Here I Am - Reviewed by BERNIE BELLAN
Jonathan Safran Foer is often considered one of the best young American Jewish novelists writing today, in the same league as Michael Chabon.
It’s been years since his last work of fiction, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which was written in the aftermath of 9-11, and even longer since his first novel – which shot him initially to fame: Everything is Illuminated.
That work was largely autobiographical, as it told the story of Foer’s own expedition to Ukraine in search of his family’s roots. (Later it was turned into an often hilarious film, directed by Liev Schreiber and starring Elijah Wood).
Similar to Everything is Illuminated, Here I Am draws upon Foer’s own experiences, including the break-up of his 14-year marriage.
The book deals with a variety of dissimilar themes though, ranging from the extremely personal, such as the unraveling of a marriage, to the highly political, including the possible destruction of the State of Israel.
The title of the book, by the way, comes from the Book of Genesis, when God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. When God speaks to Abraham, Abraham responds, “Here I am”.
The book begins with the narrator, a 40something male by the name of Jacob Bloch, having to go with his wife, Julia, to his oldest son Sam’s Jewish school, because Sam has allegedly committed an outrageous act that has led to his being severely disciplined by the rabbi in charge of the school.
As the novel develops, we are introduced to other members of the Bloch family, including Sam’s two younger brothers, Max and Benjy, as well as Jacob’s father, Irv, and several other relatives.
It isn’t long before we realize that Jacob and Julia’s marriage is troubled, but that the two of them are taking great pains to shield their boys from what seems likely will be the break-up of the marriage.
Both Jacob and Julia are relatively successful in their careers – he as the writer for a TV show, she as an architect. Yet both are also somewhat frustrated with the directions in which their lives have gone. Foer is masterful at plumbing the innermost thoughts of his characters, and at describing the day to day angst that we all feel at some point in our lives, but that often leads to individuals settling for what they have rather than daring to reach higher.
Here I Am also introduces quite a bit of foreshadowing of the darkness that is going to intrude into the Blochs’ lives. While the novel doesn’t wander back and forth in time, there are occasional hints of what is to come. In some ways Foer seems determined to remove most of the suspense from the story.
You know, for instance, that Julia is going to divorce Jacob – for having committed a major transgression in their marriage for which she will not forgive him. The question is: How will they go about extricating one another from one another’s life without doing great damage to the boys? I found the route they took to be quite mature - no loud arguing and no discussion of what is about to happen in front of the boys, although the tension within the marriage is constant.
There isn’t much, in fact, that Jacob and Julia seem to have in common any longer, other than a desire to maintain appearances for the boys’ sakes. Yet, the boys are each relatively precociously aware of things in their own right.
Into the mix one day comes Jacob’s cousin from Israel, Tumir, who represents some of the best and worst qualities that are so often attributed to Israelis: arrogant and bull headed, but direct when others are evasive about matters that require honesty, not politeness.
Suddenly a major catastrophe in the Middle East sends events into turmoil. Without describing exactly what happens, Israel’s very existence is threatened by a true existential crisis, not the kind of feigned crisis that Israeli politicians often use to manipulate public opinion.
The call goes out for all able bodied Jewish men to go to Israel to help that country in its greatest hour of need since the 1948 war. Jacob answers the call, but his willingness to volunteer is met with often comic derision by the person who has to decide whether Jacob is an apt volunteer.
Still, the fact that Jacob is even willing to consider putting his life on the line for Israel speaks volumes about his commitment to a cause which Foer explains is something that does not resonate among American Jews nearly to the same extent it once did.
In reading Jacob’s innermost thoughts about what it means to be Jewish for someone still relatively young in modern-day America, Foer reflects the doubts and uncertainties that are part and parcel of Jewish identity for so many of us nowadays.
Here I Am also experiments with many different styles of writing. At times it seems as if Foer is showing off just how talented he is – the same way Michael Chabon can also be tiresome in the way he demonstrates his incredibly huge vocabulary.
As I find myself reading all the books that are to be discussed in the Rady JCC – Jewish Post & News “People of the Book” Club, I note a distinct difference in style between contemporary Jewish male and female novelists. Last year I suggested we look at Yiddish for Pirates, which was written by a Canadian Jewish poet, Gary Barwin.
During that session someone else mentioned two of Michael Chabon’s novels, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, and Telegraph Avenue as examples of novels that were somewhat similar to Yiddish for Pirates.
There is such a sharp contrast between Barwin’s, Chabon’s, and Foer’s novels and the kind of novels that so often form the basis of discussion in our book club.
I wonder whether women prefer reading female writers to male writers; most of the people who attend our book club are women. Yet, one of the purposes I had in suggesting the idea for a book club to Gayle Waxman over four years ago was to attract men to it.
But, if you’re a man reading this and are looking for a good book that has a Jewish theme to it , but written by a man, I would suggest any of the books I’ve mentioned here.
The reason that I would have liked to make any of these books subjects for discussion is that they’re not written in a linear, easy to digest style. Many of the books that we’ve been reading are works of historical fiction by women and, while all well written, don’t exactly experiment with innovative techniques of writing.
Foer does though and, while Here I Am is quite long (592 pages) and might not be to everyone’s liking, the answer to the question whether one is enriched after reading this book is: definitely, if you can put up with some of its quirkiness.
I should also add that there are several passages of extremely graphic descriptions of sex, not meant to titillate; they are important to understand what has happened within Jacob and Julia’s marriage. Even though the book is written from Jacob’s perspective for the most part, I doubt that anyone will come away feeling much sympathy for him after wading through those lurid sections of the book.
But those parts sprang from Foer’s own mind. Gee, to look at his picture, he looks like such a nice Jewish boy. If this book is as autobiographical as it seems, readers are sure going to be wondering about Jonathan Safron Foer’s fantasies.
Here I Am
By Jonathan Safran Foer
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
Published September, 2016