Why is it that some novelists attract a certain kind of fame? They are marked out from the crowd as representative of something (it hardly matters what that something is) and examined and analysed and discussed. Generally, writers make poor fodder for gossip columns, but, on occasion, that is where they find themselves, and it can be all too easy to forget why we cared about them in the first place.
Jonathan Safran Foer is one of those writers. Since his debut, Everything Is Illuminated, published 14 years ago when he was 25, his person has been as much an object of scrutiny as his books. Which is a shame, as the books are remarkable in their own right. They haven’t always succeeded completely (his second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, is sabotaged by its mannered intellectual fireworks), but then very good novelists need to fail if, finally, they are to become great novelists. In 2010, through the London-based Visual Editions, Foer (who has a fascination with the collage artist Joseph Cornell) published Tree of Codes, a wonderful book that cut out pieces of text from Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles to create both a new text and a work of art. He has ranged beyond fiction, too, producing Eating Animals – about how we decide what we eat and the moral underpinnings of those choices – and, with Nathan Englander, a New American Haggadah. Here I Am, his first novel in 11 years, may not be the work that converts the sceptics, but it is terrific.
Its opening might lead the reader to believe that Foer is setting off on the path of dystopian fiction: but that’s not the way this story goes. “When the destruction of Israel commenced, Isaac Bloch was weighing whether to kill himself or move to the Jewish Home.” Perhaps it’s not quite as eye-popping as Anthony Burgess’s opener to Earthly Powers – “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me” – but it is arresting nonetheless. And while the political landscape of the Middle East has a role to play, that is not the true focus of Here I Am. Instead, Foer shifts quickly to Isaac Bloch’s grandson Jacob, who is a writer, and his wife, Julia, an architect. It is the distillation and dissolution of their marriage, the way they think about it, the effect this has on their three sons, Sam, Max and Benjy, which are the heart of the book.
As for the destruction of Israel, Foer gets to that about halfway through this long narrative. The über-manly Tamir, a cousin of Jacob’s, lives there but comes to visit Jacob and his family in the United States. While he is staying, a huge earthquake strikes Israel; the destruction caused by the quake provokes war in the Middle East. Watching the horror on television, Tamir says to Jacob: “You need to come home.” But Jacob thinks he is home – in Washington, where he lives. To Tamir, “home” for Jews, however secular, must always be Israel. The war forces Jacob to test this proposition against his personal beliefs.
Foer juxtaposes news bulletins of startling drama – as when “Israel declares war ‘against all of those seeking to destroy the Jewish state’” – with Jacob’s navel-gazing anxiety over the role he ought to play in that war. Jacob insists to Tamir that the earthquake is a geological, not a political catastrophe. “Nothing is not political,” Tamir replies, quite correctly. Jacob’s solipsism is annoying, but surely that’s the point. His quest is to understand where he belongs – in what family, in which set of people – and whether any of those ideas has any meaning in the abstract, or whether it is only the details of each individual relationship which finally make up a life.
In his previous novels, Foer poured his energy into language, his characters serving his powers of creation rather than the other way round. This time Foer – coming up to 40, a father-of-two, now separated from his own wife – has shifted his focus to a hyperreal observation of the minutiae of family life which is truthful and often heartbreaking. The pleasure of Here I Am lies in being allowed to see what is usually invisible, the tiny moments of life that go unremarked upon because they are unremarkable. At Jacob and Julia’s wedding, Jacob’s mother had wished for the couple to know each other “in sickness and in sickness”. Life is not spectacular; there is only wonder in the ordinary. “Don’t seek or expect miracles,” she told them. “There are no miracles. Not anymore. And there are no cures for the hurt that hurts most. There is only the medicine of believing each other’s pain, and being present for it.”
Foer expresses that presence by demonstrating that the smallest moments have significance, if the person experiencing that moment is truly present. Along the way, he builds something that is both structurally bold and emotionally complex – and often extremely funny (Sam’s discovery of masturbation leaves Portnoy in the dust).
“Here I am,” says Abraham to God before God asks for the sacrifice of his son, Isaac. “I’m ready,” says Jacob at the very end of this mature novel: simple words to express a multilayered and satisfying journey.
This article appears in the 19 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood