The first novel from Jonathan Safran Foer in eleven years is an unexpected reading experience. Foer seems like he has been a part of the American literary scene for much longer than anyone still yet forty can claim. In many definitions, he is still a young writer, some would even say a very young writer. He broke into the literary scene with two critical and commercial successes, Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, in his mid-twenties,. He followed it up with an illuminating nonfiction title on the meat industry in 2009, Eating Animals. While these books, and specifically the duo of novels, were admirable and signaled the arrival of a unique literary voice for a generation, they held a certain immaturity about them. It’s hard to describe something as immature without invoking a childish impression, but Foer’s first two novels were, assuredly, immature in the most captivatingly quirky and intellectually stimulating manner. Now the wunderkind has grown up in a big way.
Writers, like everyone else, of course mature. Their focus, scope and style evolves with age, practice, and in Foer’s case, throughout an interval where his personal life seemed to both blossom and wither. And thus comes the unexpected third novel, Here I Am, Foer’s “big novel” which sets out to encompass the grandiose idea of dealing with everything and anything important between its covers.
Foer has always played with style and voice in different capacities. Alexander Perchov and the fictional Jonathan Safran Foer in Everything is Illuminated were quirkily drawn and endlessly charming. Oskar Schell, the boy protagonist of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, not only captured the art of precociousness without stepping over into annoyance, but the grieving boy was extremely enlightening and incredibly sympathetic. Filled with flourishes and oddities like crossed-out words, irregular dialogue representations, and pages that sometimes cared more about the structure of its contents than the coherency of its substance, Foer made his mark for being different.
33Much of Here I Am is composed in a rigid, conventional form. The end result is a novelist that appears to be more in control of the narrative. Because of this, the scattered portions that do experiment with style come off as more sincere and deliberate, as if their inclusion amidst the traditional is absolutely necessary rather than the implantation of gimmick. Language however, language is where Foer is a cut above most others his age and beyond. An overflowing vocabulary is at work here. He walks the fine line of pretension, but then the narrative shifts into hip, intelligent slang, and we remember who this is. A writer of many allusions, Foer can evoke Philip Roth in one sentence and Kanye West in the next. While he sometimes delves into referencing serious works of art and entertainment, he is not afraid to strut his knowledge on frivolous pop culture, and the obsessions of modern American culture.
When God called upon Abraham to sacrifice the life of his son, Issac, Abraham called out: “Here I Am!” When God called Moses from a bush, Moses called back: “Here I Am.” The angel of God called out to Jacob in a dream, and then in a night vision. Both times, Jacob called back: “Here I Am.”
The central question of Here I Am is not whether or not the question is heard, but how we will arrive at the point where Jacob can say: “Here I Am!”
Foer’s third novel is both a domestic story of decline in the nation’s capital, and a tale of cultural destruction. At the opening, Jacob and Julia are at their oldest son’s school discussing whether or not Sam wrote a series of filthy and derogatory words. That question isn’t answered until much later, but the why, like much of life, is more important than the what. The Bloch family is one of the most well-drawn ensemble casts in recent memory. Jacob and Julia and their three sons, Sam, Max, and Benjy, are used in ways in which the novel would’ve suffered without even one of them. The older Blochs and extended family, Irv, Issac, and Tamir, assist in bringing the novel up from its domestic roots and into the global ether.
In some ways, Here I Am feels as if it was written by younger, funnier Jonathan Franzen. Foer has captured the nuances of family prosperity and turmoil in remarkable detail. Like a young Philip Roth, Foer tackles what it means to be a Jewish American today, and when a historic earthquake raptures Israel and changes the Middle East forever, he talks about what it means to be a Jewish American versus an Israeli Jew. He transitions from family drama to global disaster from chapter to chapter, sometimes drifting into reportage before returning back into the lurid world of the Bloch family where words roll off the tongue and dance with ease.
At roughly 600 pages, Here I Am is quite easily Foer’s longest novel. But it also contains an overwhelming amount of dialogue. Conversations subsist over five pages with little exposition or narrative—or even attribution—to interfere with its snappy cadence. Sometimes all five main Blochs are present in a conversation, but Foer trusts the reader to follow along, and does a respectable job in hinting at who said what. For anyone that struggles with writing dialogue, Here I Am is a masterclass on the craft. Throughout the first 400 or so pages, dialogue is well over half of the content. In the hands of a less skilled writer, this would hurt plot and character development, but Foer is a writer with consummate ability.
Even though Foer jumps from one Bloch mind to the next, as the story progresses, it’s clear that the central character is Jacob. A complicated character who is equal parts lovable and loathsome, Jacob wants to create something of his own. To feel as if he is a great influencer, a pioneer discovering the meaning in life worthy of exclaiming “Here I Am!” A television writer for a relatively popular show, for the last decade Jacob has secretly been working on a drama based on the people in his life. Foer implements this character note to flashback and pan the camera as the storyline reaches its deafening crescendo. There’s a danger in an ensemble cast of important characters, even in a long novel such as this. A character can be painted too broadly or without enough paint. The three sons, three wise little men, beautifully seize the state of what it means to be young, and what it means to be a part of a crumbling family. Even Argus, the family dog, serves a pivotal role in its themes, and his representation is perhaps the grandest signifier of them all.
Here I Am is brimming with big ideas, but it also submerges itself in the minutia of family interactions, and deeply personal afflictions that are often only said in the confines of one’s mind. It’s a novel about raising children, infidelity—both emotional and physical—divorce, ambitions and failures, hopes and fears. It is at once raucously comedic and breathtakingly sad. David Foster Wallace once said, “I just think that fiction that isn’t exploring what it means to be human today isn’t art.” Here I Am is a timely look inside the American family, a piece of moving heart that rewards those who reach its bitter sweet end. The veil has finally been lifted on Jonathan Safran Foer. Here he is. His greatest accomplishment, Here I Am is a moving piece of literature of the highest order.