Jonathan Safran Foer
Here I Am
Here I Am, Jonathan Safran Foer’s first novel in more than a decade, undertakes to explore two broad ideas, which perhaps sound like oil and water: on the one hand, there’s the destruction of Israel – by the twin forces of war and earthquake – and on the other, there are the struggles of maintaining a modern family amid the individualising forces that shape the modern self. In many sections, these two conceits form an uneasy alliance and comment on each other in startling and artful ways. But this is a big novel, at nearly 600 pages, which leaves as much space for its ideas to diverge as intermingle; and just as often, it feels like two completely different books.
First, the marriage. Jacob and Julia are a modern couple, on the wealthy side. Julia’s an architect, Jacob a novelist who has put aside his career to write for a TV show that sounds much like Game of Thrones. They “were never ones to resist convention on principle, but neither could they have imagined becoming quite so conventional”, with their three kids, Sam, Max and Benjy. Both consume “Freudian amounts of sushi”. As this detail suggests, they have a serious problem: an affair that may or may not have actually taken place. Whether or not the affair has been consummated, a line has been crossed, and the discovery of this transgression takes place in an ugly, modern fashion (a very crackable password on a second, secret phone).
It’s a familiar story, but Foer’s key authorial gift, in both his previous novels and in Eating Animals, his treatise on vegetarianism, is for failing to trivialise often-trivialised dramas, locating the possibilities for tragedy and heartbreak in the quiet semi-eventfulness of the domestic world.
Part of this comes from his close attention to human behaviour, which always has a hidden moral value that Foer is skilled at drawing out. But as much comes from a knack for reframing those behaviours, finding their conceptual edges and fully exploring them. Jacob and Julia favour objects whose insides feel bigger than their outsides (such as seashells), while their youngest child prefers “what might be called unrealised foods: frozen vegetables (as in, still frozen when eaten), uncooked oatmeal, unboiled ramen noodles, dough, raw quinoa, dry macaroni with unreconstituted cheese powder sprinkled on top”. The couple talk about their own object preferences, but not Benjy’s: “It felt too psychological to touch.”
This is a Jewish family, and that’s where the two halves meet: the dialogue is often spiked with deadpan Jewish humour, all of which is very clever, some of which is bleak, dextrously turning from silly to dark in a single scene. Amid a weird, funny set piece involving Steven Spielberg at a urinal (Jacob potentially cops a glance at his penis), Jacob’s father, critiquing Jacob’s work on TV, says, “You should forge in the smithy of your soul the uncreated conscience of your race.” Jacob responds: “Didn’t the ovens at Auschwitz do that?”
And so the book creeps closer to its dangerous idea – one that’s telegraphed the whole way through, though Foer is so big on metaphors that it’s not at first clear the book will literally go there. Around the novel’s midpoint, a 7.6 magnitude earthquake strikes the Middle East with an epicentre under the Dead Sea. Seven days later it’s followed with a second earthquake, this one with a magnitude of 7.3.
In the scrabble over resources (electricity, medicine, influence, weaponry), tensions sharply escalate in ways both plausible and scary. By day nine, Hamas has declared allegiance to the Islamic State, “another step towards the unprecedented unification of the Muslim world”. By day 12, no fewer than Albania, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, the Gambia, Guinea, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Kosovo, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Libya, the Maldives, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, the United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan and Yemen have declared war on Israel. It’s worth listing them all because the event is so heavy, and so extreme. The Israeli government, in an effort to force America to join the war, decides to call home the Diaspora, envisioning one million Jews “fighting shoulder to shoulder” with a population that everyone is careful never to call Israeli; only Jews.
Foer makes the curious but explicable decision to have these events pass quickly, in the centre of the book, through a mix of grabs from news reports and factual-feeling summaries. This has the effect of leaching tension from the second half of the novel, which sees the family still discussing the ins and outs of divorce. It takes some pages for them to catch up with Israel’s call to arms, and the dilemma of whether to heed it.
Thematically though, these chapters are odder and richer, turning this into a novel about… where to start? Nationalism, heritage, history, bravery, the past. In this war, Israel is shown to be “neither a scrappy underdog nor a bitty superpower capable of bombing its Stone Age neighbours back into the pre-Stone Age. David was good. Goliath was good. But you’d better be one or the other.” In this way, Foer digs deeply into the myth of Israel, an idea that must respond to incompatible needs. It’s canny, artful, interesting, and perhaps too much even for a novel of this scale.
In early scenes, which are character-driven and ostensibly linear, Foer cleverly moves the reader in and out of different spans of time, offering glimpses of history and sometimes leaping forward to reference ideas that aren’t fully explored for hundreds of pages. After this midpoint, when this distant calamity has occurred, the structural inventiveness goes haywire, in the best way – and some of the most affecting passages happen towards the end, when an existential threat to an individual family becomes inextricably tied to this broader crisis. They don’t always fit together; they can’t possibly. But in these strongest sections, they make each other make sense, and you think: of course. It’s bigger on the inside. CR
Hamish Hamilton, 592pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 24, 2016 as "Jonathan Safran Foer, Here I Am". Subscribe here.