Review: Here I Am

Richter scale agonising


By Jonathan Safran Foer
Hamish Hamilton, £20

By the time he was 30, Jonathan Safran Foer had published two acclaimed novels, Everything is Illuminated (2002) and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005). He had also married Nicole Krauss, like Foer one of the leading Jewish-American writers of their generation.

In 2014, Foer and Krauss separated and it is tempting to read his new novel as an account of their break-up.

Jacob and Julia Bloch are in their early forties. He writes for an American TV show, she's an architect. They have three sons - imagine the BBC sitcom Outnumbered with a cast of super-smart Jewish boys - and they live in the suburbs of Washington DC.

Then, one day, Julia finds a mobile phone and the texts she discovers blow their marriage apart.

Foer has a terrific ear for the way young American teenagers speak, especially to their ground-down parents, struggling valiantly to deal with everything their kids throw at them.

He writes superbly about the battlefields between parents and teenagers; how parents can embarrass their children; how children find sanctuary online; and the wars of attrition over homework, meals and clothes.

The latest battle in the Bloch household is over Sam's barmitzvah. They want it, he doesn't. Then there's the bad language. The rabbi claims Sam has written the most un-PC words he could think of. Sam denies it. Who should the parents believe?

This brings us to the second theme of the novel: its Jewishness, from the battle with the rabbi over Sam's bad language and the barmitzvah to Jacob's cranky father, Irv, and Jacob's grandfather, Isaac, a Holocaust survivor.

The key question that runs through the novel is: What makes a real Jew? Faith? Zionism? Honouring the memory of the Holocaust? Traditional values? Jacob and Julia are not just "non-Jewish" Jews; they agonise over their inauthenticity. "What illiterate Jews we are," Julia tells Jacob.

There is a great deal of agonising - What is an apology? How do you explain divorce to your children? When Sam insists he hasn't written these profane words, should they believe him or punish him?

In their different ways, Sam's barmitzvah and a terrible earthquake in Israel with an ensuing war in the Middle East bring all this into unforgiving focus. Julia and Jacob's marriage crumbles. Jacob reflects darkly on what kind of person he is. Like Bellow's Herzog, he's a suffering joker, trying to deal with big issues about life and Jewishness.

None of this, however, overcomes the problems with Here I Am. At almost 600 pages, it's far too long. Few of the characters are engaging enough. The most interesting is the patriarch Isaac, who rarely appears. Some of the characters - Julia's love interest, Mark, and Jacob's blowhard Israeli cousin, Tamir - are one-dimensional.

Israel is a central theme in the novel but, built as it is around that earthquake and war, Foer's account of Israel is hardly in the same league as Grossman or Oz.

The Holocaust makes fleeting appearances. At one point, Jacob asks after Tamir's daughter, Yael. "'She's fine. She's in Auschwitz.' Boom shakalaka! 'What?' 'School trip.'" This exchange sums up what's wrong with Here I Am and raises questions about what's happened to Foer's writing.

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