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Does Jonathan Safran Foer Matter?

Six years ago, when I was 17 years old and a month into college at Washington University in St. Louis, I met Jonathan Safran Foer. I didn’t know he was speaking on my campus until the day of the event, and I reacted with a kind of seismic glee specific to small events of seemingly great meaning during that time of change. I corralled two friends into going with me to hear Foer speak, then rushed to the bookstore to buy a second copy of his second novel, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” (I already had a well-treasured copy, but when I’d moved to go to school, I’d left it in my childhood bedroom.)

Certain details of that evening stand out to me in a flash frozen way: the sandals I was wearing; the place where I sat in Graham Chapel while Foer spoke; the ache in my calves as, afterward, I waited for an hour and a half to have him sign my book. When I made it to the signing table where he sat, he asked where I was from. Shyly I answered “Denver,” and we traded adorations of the Rockies. He signed the book, adding a hastily scrawled mountain above his name.

There’s a swathe of my generation who read either “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” or Foer’s debut novel, “Everything Is Illuminated,” at some point in high school and grew up, from that point on, wanting to be a writer just like him. I was one of them. I devoured “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” at age 14, then read every review of the book I could find, arguing internally with the critics when they found fault. The novel straddled my adolescent interests perfectly: It delved far enough into adult themes to feel simultaneously awe-inspiring and illicit, despite its young protagonist; it was relatable enough, with that protagonist, to let my teenage self understand some of the tremendous grief surrounding 9/11; it was magical enough to convince me that a world in which dreadful things happened could itself be something other than inherently dreadful.

I treasured the mountain Foer drew me. I showed it off to my peers, playing up the importance of our conversation, half-indulging fantasies that Foer and his then-wife, Nicole Krauss, whom I also admired, would make me their literary mentee. With his wit, acclaim and seemingly universal appeal, he was everything a young wannabe writer, and specifically a young Jewish one, could aspire to be.

“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” was published in 2005. Until September 6, when Foer releases “Here I Am,” it will still count as his most recent novel. (In the intervening years, Foer has published “Eating Animals,” a nonfiction treatise on vegetarianism, and “Tree of Codes,” which, somewhere between fiction and art, is a physical and literary deconstruction of Bruno Schulz’s “The Street of Crocodiles” in book form.) It’s rare for a working novelist to go so long without publishing a novel. When Zadie Smith, Foer’s fellow instructor at New York University’s graduate creative writing program, published “NW” in 2012, after seven novelless years, NPR’s review of the book was titled “Was Zadie Smith’s Novel ‘NW’ Worth the Wait?”

Foer will certainly be facing the same question from critics, and the book he’s written won’t provide an answer.

“Here I Am” is an assault of a book, both in the battles it portrays — a failing American marriage set against a series of Middle Eastern crises that rapidly devastate Israel — and in its style. Its near-600 pages don’t lead magnetically toward its end; between tracts of uninterrupted dialogue, quick, terse, easy to lose track of, and sections of dense, painstaking detail delivered rapid-fire, the book demands both a certain readerly agility and a certain readerly patience. Passages of the last kind frequently seem arbitrary, but they’re structured carefully enough to make you wonder if that impression is a ruse, if whether digging through that list of different salads at a shiva or that block of names of deceased Jews might reveal the bright, true meaning you’ve been missing.

The novel centers on Jacob and Julia Bloch, a once-passionate Washington, D.C., couple whose relationship has wilted. Jacob, a writer, is easily, although perhaps not correctly, interpreted as a stand-in for Foer, especially in moments like that in which he protests his winning of a National Jewish Book Award at the age of 24. (His author did.) Having struggled to publicly fulfill his early genius, Jacob works privately on scripts and character notes for a dense, autobiographical TV show. Julia, an architect, obsessively plans one-bedroom homes for herself. As parents they largely play into stereotypes. Julia does the lion’s share of the familial work, and is seen as reliable but a bit unfeeling; Jacob shirks chores, but his children see him as more approachable and somewhat more worthy of compassion than their mother is. If the setup sounds a little trite and a little twee, especially in the couple’s isolated, futile exertions of creativity, it kind of is.

The first third of the book is a close examination of the couple and their three sons: Sam, intense, tender, approaching his bar mitzvah; Max, analytical and inquisitive, and Benjy, dreamy. It comes across as an overwrought preparatory sketch for the rest of the novel, which takes place with an expanded cast of characters — including Jacob’s Israeli cousin Tamir and his son, Barak — in a less microscopic setting. Outside the suffocating insularity of the Blochs’ imploding union, Foer’s talents are more readily realized. Reading that early, claustrophobic section, I twice cried with anger at how much I disliked it. Once the novel came to a place where it could broaden, breathe and intensify, I occasionally found myself pausing in wonder at its loveliness.

One wonders if Foer, known for having a tendency toward the high-concept, knows what this book does. After all, the book’s narrative is shaped around a sifting-through of detritus, as Jacob and Julia search their relationship to see if there is still potential at its heart. (No word here on whether they succeed, or whether that really turns out to be the point.) It doesn’t seem quite coincidental that the act of reading “Here I Am” is a similar quest, almost as if Foer were issuing his patient fans a dare: I’m going to make this hard for you, and you’re going to want to give up, but if you really commit to wading through the muck it might be worth it. “Might” won’t be much of a promise for many of Foer’s readers. For the loyalists — those who, like me, having fallen for Foer the magical thinker are willing to indulge his complexities as we discover our own — well, it might be.

The second time I met Foer was early in August of this year, over the phone. A couple of weeks before we spoke, he’d participated in a somewhat disastrous cover story for The New York Times Magazine, in which excerpts of his long correspondence with the actress and director Natalie Portman were interspersed with an egregious number of photographs of her, and none of him, in various stages of undress. It hadn’t exactly been a public relations win for Foer, who had already fallen somewhat out of popular favor following a rumor-riddled divorce from Krauss in 2014.

It was hard not to think he was being reflexively defensive when, after I asked him an initial question about the balance of autobiography and fiction in “Here I Am” — that balance notably characterized “Everything Is Illuminated,” in which the protagonist is named Jonathan Safran Foer — he almost immediately hopped to talking about his divorce. (The similarities I’d mentioned were that he is one of three brothers born to a Jewish D.C. family, and he, like one of the Bloch boys, suffered a significant injury at 8 years old.)

“The stuff that I had written about the divorce not only has nothing to do with mine, the events of my life,” he said, “but that writing predated my own divorce.”

As we continued to speak, my impression of that response changed. Foer didn’t sound, over the phone, like the author of those highly self-conscious emails. (A sample phrase from one of them: “Freedom might not be a prerequisite for the expression of passion — it helps, sometimes, not to be able to follow your instincts — but they are strongly intertwined.”) He spoke with what felt like an almost obsessive need to get to the true answer to my questions, testing duds and tossing them aside. Was the book autobiographical? Well, he didn’t remember having that accident at age 8, and he definitely wasn’t writing about his own divorce, so no, he concluded, he didn’t see it as autobiographical in a factual way. What he did see was a sort of indirect autobiography of experience: “Being expressive is the autobiography of perspective, rather than the journalism of life.”

Likewise, when I asked him about his own relationship to Judaism — “Here I Am” strikes me as a profoundly Jewish book, both in its tone and in its details: Jacob, at one point, cycles through a meditation on what may or may not count as an eruv — he dug right in, sifting through his instinctive answers to get to the true one.

“I’m agnostic in my answer and I’m agnostic about your question,” he said. “I’m not sure that that question can exactly mean something that I can answer, because it’s so dependent on slippery, elusive definitions.

“I’ve become probably less ritualistically Jewish in a certain way, and more devoted to the rituals that have remained. Shabbat is important to me.”

There, answer found, done. Speaking with Foer was a bit like playing chess; I could hear him thinking through the numerous possible incorrect moves before settling on the correct one. For my part, trying to eke out some perspective no other interviewer would be able to — I’d been made aware of Foer’s packed press docket, and my competition’s specters loomed large — I tried to anticipate where he was going, and to find a question that would force him to redirect, to work his way to an understanding that was not easily discovered.

I succeeded in that only once, when I asked him what the greatest challenges had been for him in writing “Here I Am.”

“That’s a weirdly great question,” he said. “Weird, because why would it be so hard to answer?” He considered what might have made it challenging to write, personally: the fact that he’s older, that this is his first novel written as a father, that it took a long time to write. No, none of those, not quite.

Here’s where he arrived — appropriately enough, for a writer whose most recent book is just as much a question, “Where Am I?” as its answer — at doubt.

“Does the subject matter enough to spend years writing about? And, frankly, matter enough to ask a reader to spend however long reading?” he asked. “I think the question of mattering is like any thinking person, it’s the scariest question. Does what I do matter?”

I hated, loved and tolerated “Here I Am.” I do think it matters.

Foer told me this book feels personal to him “in ways that other books I’ve written haven’t.” Taken in total, the novel is a more honest representation of humanness than Foer’s previous works: It’s not carefully tailored; it’s filled with terror and beauty and people acting in ways they neither like nor understand; it’s rife with intentions not fully realized and, also, a bunch of genuinely purposeless crap. It’s not a perfect book. It may not even be a good or great one. My adolescent self wouldn’t have finished it, let alone taken issue with its critics.

And yet, Foer has an instinct for finding the meaning in things, and “Here I Am” realizes that instinct in a newly complicated way. It hints at a shift in its author, a slowly accepted turn from the leaping achievements of his youth to a deeper, less forgiving, more rewarding kind of artistic toil. That shift, to me, doesn’t yet seem complete. But it does feel true. I’ve grown older, too, in the six years since I first met Foer. Even at the still-tender age of 23, I can see my understanding of what’s important and beautiful becoming less about the meaning-imbued details — my sandals, my seat in the chapel — and more about the set of struggles, daily and life-long, that rarely feel lovely, but create loveliness all the same.

Talya Zax is the Forward’s summer culture fellow. Contact her at [email protected] or on Twitter, @TalyaZax

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