With Here I Am, Jonathan Safran Foer Has Written a Philip Roth Novel in the Style of a Hallmark Card

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A divorce, a suicide, a bar mitzvah, an earthquake, an all-out Middle Eastern war, and the putting to sleep of a family dog: These are the fictional events that bind Jonathan Safran Foer’s third novel Here I Am. A work of domestic psychological realism, with an imagined geopolitical catastrophe grafted on, Foer’s first book of fiction in 11 years is a stark departure from Everything Is Illuminated (2002) and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005). His earlier books had in common quick pacing, various but always antic modes of narration, magical-realist flourishes, and melodramatic plots, designed to stimulate maximum sympathy for the victims and survivors of real-life atrocities.

If the victims and survivors of the Holocaust, 9/11, and the bombings of Dresden made for obvious objects of sympathy, Foer was still writing entertainments, not history. Critical reactions tended to vary according to whether reviewers were sufficiently amused by, say, the malapropism-driven narration of Everything Is Illuminated, to grant Foer license to render history as a gory cartoon. But reviews aside, Foer gained a wide audience. Both of his novels were made into award-winning films, and no doubt readers and viewers alike laughed and cried. That was the more-or-less explicitly stated goal of an author given to compiling humorous catalogues of the world’s sadnesses, as well as to having a character imagine a subterranean reservoir that would brim with all of Manhattan’s nocturnal tears, filtered down through pipes under every New Yorker’s pillow.

Foer’s third book, Eating Animals (2009), is something else: a polemic against factory farming. Its arguments on the grounds of animal welfare, corruption of the food supply, labor abuses, pollution, and environmental degradation are well-documented and persuasive. The book has quest elements as well: Foer goes undercover with activists who break into massive holding pens by night, and walks among dead and deformed fowl, wading through their own shit; he sees fecal mists wafting from septic seas, common to any pork farm on the prairie; and he visits some of the few remaining humane plots, where turkeys live lives as pleasant as that of his family dog. Though Foer insists he isn’t a journalist, he performs conscientious work as an oral historian, giving voice to agents of the industry, their opponents, and holdouts from the era of family farming.

That book is marred by its framing as a conversion story: Foer stopped fearing and started loving dogs at age 26, and undertook writing Eating Animals after becoming a pet owner and a parent. You can imagine the executives of Tyson Foods chuckling at his letter to them (included in the text), which explains how fatherhood had moved him to investigate their firm’s practices — that is, in the unlikely event that anybody on Tyson’s payroll ever bothered to read it. But beyond the author’s preening, paternal self-righteousness, the book’s message is undermined by its call to readers to change the system by converting to vegetarianism. This is of a piece with Foer’s abiding concern with individual (especially his own) ethics, and there’s a futile elegance to the notion that his readers might set off a domino-effect, dinner-party revolution by going vegan. But surely only a political movement that gains sway within the national Democratic Party could effectively tame the likes of Tyson. Still, if not The Silent Spring of unsanitary, industrial chicken slaughter, Eating Animals is an honorable piece of work about what it means to be a consumer in a corporate world.

It also inaugurated a parental phase in Foer’s writing. Foer is the grandson of Holocaust survivors, and his first two novels are about sons concerned with honoring the memories of the dead, even if it means casting them as heroes in a sex farce. In Here I Am, Isaac, the last member of the Bloch family from the survivor generation, commits suicide, and the focus falls on his grandchild, Jacob, and Jacob’s wife, Julia. The transition is an awkward one. Jacob and Julia are getting divorced. It’s been a long time coming, and really, it’s nobody’s fault — least of all that of their three adorable, intelligent, funny, and sensitive sons. The novel’s central questions are: 1) Are they still good parents? 2) Are they still good people? 3) Will their kids turn out okay? 4) Will Mother and Father ever be happy again? 5) And when will they all stop crying? The answers to questions 1 to 4 are all “yes,” and if the answer to 5 is “never,” at least sometimes crying is like laughing. But can you hang a novel of nearly 600 pages on a no-fault divorce that doesn’t involve adultery, remarriage, or acrimonious rupture? Here I Am suggests not.

Jacob and Julia are an affluent couple living in Washington, D.C. Julia is an architect frustrated with her practice because she mostly does home renovations. Jacob is a writer and something of a sellout: His novel won the National Jewish Book Award in 1998, but now he writes for television. The trigger of their split is Julia’s discovery of Jacob’s secret cell phone: He’s been sexting with one of the directors of the show he writes for. Nothing ever happened between them, Jacob pleads, and as the novel unfolds, it turns out he’s not lying. (That his sexting partner isn’t a character in the novel is one of its deficiencies, as well as a sign of Jacob’s supreme self-involvement.) But as extensive exposition of their backstory shows, the split has been a long time coming.

The narration of Here I Am is omniscient, hopping promiscuously between each spouse’s mind and those of their children, as well as backward and forward in time. But as the novel proceeds, it becomes clear that Jacob is the central character, and his is the dominant point of view. The novel’s crippling flaw is that Jacob’s thoughts, as they come through in the narration, take the form of platitudinous psychobabble: “Their relationship was defined not by what they could share, but what they couldn’t. Between any two beings there is a unique, uncrossable distance, an unenterable sanctuary. Sometimes it takes the shape of aloneness. Sometimes it takes the shape of love.” Those lines occur on the last page and refer to Jacob and his dog Argus, who — after 571 pages of incontinence and dementia — is being euthanized; but they typify the book’s manner of storytelling. The result is something like a Philip Roth novel in the style of a Hallmark card.

However, the influence of Roth on this book is superficial at best. He’s mentioned once, in a conversation between Jacob and one of his sons about who has more cultural impact, Roth or Kanye West — a question for the ages. Yes, there are some pornographic sexts about butt stuff, and yes, there’s a passage about Jacob and his cousin masturbating side by side as teenagers and a passage about Jacob’s teenage son Sam’s compulsive masturbation (“not just pleasurable, but mystical”) — but there is none of Roth’s talent for ferocious discord in these pages, and none of his sense of the American berserk. Quite the opposite. Here I Am teems with abstract nouns: “happiness,” “sadness,” “kindness,” “gentleness,” “longing,” “distance.” The Blochs want life to have a “deeper meaning,” and engage in ceaseless, vacuous pondering, in their big house full of rigorously catalogued, upscale junk (“Miele vacuum, Vitamix blender, Misono knives, Farrow and Ball paint”). The two volumes of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities are on the shelf because the spines look nice. A copy of Disgrace sits on the bedside table. Who will own it when the couple splits: Jacob, because he purchased it, or Julia because she read it? It’s not the sort of question a character in a Coetzee novel would waste an instant considering.

The twin spirits that preside over Here I Am are television and Disney. There’s always been a sitcom quality to Foer’s fiction. Alex from Odessa in Everything Is Illuminated sounds a lot like Balki Bartokomous from Perfect Strangers. Tone him down a little, and Oskar Schell in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close would have enlivened the casts of Growing Pains or Family Ties. Of course, Jacob and Julia are too conscientious as parents to allow their children to watch Seinfeld reruns, but the narration describes one of them as walking into a room like Kramer; Jacob thinks Mandy Patinkin from Homeland would be perfect as the character based on his father in the “secret masterpiece” he’s been writing, a television show about his family called Ever-Dying People. (We’d like to give you the green light, but the title’s gotta go.) We live in a country dominated by television. David Foster Wallace, an avowed TV addict, understood the threat of television to the novelist, and put himself in competition with it. Here I Am is, by design, a novel written in subordination to television.

The spirit of Disney animates Here I Am’s central scene. On the eve of his bar mitzvah, Jacob and his Israeli cousin Tamir sneak into the Washington National Zoo, and, at the hypermasculine Tamir’s urging, they hop over the fence into the lion’s den. The moment prompts Foer to turn his “deeper-meaning” dial up all the way: “There, on the dirt, in the middle of the simulated savannah, in the middle of the nation’s capital, he felt something so irrepressible and true that it would either save or ruin his life.” The moment is then compared to future meaningful moments: first kiss, first blowjob, first drag of weed, the birth of his first child, and so on. “Inside the lion’s den, he felt surrounded and embraced by his own existence. He felt, perhaps for the first time, safe.”

Of course, the word “safe” here is meaningless. It’s just one of those words Foer inserts — like “sadness,” “kindness,” or “distance” — when he wants to hit an aching or heartwarming note (usually both). The boys are the opposite of safe. They are in danger, and Jacob is thrilled because danger is something Jewish American children never face, unlike survivors of the Holocaust and members of the Israel Defense Forces. The beast awakes, Tamir climbs over the fence, Jacob jumps and falls, jumps again and Tamir grabs him, and he escapes the “uncircumcised animal.” No dinner tonight for the Nazi lion. The scene is very cinematic and very corny. Years later, Jacob and Tamir are reunited, and in a case of mistaken identity Jacob believes himself to be at a urinal next to frequent Disney collaborator Steven Spielberg. But the man is uncircumcised. Can it be? These scenes are typical of the novel’s engagement with Jewish American identity. The story of the divorce is slightly more diverting.

The trouble with Jacob and Julia’s marriage is pretty simple: They aren’t fucking anymore, and are both frustrated and repressed. Jacob himself is depressed. He checks real-estate listings compulsively, is nostalgic for his own childhood (“When I was a kid, I created my own postal system”), and is ashamed of his hemorrhoids and his addiction to podcasts — many of which are summarized to great tedium and dubious thematic utility, usually in digressions at moments of dramatic tension (consistent with Jacob’s character, because he always seeks distraction from problems). They contribute to the novel’s bloat. (“Radiolab” and others are thanked on the copyright page, for “inspiration.”) Julia doodles designs for houses where she could live alone, and fantasizes about having a personal chef. She’s been flirting with a man who has “the physical confidence of someone who doesn’t know within one hundred thousand dollars the contents of his bank account at any given moment.”

Jacob and Julia are lingering in the shadow of the better, earlier days of their relationship, when they started “a religion of two,” with its own set of original rituals: “Every morning, before rising from the bed, Jacob kissed Julia between the legs — not sexually (the ritual demanded that the kiss never lead to anything), but religiously.” But creating and sustaining your own religion is a lot of work, especially when you’re raising kids: “After a difficult conversation, there would be no kiss between the legs.”

The couple has put a lot of pressure on themselves by deciding that ordinary things — like ordinary religion — aren’t good enough for them. This applies to sex as well. “I want to spread my legs, and I want you to move your head down and look at me until I come,” Julia tells Jacob on a trip to Pennsylvania, and the marriage never quite recovers from their contact-free, simultaneous orgasms. Ten years later, they return to the same inn and pass the night sexlessly. Toward the end of the novel, Jacob admits that he’s been taking Propecia: “One of the well-documented and widely experienced side effects is decreased libido. That’s a fact, not an opinion or defense.” It does sound like an explanation, and it arrives in the novel rather late. Much in the book that has the appearance of confession actually has the whiff of obfuscation — as with the absent sexting partner.

Writing about divorce poses two problems for Foer. Because, like Jacob, he conceives of himself as writing television characters, he has to keep them all as likable and special as possible. So the breakup is a matter of dwindling and distances and being overwhelmed by parenting, rather than something as nasty as an actual affair. The question quickly turns to real estate and how to be “best friends” and “the best co-parents.” And because Foer is among the generation of white, male, American novelists with a post-feminist education, he’s disinclined to allow Jacob — whom he’s deliberately fashioned as an alter ego — to appear misogynistic. He can write a scene in which Julia masturbates with a fancy doorknob (a coy allusion to the many doorknobs in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close? Let’s hope not) but he can’t let Jacob call her a “bitch” — a word used relentlessly (and ironically) by Alex in Everything Is Illuminated to refer to his female dog Sammy Davis Junior Junior, and one which a protagonist of a Roth or Bellow novel would use without a second thought. Instead, when Jacob loses his temper after Julia has confronted him about his sexts, he screams, “You are my enemy!”

This is a typical move for Foer. Whatever isn’t cheesy pop psychology (“Too much love for happiness, but how much happiness was enough?”), bromides about being a dad (“Parenthood contains such moments of warmth and intimacy, but isn’t them. It’s cleaning up”), quasi-religious (“My synagogue is made of words”), or as heard on “Radiolab” (“Using the most conservative estimates, there are approximately one hundred billion billion Earth-like planets — one hundred for each grain of sand on Earth”) is cast in terms of geopolitical conflict.

That’s why the first words in the book are: “Before the destruction of Israel commenced.” And that’s why, 250 pages in, an earthquake occurs on a fault below the Dead Sea (in reality, there hasn’t been a major earthquake in the Great Rift Valley since the Crusades), and leads to an all-out war between an (implausible) alliance of Sunni and Shia Muslim state and non-state militaries and Israel — which has been withholding humanitarian aid from Gaza, the West Bank, and its Arab neighbors, and which calls on the Jewish males of the diaspora to join the fight. Faced with imminent divorce and the duty of euthanizing his dog, Jacob decides to heed the call, and joins Tamir for a ride to an airport on Long Island — where he has an epiphany that his true home is with his family, even if it’s broken. So the advertised apocalypse serves as a further episode in Jacob’s midlife crisis.

In the end, Israel isn’t destroyed, and the divorce turns out to be cathartic. The novel rehearses standard debates about the Middle East between liberal Jacob and his neoconservative father. The fictional war, down to the Darth Vader-esque speech by the Iranian ayatollah, turns out to be pretty banal. What is it doing in this novel? Perhaps having staged the Holocaust and 9/11 in his previous books, Foer thinks every book requires a cataclysm. In effect, it’s not so much offensive as it is cheap.

Cheaper still is Foer’s final ploy to elicit sympathy for Jacob: a throat-cancer scare. Now long-divorced, he calls Julia on the phone to tell her about it. He breaks down, and for the second time in his life screams: “Unfair! Unfair! Unfair!” Of course, Jacob has never been a smoker, so he doesn’t deserve throat cancer (he doesn’t get it either; he survives to collect Social Security).

But here we see that the real and unself-conscious subject of Here I Am is less to do with being the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, or a parent, or part of an unraveling marriage, than it is with Jacob and Julia being successful products of the American meritocracy, who believe they deserve everything they get as long as they follow the rules. They have finally come up against something that doesn’t go their way, and their author wants us to give them our sympathy. Their children, as we learn in pages that stretch into the future, may deserve to go to Harvard (a year early!) or have an “ethical and lucrative” career as a district judge. But the Bloch family does not deserve our sympathy, because it can’t be earned with sentences like this: “Silence can be as irrepressible as laughter. And it can accumulate, like weightless snowflakes. It can collapse a ceiling.” Time to check the real-estate listings.

Here I Am: Jonathan Safran Foer Tries to Grow Up