With Jonathan Safran Foer’s gritty new novel, Here I Am, it’s hard not to read it in the context of his recent public divorce. The 571-page work deals with a nearly middle-aged Jewish couple who are drifting apart and going through the motions of separation. The book does its best to account for small moments that keep a marriage together or destroy it, articulating both how invisible they are and how short the distance is between one extreme and the other. Foer should be applauded for his diligent scrutiny of love and modern Jewish masculinity, which moves beyond the bloated narratives that make up much literary fiction to become a soulful meditation on identity and obsession.
Jacob Bloch is a typical, middle-aged white male ensconced in his privilege. Working as a television writer after failing to succeed as a novelist, he casually sexts with his coworker, which serves as the engine for his divorce. Throughout most of the book, Jacob clings to the things he has in life, grasping at straws as he’s forced to let go, even if that force is directly caused by his behavior. With Jacob, Foer doesn’t so much craft a character as he utilizes an ersatz stand-in for a real person, perhaps even himself. While there is growth in Jacob as the novel progresses, the shift in his identity is best seen in relation to his family memebers, who both push him away and crave his presence at different points. Jacob frets and refuses to accept the new chapter he’s beginning, and it isn’t until his wife and children outgrow his abilities that he begins to realize their abandonment is a gift.
Foer is smartly and surprisingly even-handed in his treatment of Julia, who is given less attention than Jacob, but is always portrayed as being above the juvenile microaggressions her spouse lapses into. While it would have been easy to carve out a version that’s too idealistic, aggressive, or desexualized, Julia is rendered as the imperfect match for Jacob and is given an emotional maturity and resilience beyond that of her husband’s constant pedanticism. Interestingly, Julia seems to be informed less by Foer’s own conjuring, and more by Jacob’s perception of her. Her Athena-like wisdom and gentle handling of life may not be entirely truthful, but it’s through Jacob’s perception that we come to understand who Julia is. Through small moments—a flirtatious chat with a client, an aggressive masturbation scene involving a doorknob—we also see who she wishes to be. As Julia notes early on, “People are always mistaking something that looks good for something that feels good.” Without any waffling, she stops making that error in her own marriage, and the self-doubt and pain that results from her decision never become tedious or dramatic.
While Jacob and Julia are taking the necessary steps in sorting out who they are and who they’ve become, Sam, their oldest son, is struggling to understand himself in the context of his Jewishness, while also doing his best to interfere with his upcoming bar mitzvah. Sam curiously spends hours building a temple in Second Life, where he utilizes a female avatar. Here, identity is played with further, as Sam uses the avatar as a way to identify not as female, but as other or separate, both from his Jewishness and the general Bloch family value system—a result of him sensing Jacob and Juila’s oncoming divorce before anything is announced. The desire for a separate existence becomes obvious in a fantasy sequence in which Sam delivers an honest speech at his bar mitzvah, saying, “Given my total lack of interest in the Torah, it would have been better to give this to a kid who actually gives a Jewish shit, should such a kid exist, and to give me one of the throwaway portions about rules governing menstruating lepers.” Here, Foer stays true to the character of a thirteen-year-old boy who desperately wants to carve out his own path to masculinity and adulthood, while also commenting on the Jewish-American experience.
There’s been much debate over Foer being heir apparent to the important Jewish-American writer crown. While this is an ambitious work, especially, if not solely, because it responds directly to Foer’s life changes, the jury is still out on his importance. While we see Sam distancing himself from traditional Jewish culture and to some extent identity, the opposite is true with Tamir, Jacob’s Israeli cousin, who is nothing if not vehement about the value of culture and embracing, not burying, one’s Jewish heritage. Bonded as quasi-brothers in childhood, Tamir and Jacob are fun-house-mirror reflections of one another. Both envy aspects of the other—for Jacob it’s Tamir’s raw masculinity and ability to live in the present, and for Tamir it’s Jacob’s comfortable life and lack of real problems—but consistently argue about the validity of Israel’s legacy. Jacob, cis and afforded the luxury of being able to worry about things like organic mattresses, complains and shrugs at the possibility of Israel’s destruction whenever he’s reminded of his Jewishness. In this way, Tamir’s presence becomes necessary to Foer’s commentary, as he constantly reminds Jacob of what he is taking for granted.
Eventually, Foer’s meditation on Jewishness moves from a consideration of the meaning or value of cultural tradition for American Jews, to an examination of the responsibility that comes with manhood. Prodded by his cousin and unwilling to accept that his marriage is coming to an end, Jacob decides to fly to Israel and fight in the war. Although he ultimately can’t handle staying to fight, Jacob felt the need to rip himself away from his podcasts and guilt in order to support Israel and prove, both to himself and to Julia, that he is masculine. Here, Foer proffers an interesting question: is manhood a rite of passage, or something one stumbles into while trying to escape responsibility? While it would have been a worthy thoughtline to pursue further, we’re at least treated to one of the few sections containing character growth, as Jacob returns from Israel, bonds with his father, and embraces Jewish traditions around death and remembrance. These relationships and acts, with males and for males to carry out, soothe Jacob’s transition from being married to being single. In many ways, the traditions Jacob shrugged off saved him, and his transition into a different version of himself feels authentic and appropriate, so much so that it’s once again hard not to see the parallels between Jacob and Foer.
Traditions, both cultural and familial, mark the changes in the Blochs’ lives. Early on, we are introduced to a post-Shabbat family ritual, where each of the Blochs close their eyes and walk around the house. “It was fine to speak, to be silly, to laugh, but their blindness always became silent. Over time, they developed a tolerance for the dark quiet and could last for ten minutes, then twenty.” As the novel progresses and each character matures in their own small ways, the ritual comes to mean less, or at least something different. When performing the tradition post-divorce at Jacob’s new house, silence that follows laughter comes to symbolize growth, as each family member feels the walls and moves about with the understanding that it’s time for new traditions to form, if at all. Here, Foer closes out that chapter of their lives for good, as Jacob and Julia open their eyes to meet each other’s one last time. It is at this moment that the two begin to discover who they are without each other, and what their family identity has shifted into. While it’s unlikely something so perfectly charming happened in Foer’s own life, the tradition serves as a strong metaphor for the transition in his writing. Foer came into fame and accolades early on, and it’s only been in feeling lost or out of place that he was able to set upon a new path devoid of fretting and empty self-applause.
With Here I Am, Foer manages to chronicle the middle years of middle age, a time when lives come together or break apart, love flourishes or withers, and identity begins to be both more and less clear-cut. While his ambition might have been greater than the result, at least in terms of adequately assessing the state of Jewish identity in America, Foer should be commended for taking such a risk. By embracing both the controversy surrounding his divorce, and those criticisms declaring him to be pompous and over-hyped, he manages to chronicle his life at present—messy and existential as it may be. Big, “important” novels are hard to pull off, but with this novel, it’s easy to understand where Foer’s acolytes are coming from when they adorn him with the title of “most important Jewish-American writer” and tell those of us on the fence to look a little closer.
Here I Am
by Jonathan Safran Foer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, September 2016
$28.00 hardcover; ISBN: 9780374280024