By Katy Goodwin-Bates
Here I Am marks a leap forward in Jonathan Safran Foer’s work: a leap from “writer of extremely good novels” to “possible candidate for title of Great American Novelist.” With his previous two novels, Safran Foer perfected the art of balancing character-driven, personal narratives with broader themes and big events. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, for example, told the story of a young boy on a treasure hunt around New York, seeking an antidote to the grief of losing his father in the attack on the World Trade Center. Here I Am takes this principle and expands it, creating something simultaneously intimate and sweeping.
All happy mornings resemble one another, as do all unhappy mornings, and that’s at the bottom of what makes them so deeply unhappy; the feeling that this unhappiness has happened before, that efforts to avoid it will at best reinforce it, and probably even exacerbate it, that the universe is, for whatever inconceivable, unnecessary, and unjust reason, conspiring against the innocent sequence of clothes, breakfast, teeth and egregious cowlicks, backpacks, shoes, jackets, goodbyes.
Safran Foer’s third novel follows the Blochs, a Jewish family with a vast set of entirely believable problems: the oldest son, Sam, is preparing for a bar mitzvah he doesn’t even want; the parents, Jacob and Julia, struggle with workplace frustrations and their increasing distance from each other; the youngest sons are deeply concerned with a string of existential dilemmas, from whether to have the dog put down to what time actually sounds like. The first half of Here I Am is firmly focused on the Blochs as they move nearer to their breaking point, and then Safran Foer introduces the global into the thus-far personal narrative, with a catastrophic earthquake in Israel causing far-reaching repercussions. From this point, international politics intertwines with the family drama to emphasize the novel’s key themes of identity, intimacy, religion, relationships, and duty.
At 592 pages, Here I Am would simply not work if the story and characters were not engaging, which emphasizes the achievement of the novel; long stretches of dialogue between members of the Bloch family are, by turns, touching and hilarious, with each character’s unique appeal evident in both their conversational contributions and inner voice. I wasn’t very far along in the page count before it occurred to me that I knew more about the Blochs than I do about my own family; Safran Foer employs a forensic level of detail in revealing Jacob, Julia, and their offspring to the reader, right down to the “hydrocortisone acetate suppositories” secretly prescribed to Jacob. This was the first of several instances in which I had to engage the services of Google before continuing to read. A crowning achievement of the character-based plot is that not one of these individuals stands out as annoying; from the blustering Israeli cousins to the precocious younger sons, every person on display here is nuanced and richly realized. I found myself wanting to be adopted by the Bloch family, in all their dysfunctional glory.
Before I had important things to do with my time, like reading every book in the world and looking up synonyms of “nuanced,” I used to quite enjoy binge-watching a season of 24 or The West Wing over the course of a weekend. The level of immersion this involved had one significant disadvantage, which was that I would later watch the news and be baffled at the BBC’s lack of coverage of the crises in Qumar or the Islamic Republic of Kamistan, before realizing these were neither actual nations nor real events. It was a confusing experience, which is somewhat repeated when reading Here I Am. When the narrative moves abruptly from the cataloging of details of family life to tectonic movements in Israel, such a high level of realism has already been achieved that it becomes difficult to separate fictional events from reality, and one can start to feel very concerned that none of the news channels appear to be paying attention. At this point, the novel becomes a kind of alternate-present, with Safran Foer exploring the possible consequences of such an occurrence. Here’s a clue: they aren’t good. The interweaving of the Blochs’ domestic strife and Israel’s fight to survive is hugely effective in emphasizing Safran Foer’s points about identity, and, specifically, Jewish identity.
“Jacob. The world hates Jews. I know you think the prevalence of Jews in culture is some kind of counterargument, but that’s like saying the world loves pandas because crowds come to see them in zoos. The world hates pandas. Wants them dead. And the world hates Jews. Always has. Always will. Yeah, there are more polite words to use, and political contexts to cite, but the hatred is always hatred and always because we’re Jewish.”
“I like pandas,” Max chimed in.
“You don’t,” Irv corrected.
“I would be psyched to have one as a pet.”
“It would eat your face, Maxy.”
“Or at least occupy our house and subject us to its sense of entitlement,” Jacob added.
I’m not Jewish, or unhappy in my marriage, or the owner of a dog with bowel control issues, but I still found plenty to relate to in Here I Am. It has also, incidentally, ensured that I will never get a dog. Safran Foer demonstrates a tangible ability to perfectly phrase the minutiae of everyday life, from the reality of parenthood (“It’s cleaning up”) to the universal weird sleeping position of small children: “his tush way up in the air, his legs rigid, the weight of his body driving his cheek into the pillow.” There’s something about the observance of these tiny details, set against the backdrop of both significant marital discord and huge political conflict, which made me smile indulgently while reading, as well as admire the author’s ability to juxtapose the minuscule with the major. It is this, as much as any of Here I Am‘s many virtues, which makes me maintain such warm feelings towards the book.
Here I Am has now become the benchmark by which I will measure the literary accomplishment of everything I read this year. I have lofty ambitions to read my way through the Man Booker longlist and I’m confident this process will now consist of me tutting and muttering, “Well, this isn’t as good as Here I Am.” I already want to read it again, in order to fully absorb its wit, warmth, and wrath. The more I think about it, the more I think it’s a quite monumental novel, and it’s definitely one you should be picking up.
Here I Am will be available soon at GPL.