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After 11 years, a monumental novel by Jonathan Safran Foer

Here I Am

By Jonathan Safran Foer

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

592 pages, $28

 

By Stephanie Shapiro

Foer fans have waited 11 years for “Here I Am,” and every minute invested in this monumental achievement is his gift to them and to those just discovering this relatively young (39) talent. “Here I Am” rewards Foer’s readers with a reading experience as rich as any novel published this year may offer.

It is easy to picture the author taking every possible opportunity to update references to brand names and news events, until an imaginary editor snatches it from his clenched fingers or disables his computer or stops production in some other irreversible way.

“Monumental” is how the publisher describes this novel, and the work measures up. Daunting as the tome is – so many pages – the first page and a half grabs the reader’s attention and does not let go until the story finally stops. It does not actually end, because life goes on. It stops, reasonably enough, and perhaps Foer has another book up his sleeve. One can only hope.

The opening sentence hits hard: “When the destruction of Israel commenced, Isaac Bloch was weighing whether to kill himself or move to the Jewish Home.” And Foer is off on a specialty he has polished to high luster – a few paragraphs summing up a character’s entire lifetime and personality, followed by narrative branching out every which way.

These micro-stories add up to an astonishing achievement, and why not? Foer learned his craft from the best, Joyce Carol Oates, his instructor at Princeton and mentor afterward. Beyond polishing the prose, he takes real risks with plot and character, but always staying close to Aristotle’s unities of time and place. If he hits a plot barrier, he leads the reader’s attention on to another idea, emotion, crisis or disaster, eventually tying up the loose end. In a bow.

“Here I Am” is what Abraham said to the Lord twice, when as a test of his faith he was commanded to offer his son Isaac as a human sacrifice. The first time, God calls to Abraham; the second time, an angel summons him and then the Lord instructs him on what to do. TV writer Jacob Bloch, the youngish protagonist, ponders the phrase, and that section of the book can keep a Bible study group happily interpreting for a long time.

The Irving Bloch of the opening sentence is Jacob’s grandfather, the father of Irv, a political blogger and big mouth who does not possess an indoor voice. The fourth generation of this line includes Jacob’s three sons, Sam, Max and Benjy. The eldest, Sam, is 13 years old and has no problem with his bar mitzvah being canceled, although his mother, Julia, has a monumental moment of frustration at, among other irritants, what to do with all those embroidered monogrammed yarmulkes.

Foer keeps the cause of the destruction of Israel, also in the opening sentence, under wraps until about the middle of the book. Here again we appreciate the brilliance of the plot having a 7.8 earthquake followed by a 7.3 aftershock destroy the Holy Land, even crumbling the Western Wall in Jerusalem. So much for muddying events with nuclear attacks or the dozen other possible ways of wiping out the country.

The Jews are blamed, of course, and a hilarious section of self-serving bureaucratic memos, just close enough to reality to bite, offers the politicians on the receiving end any number of ways to exploit the catastrophe.

Jacob volunteers to fight for Israel and at the last minute, turns back, as usual trying to do the right thing but not quite getting there. A running thread in the plot is his failure to deal with the terminal and repulsive illness of the family dog. Jacob takes the dog to the vet to be euthanized, but turns back, again and again.

Then there is the matter of gratuitous obscenity, just a little. At first, when the phrases appear, in italics, they are puzzling, especially being out of character in the general context of the story. The matter is resolved as events proceed and Jacob fails at being bad, as well as at doing the right thing.

Several more characters embody the various generations, including the cousins from Israel, who visit Washington for Isaac’s funeral while secretly intending to move there, but eventually abandoning the idea.

If there are any truly evil characters, they must be in disguise. One mantra from the 1960s and ’70s was, “At any given time, any given person is doing the best they can,” and Foer, fully acquainted with human frailty, acknowledges plenty of slips on the pathway of life. But he never gives up on any of the characters, no matter how lacking in excellence they turn out to be. They are generally human and humane, and believably flawed.

“Here I Am” brings a fresh perspective to its Jewish characters. Set in Washington, D.C., where Foer has lived, it skips the usual cliché New York City-Catskills-style comedy. Irv, the blogger, slips in just enough annoying remarks for readers to appreciate how scarce they are and welcome their general absence. The destruction of Israel causes any number of inconveniences. Isaac’s wish to be buried in Israel has to wait, with all flights except military and humanitarian ones canceled. His loss also blights Sam’s bar mitzvah, with Julia not wanting to appear happy in view of the death in the family, not to mention the earthquake of biblical proportions.

Jacob and Julia’s marriage eventually cracks under the strain of conflicting needs, but along the way, tender moments contrast with the dull thud of unfulfilled hopes and hopelessly funny episodes, like their attempts at romantic conversation after smoking a fair amount of weed. How Foer manages to put into writing that vapid chat is among the large and small achievements in “Here I Am.” 

As for brand names, too boring to list here, the usual suspects are joined by $80-a-gallon wall paint popular among Washington yuppies and by the magical elixirs Julia and Jacob rely on to hold off wrinkle attacks and dry skin.

Sympathetic characters walk in and out of the narrative, as they do in life: the veterinarians, one of whom finally connects with Jacob and conducts the suffering dog out of his misery. We watch Foer distill lifetimes of experiences into short riffs as well as expand ephemeral moments into full-scale chapters, almost without noticing his literary sleight of hand.

This combination of inborn talent and well-practiced skills moves our attention along quickly, despite the length of the book, then seems to slow down in the last chapter, almost as if Foer were delaying the end. Never fear, these hundreds of pages hold enough ideas to keep readers occupied until the next masterpiece appears, even if it takes another 11 years.

Stephanie Shapiro is a former News reporter and editor.

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