrated to the West. The narrative effect could have been stronger had the lens stayed focused on the family, and since the entire story occurs within a four week time frame, it’s especially egregious to narratively shoehorn a fictional cluster of world events that shakes the status quo of the Middle East.
This book is deliberately billed as Foer’s emergence as a “mature novelist,” and the presentation throughout Here I Am makes it evident this was indeed the author’s goal. Gone for the most part are the typesetting gimmicks of his previous works, and there aren’t many symptoms of scatterbrain-itis. Yet, as we learn more about Jacob Bloch’s career as a writer himself, the story increasingly hints that an unreliable narrator twist may be in store. This makes it tougher to bask in this book’s strengths, where they can be found. Pondering a potential carpet-pull stunt sparks more anxiety than it does excitement.
There are a beautiful collection of moments to be found throughout this novel. But if you’re looking for a grand, monument-worthy statement a decade in the making, Here It Isn’t.