Book Review – Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer
There is a sub-sub genre of American literature, a shelf labelled the American Jewish Experience. As short as this shelf is, it groans under weight of great American writers – Bellow, Roth, Malamud, Heller, Mailer, to name the obvious ones. Jonathan Safran Foer, whose name was made in his 20s with his mega-successes Everything is Illuminated and Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close piles muscularly and rudely into this august company with his latest, Here I Am, ten years in the making.
This is a long, sprawling, shambolic and largely (although not completely) successful addition to this genre. The book pokes unrestrainedly and gleefully and often painfully into every nook and cranny of a reluctantly secular East Coast American Jewish family – its broken heart and it angst and its desperation and its ancient and partially believed rituals and its endless pride. There is almost nowhere that this novel does not go (a 12 page description of a 13 year old’s masturbatory excesses is a shockingly funny nod of recognition to Roth’s Portnoy, whom he renders rather quaint by comparison). It peers into the carnage of a failing marriage, the tension between secularity and religion, the tenuous, fracturing and heartbreaking loyalty between American Jews and Israeli Jews and finally the constant worrying and questioning and second-guessing and on-the-other-handing of the Jewish intellectual, caught endlessly and uncomfortably between his warring head and heart.
At the centre of of the book is Jacob Bloch, a successful but unfulfilled TV writer, and his family. There is his wife Julia, an architect who designs houses she will never build, soon to leave him. There are his three smart, funny, precocious and sometimes soulful boys, the oldest of whom has found escape from his confusing teenage world in an alternate reality game called Other Life where he inhabits the avatar of a witty young woman he creates. The is his father Irv, a life spent raging ceaselessly and fruitlessly against anti-semitism and the Arab threat to Israel, his beloved holocaust-surviving grandfather Isaac, his childhood cousin, Tamir, long decamped to Israel to become a different sort of Jew. These characters are all massive, flawed, gentle, cruel, caring, but mostly rendered rabid and unhappy by self-analysis and and endless philosophising. But along the way the reader is treated to truly soaring dialogue – a long marijuana-fueled rhapsody between Jacob and his Israeli cousin, a startling Bar-Mitzvah speech, banters of love and frustration within a fractured family.
The opening lines of this book sets the stage – ‘When the destruction of Israel commenced, Isaac Bloch was weighing whether to kill himself or move to Jewish Home’. This is not metaphorical – the Middle East is struck by a massive and utterly destructive earthquake, as is the Bloch family in the US, in many smaller but no less upending ways. The book belongs to Jacob, and Foer spends 600 pages wondering through his complex and confusing head – we love him, we hate him, we care about him, we marvel at his intellect and wisdom, we wish he would just STOP over-thinking and find out who he is. We wish him peace, which he rebuffs at every opportunity.
Sadly, the last 100 pages of this bristling novel falters badly – it seems to lose its direction, its voice and its heart as it bounces dizzily forwards and backwards in time. This is perhaps the greatest curse of famous writers, who might not accept instruction from well-meaning editors (it reminded me of the rambling and unnecessary last 100 pages of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch).
Nevertheless. This book is a large mountain to climb. You will get tired and hungry and grumpy. But along the way, the views. Oh my, the views.