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Culture

Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Ambitious and Incredibly Long New Novel

Here I Am
By Jonathan Safran Foer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux $28, 592 pages

By Yevgeniya Traps

‘Here I Am,” the title of Jonathan Safran Foer’s new novel, is an allusion to the story of Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice his son: Called upon by God, Abraham responds “Here I am,” an apparent acquiescence to the demand that Isaac be taken to Mount Moriah to serve as a burnt offering; later, Isaac appeals to his father, who again responds, “Here I am,” just as he does at the moment of the averted sacrifice, when an angel calls to him. The story is a leitmotif throughout the novel, like a line from the chorus that gives a song its name.

But of course that title can also be read as a declaration of continued relevance from Foer, the one-time prodigy author of the rapturously praised (and best-selling) “Everything Is Illuminated” and the mostly maligned (but still best-selling) “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” (Sample headline, from the New York Press review: “Extremely Cloying & Incredibly False.”) “Here I Am” is Safran’s first novel in 11 years, as well as his first following his divorce from the writer Nicole Krauss, and his first to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. At nearly 600 pages, “Here I Am” positively bleats and blares “Here I am! Here I am!”

Here he is. Though it has been more than a decade since “Extremely Loud,” Foer largely remains the novelist he was in 2005, one whose capacity for genuine insight and whose ability to capture and inspire genuine feeling are often overcome by his excesses, the apparently insurmountable temptation to overstate his case, to magnify his concerns until they blow up to proportions that, read charitably, are absurd. (Read less charitably, they are much too sentimental and offensive.) And in the doorstop of a novel that “Here I Am” is, the insights and the feelings are overcome very, very often.

“Here I Am” is the story of the extended Bloch family: Jacob and Julia and their three sons, Sam, Max and Benjy, all eerily precocious and ever under foot, as only fictional children who have important plot themes to convey can be; Jacob’s parents, Irv and Deborah; his grandfather, the Holocaust survivor Isaac. Largely unfolding in the lead-up to Sam’s bar mitzvah, the novel is an examination of a family as it falls apart. What ails the Blochs? Well, everything, really, and also nothing, but mostly the fact that, as we hear several times, they feel entirely “too much love for happiness.” Happy families are all the same, apparently, in that they are all doomed to soon be unhappy. But more to the point, after 16 years together, Jacob, who once wrote not-very-successful novels (not described) and now writes for a very successful television show (also not described), and Julia, an architect who mostly seems to work interior decorating gigs for people with too much money and too little taste, have let the silence of midlife disappointment take over for the love that was once kept alive by leaving nothing unsaid. Every unspoken desire, every silenced need, every unexpressed fear, becomes a bit of kindling on the pyre. Or, as Foer puts it:

Their inner lives were overwhelmed by all the living — not only in terms of the time and energy required by a family of five, but of which muscles were forced to grow and which withered. Julia’s unwavering composure with the children had grown to resemble omnipatience, which capacity to express urgency to her husband had shrunk to texted Poems of the Day. Jacob’s magic trick of removing Julia’s bra without his hands was replaced by his depressingly impressive ability to assemble a Pack’n’Play as he carried it up the stairs. Julia could clip newborn fingernails with her teeth, and breast-feed while making a lasagna, and remove splinters without tweezers or pain… but she had forgotten how to touch her husband. Jacob taught the kids the difference between farther and further, but no longer knew how to talk to his wife.

Long story short: They f—k you up, your three kids. They may not mean to. But boy, they really do.

Of course there are also more explosive domestic dramas at hand. Julia discovers Jacob’s secret phone, used to exchange explicit messages with an actress from his show. Sam’s bar mitzvah is threatened with cancelation when the boy is accused of having written a list of racial epithets during class. Irv is infamous for publishing incendiary blog posts, approvingly though apparently without attribution, cribbing Golda Meir’s sentiments about the Arabs’ love for their children in relation to their hatred of the Jews. Isaac commits suicide. Oh, and nearly halfway through the novel, a 7.6-magnitude earthquake with an “epicenter deep under the Dead Sea” strikes “just outside the Israeli settlement of Kalya. Electricity was out in virtually all of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.” The devastation is terrible, the consequences tremendous: illness, war, natural ravages compounded by manmade grief.

And here we come to the key problem with the novel, perhaps the key problem with Foer as a novelist. Though he is constitutionally incapable of resisting whimsy and portentous pronouncements like “You can’t destroy what doesn’t exist,” he must also line everything with tragedy, as though it were impossible to pack a quirky touch into a book without an insulating layer of devastation and historical calamity. In “Everything Is Illuminated,” the Holocaust and the complicity of some Eastern Europeans with the destruction of local Jewry serve as a kind of meaning-making machinery for the story of self-discovery; in “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” 9/11 acts as a significance-enhancing solvent for a child’s quest for narrative.

“Here I Am” constructs its own scale, and for a moment it seems almost appropriate: The destruction of a family can, and perhaps should, feel like destruction of a much larger sort. Suddenly, the 1,000 paper cuts inflicted on the Bloch marriage cohere into a gaping wound, a deathbed. But ultimately, because there isn’t really all that much of a story in the near destruction of Israel, the scale starts to feel unnecessary, exploitative, gross. Foer may have had a good time envisioning the lengthy speeches made by the Israeli prime minister and the Iranian ayatollah, but these speeches don’t add up to much, and they certainly don’t add much to the novel.

If anything, they make a long book feel like an overstuffed and underdeveloped one; many of the threads that might have held us wind up fraying. We never hear anything else about Irv’s blog, and what little hints we get of the difficult relationship between Jacob and his father never become something more robust. Isaac’s suicide begets an overwritten funeral service, but neither its roots nor its implications get much consideration. The Bloch children are vaguely interchangeable, with the exception of Benjy, who may be intended as comic relief but mostly grates with his extraneousness. Even the hurt between Jacob and Julia is left to flounder when the novel throws itself into pantomiming the ruin of the Middle East.

Just in case you happened to witness it, I feel compelled to full disclosure here: I cried pretty much nonstop during the last 70 or so pages, reading and weeping over the book in a Brooklyn coffee shop. But I must, in my defense, submit that even if “Here I Am” is not without some force, it is also not above the kind of manipulation that sets its emotionally blackmailing denouement during a dog’s euthanasia appointment. At the risk of a spoiler, the crisis in the Middle East concludes with Israel saving itself at the cost of alienating its American allies, including the Jewish ones, by abandoning all measure of proportion. I dare say something similar happens in “Here I Am”: In the drive to include more meaning than this novel can bear, there is just too much everything for anything.

Yevgeniya Traps writes about books and art for the Forward.

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