"A monumental new novel from the bestselling author of Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close In the book of Genesis, when God calls out, "Abraham!" to order him to sacrifice his son Isaac, Abraham responds, "Here I am." Later, when Isaac calls out, "My father!" to ask him why there is no animal to slaughter, Abraham responds, "Here I am." How do we fulfill our conflicting duties as father, husband, and son; wife and mother; child and adult? Jew and American? How can we claim our own identities when our lives are linked so closely to others'? These are the questions at the heart of Jonathan Safran Foer's first novel in eleven years--a work of extraordinary scope and heartbreaking intimacy. Unfolding over four tumultuous weeks, in present-day Washington, D.C., Here I Am is the story of a fracturing family in a moment of crisis. As Jacob and Julia and their three sons are forced to confront the distances between the lives they think they want and the lives they are living, a catastrophic earthquake sets in motion a quickly escalating conflict in the Middle East. At stake is the very meaning of home--and the fundamental question of how much life one can bear. Showcasing the same high-energy inventiveness, hilarious irreverence, and emotional urgency that readers and critics loved in his earlier work, Here I Am is Foer's most searching, hard-hitting, and grandly entertaining novel yet. It not only confirms Foer's stature as a dazzling literary talent but reveals a mature novelist who has fully come into his own as one of the most important writers of his generation. "--
The theme of this novel seems to be an exploration of what it means to be an American Jew, particularly vis a vis an American Jew's relationship with Israel. But it is all done in a very entertaining and humorous, if bittersweet, way, and one does not have to have any Jewish connection to read and enjoy this book.
The protagonist, Jacob, is the grandson of a Holocaust survivor (Isaac). He is the writer of a successful TV comedy (think The Larry David Show), and is married to Julia, who dabbles in an architecture career. They have three precocious children, Sam, Max, and Benji. When the novel opens, Sam has been expelled from his Bar Mitzvah classes for an unnamed, but apparently horrific, infraction, and will not be readmitted until he apologizes, which he refuses to do. Concurrently, Julia has just discovered evidence that she believes shows that Jacob has been having an affair. She begins contemplating having an affair herself, and takes tentative steps in that direction. Jacob and Julia's marriage begins to crumble.
Jacob's cousin and his son have arrived from Israel to attend Sam's Bar Mitzvah and to visit the grandfather they share with Jacob. Shortly after they arrive, there is a massive earthquake in the Mideast, and much of Israel is destroyed.
Taking advantage of the vast destruction in Israel, its Arab neighbors have begun taking action to destroy Israel once and for all, and armies are massing at its borders. Israel puts out a call for Jews all over the world to come to Israel's aid, creating an existential crisis for many American Jews, including Jacob. Jacob and his family's personal crises are juxtaposed with the global crisis involving Israel to good effect.
This is not a perfect book, but it is a good book, and I did not find its focus to be too narrow or religious. The characters of Jacob, Julia and their sons are all very real, and I cared about their problems. Although it's a fairly long book, it's easy to read, well-written, and the pages practically turned themselves. (Although I do note that I found it started slowly, and took some easing into).
3 1/2 stars
The first half of the novel is mostly chronological; the second half is scattershot, leaping years and returning in a matter of sentences, and punctuated throughout by headings that interrupt us (even mid-Torah portion!). Throughout is a common set of questions: Am I doing the right thing? Why is this happening? How do I respond? Though Jacob, the main character, tortures himself for not responding the correct way and not expressing his feelings and using humor to deflect intimacy, he seems ultimately to learn that what’s actually critical is none of those things, but instead to be present, to say, in effect, Here I am. This seems to be the main, if simple, theme.
The author’s skill in portraying Jacob’s young sons, his wife, their older family members, and their Israeli cousins was a delight. Laugh-out-loud absurd dialogue -- for example, when Jacob gets high with his Israeli cousin smoking from a cored apple, the apple of truth, which his cousin announces he wants to fuck but his penis is too big -- leavens the existential crises sufficiently to make this an engaging and fast-moving read in the first half.
The fracturing of the narrative thereafter was a disappointment: too staccato and frankly quite distracting. Maybe the ambivalence (even indifference) was intended, but never did these characters seem particularly disturbed by Israel’s imminent destruction, which sapped the story’s urgency. Well worth a read, but I preferred his earlier novels.
Note: I was given a free ARC of this title by the publisher in exchange fro an honest review. A full review of the book will be published in The Englewood Review of Books.
In the most general description of plot, this is about a modern Jewish family which is going through a crisis (well, several). Mid-novel, a huge crisis happens in Israel, and the two crises, of very different scale, sort of grow and resolve together. I'm doing a horrible job of describing this book. Guess that's why I'm the reader, and not a writer. FYI, it's not going to get better from here.
I've seen a lot of reviewers mention that they don't enjoy this book (and others) because they don't like the main characters, and then list the characters' flaws. I really don't understand that way of reading. People are deeply flawed, and when reading a novel, you're going to see inside the characters. If all you want is the surface of people, or fake perfect characters, then knock yourself out--but don't kid yourself that you're reading anything great.
There's a lot of wisdom in this book. And it's probably being interpreted by a lot of people as ascerbic, ironic, pretentious fluff. And some of it is hidden behind that sort of dialogue that comes across as overly intellectual, disingenuous, and tiresome; especially when it's the sole mode of communication between every character. But still, the wisdom is there. Definitely not at all a "here you go, here's your lesson" wisdom, but more of a "here's a question, what do you think?" sort of a thing. Very appropriately Jewish.
Which leads me to my last note. This book is super Jewish. As much as I love Russian novels and culture, this and a few other recent reads have made me realize I'm really into the Jewish stuff as well. Don't know why. Probably I was a Russian Jew in my last life. Just kidding, I don't believe in that stuff. Probably. But what I'm really saying here is, prepare yourself for a Jewtastic novel. Or alternatively, you probably shouldn't read it. But read it.
**I received a free copy of this book in exchange for this unbiased review.**
" 'How would one cry in Jewish?,' the rabbi asked. ...
'I guess babies don't really speak.'
'Look. She saw that he was crying, but didn't hear.'
'She knew he was a Hebrew because only Jews cry silently.'
'Let's say we have two choices, as Jews: to cry silently, as your mother has said, or to cry in Jewish, as you said. What would it sound like to cry in Jewish?'
'Maybe like laughing?' Max suggested.
Sometimes, [when his son was hurt], if there was visible blood, Jacob would even say, 'It's funny.' And his son would believe him, because sons have no choice. But sons do feel pain. And the absence of expression of pain is not the absence of pain. It is a different pain. When Sam's hand was crushed, he said, 'It's funny. It's funny, right?' That was his inheritance.
'What was Moses crying about? [the rabbi continued] Was he crying for himself? Out of hunger or fear? Was he crying for his people? Their bondage, their suffering? Or were they tears of gratitude? Perhaps Pharaoh's daughter didn't hear him because he wasn't crying until she opened the wicker basket.' "
This subtle exegesis of Moses's tears and his rescue continues later on, with the realization that perhaps the princess was deaf and so needed to see the baby cry. In a short passage, Foer manages to say a lot about the human condition, the Jewish human condition (and its Holocaust inheritance, with the allusion to the experience of hiding beneath floorboards and learning to be invisible and mute in order to survive), family bonds, parent and child bonds, and pain that accompanies our everyday lives.
The multifaceted close-reading is another facet of Foer's penchant for enumeration and quasi-archival lists. All characters compulsively index their experiences, likes and dislikes, names, events, what-ifs, what-nots, possibilities and impossibilities. As with the Moses story, turning their catalogs of emotions and memories over and over, they discover something about themselves, and by extension also about us.
What is the point of Foer’s book? Is he comparing American Jewry to Israeli Jewry, America’s position relative to Israel, regarding the rest of the world’s opinion, the underlying reasons about why America supports or doesn’t support Israel, the perception of Israel if perceived as weak vs. strong, the world’s possible reactions to either scenario, including America and its own Jewish population’s reaction, the loyalty of American Jews vs. the loyalty of Israeli Jews toward the Jewish homeland? Do American Jews have any loyalty toward Israel other than a shared religion? Was he trying to show the immaturity of a country like America that attributes more responsibility to words used than actions taken when compared to a country fighting the heinous actions of those who are name callers and enemies in the Arab world, those who often translate their words into terrorist behavior? The book posed lots of questions but provided few answers for me.
The novel is somewhat interesting, but I believe it would have been far more interesting if it simply contrasted American Jewish reactions to Israeli reactions in the face of the possibility of catastrophic events in Israel. Contrasting Israeli Jews with American Jews by comparing their lifestyles, religious perspectives, family values, and feelings of loyalty toward Israel and each other did not have to include a highly dysfunctional family with idiosyncratic behavior I never experienced growing up, in a world inhabited by many Jews, in a world that would be called a Jewish ghetto. I found it difficult to complete the book, at times, because the language and subject matter was so crude, for no reason that I could possibly justify. It was often actually painful to listen to the narrator, and I had to turn off the audio to remove myself from the vile, lewd scenes and words. I kept wondering why it was necessary to include such filth in the book when it seemed to serve no purpose other than to shock the reader, paint the Jewish characters with a broad brush of bad behavior, and divert from the actual meaningful elements of the story. I wondered why a fellow Jew would use his voice to denigrate the people and culture he is a part of by focusing on utterly disgraceful behavior as he characterized an earthquake, which caused the Arab world and then almost the entire world to perceive them as weak, an attribute which caused the enemies of Israel to mount a war against them, with no other intent but to cause its compete destruction, to finish what the earthquake left undone. I thought that someone reading this book might get the unfair and unjust opinion that every Jewish man is a pervert, every Jewish woman is either at first preoccupied with her family and/or herself, ultimately, eventually putting herself first, and overall, Israel and the Jews were without compassion for their enemies, enemies intent on their complete destruction. Yes, their enemies were in need of the same supplies and medical care as they were after such a devastating natural event destroyed so much infrastructure in the Middle East, but to help their enemies would have meant neglecting their own citizens. Their own were fighting for their survival while their enemies ultimate goal was their destruction; for their enemies to expect their help defied common sense. They would only come back to fight them once again.
To be fair, Foer also seemed to try to depict the deep love that fellow Jews have for each other, emotionally and almost genetically, but it also showed their lack of understanding of each other’s homelands and the events that each considered a major crisis. In one country, surviving in a bomb shelter was of utmost importance and, in the other, the idea of euthanasia for a pet was a priority. Foer also made it seem like Israeli Jews resented American Jews and American Jews were simply unable to fully grasp the dangers that Israeli Jews were forced to endure on a daily basis. It made some Jews seem very shallow and without real substance. The one truth it did stress, beyond a shadow of a doubt, was that the world finds it very easy to use the Jews as scapegoats because of the enormous power that lies in the hands of the oil rich Arab countries, because of their self-righteousness perhaps, as well, because of the Israeli belief that they are better and deserve to be respected and protected. It stressed the fact that although the “powers that be” might want to destroy Israel or sacrifice Israel, to satisfy the demands of these Middle Eastern countries, for political and economic reasons, Israel seemed to be destined to remain a viable democracy in the Middle East.
From marriage to divorce, from infidelity to sexual misconduct, this book traversed a twisted route to reach a cataclysmic event, which shook the world. A terrible earthquake that caused devastation throughout the Middle East with only one country able to handle the tragic events, led to a war; a Bar Mitzvah led to epiphanies for many as a child led the way to a larger meaning and understanding of life and purpose, but the book simply seemed to often lose focus, and certainly it lost mine, often making my mind wander away from its message. An event would suddenly be brought up and then just as suddenly be submerged, only to later rise back to the surface as the author simply assumed that the reader’s memory would be able to reengage and remember which subject had been dropped.
Every aspect of life was included in this narrative, from the trivial to the most serious, from how we treat life to how we face death, from the young and the old to sickness and health, from plagiarism to sexting, from sacrifice to compassion, from American Jewish ideas about life to Israeli Jewish ideas about life, and all of these conflicting ideas created a void between all of the concepts raised, that often became unbridgeable.
The family of Jacob and Julia Brooks, extended and immediate, all seemed to be in crisis, all seemed to be living through, and with, some type of dysfunctional situation. Jacob seemed to be channeling Anthony Wiener, Julia seemed to be channeling the sexually deviant behavior of our rich and famous, and their eldest son, Sam, is supposed to be channeling Abraham’s son, Isaac, coincidentally the name of his grandfather. Between the American Jews and the Israeli Jews, there was no shortage of faults. Although the Israelis seemed to be living on a somewhat higher plane, at first, on the surface, one only had to scratch beneath to find similar problems existing in their worlds as well. There was an abundance of deviant behavior, lies, secrecy and arrogance to go around.
From Sam Brooks desire to avoid his Bar Mitzvah to his finally understanding its importance after Israel comes very close to destruction, the reader is invited to experience the doubts and insecurities of American and Israeli Jews, both of whom are living in a world of enemies. The book is about conflict, conflict in families, conflict in cultures, conflict in ideologies, conflict between feuding countries and conflict between one Jew and another.
How much responsibility do Americans and American Jews owe to Israel? What priority should Israel occupy in the scheme of things? How much sacrifice is enough? How much compassion is necessary? All of these questions arise and go unanswered. I was disappointed with the book and truly found it hard to complete. Perhaps a more scholarly person would appreciate its symbolism more than I did; I found it a bit insulting to the Jew and the Judeo-Christian culture.
For example there's an extended riff on shopping in IKEA that shows up right near the end of the novel. It's just an idea too many that could have been left out. It's funny stuff, but there's enough funny stuff here without it.
But with all the worry, it's worth remembering that Safran Foer is a genuinely funny novelist. With proper jokes.
So, overstuffed, culturally super-specific, sad, but also funny.
This novel completely got away from me and I didn't want to continue with it. I did eventually finish but it took me a few months to get through this book because I always complete the books I have committed to reviewing.
Foer is a wonderful writer, he really is, which is why this book threw me for such a loop. I was enjoying the storyline of the dissolution of Jacob and Julia's marriage, well, I guess as much as you can enjoy being a witness to something so painful. The writing was raw, tender, and so good. It started to unravel anytime any of their three children came into the scene–are there really kids that are that precocious? Foer introduces a natural disaster which is incredibly distracting. He draws the readers attention not only away from Jacob and Julia, but manages to draw the reader right out of the book. He should have simply stuck with this storyline and left it at that. Not only would he have greatly reduced the number of pages (this is a whopping book at just shy of 600 pages), but the story would've flowed so much better. I literally felt like a dog chasing its tail.
As usual, this is a VERY Jewish book. Every action is overthought, every decision is obsessed upon, the Tevye like internal monologue on the struggle between our reverence for intellectual inquiry and objective truth and our inescapable compulsion toward honoring Jewish tradition (these things are always at odds in we Reform and Secular Jews) are part of everyday life. We can't forget the marvelous dystopian crisis either. The Jews love the dystopic. Floods! Plagues! Falling Cities! That is our jam. And of course at the heart of everything is the conflict over our feelings about Israel. This is real stuff. We don't make things easy on ourselves. It is this core of the book that I loved. This challenged me to think about things I don't always want to think about in the context of a debate with an spectacularly knowledgeable sparring partner. But knowledge and wisdom are very different things, and this book was short on wisdom. I spent the first 1/3 of this 571 page book desperate for someone to find a little wisdom. I wanted to smack every one of these people who had everything and rejected the idea that things that good are worth working for. The adults were too detached and too full of opinions (no ever asks questions, they just opine or spout facts at one another.) The kids are too clever -- small people in training to opine and fact-spout at others and never ask good questions. After the first 1/3, this book broadened and I really enjoyed where it went. Its funny, I just read a review from Ayelet Waldman, a writer whose work I detest (I have tried reading 3 books because I want to believe Michael Chabon would not have married this human echo-chamber, but each is worse than the one before) and she loved the entitled, whiny marriage dissolution portion and did not like the rest of the book. It appears that JSF wrote 2 stories intending the reader to connect the catastrophic destruction of a relationship with the catastrophic destruction of Israel. Readers however, even those who come to the material with different expectations and interests, are not feeling that connection at all and are just choosing up sides.
So in the end I liked this book a lot, but I wanted it to be more connected, more enlightening and not JSF's divorce apologia. You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you can still get a very good if flawed book.