When Jonathan Safran Foer published his first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, in 2002, he became an instant literary sensation. He was just 25 years old, and his debut — about a young Jewish man traveling through Ukraine — was the talk of the town. The New York Times said it was extraordinary. Susan Sontag said it made her laugh. It won the National Jewish Book Award.
Here I Am, out today, is Foer’s third novel, and the first he’s published in over a decade. So it comes with certain expectations. Foer is almost 40 now: Is he continuing to live up to his youthful promise? Is this book worth an 11-year wait?
The only answer Here I Am offers is a resounding "sort of." It’s a big, ambitious, messy book, one that plays obsessively with the idea of home and of belonging: Home is where we belong, but what does that mean? Is home a house? A country? A family? A religion? And how do we ritualize and formalize that belonging?
There’s pleasure in watching Foer wrestle with those questions in rich, sprawling sentences, but it’s also wearying. Foer’s characters analyze everything so much, so compulsively, throughout Here I Am’s 600 pages, that they begin to feel like nothing more than over-articulate, disembodied brains. The solipsism inherent to the book’s structure is more than a little grating, and Foer’s unabashed sentimentality doesn’t always land.
Still, Foer has retained his sure ear for language, as well as his endearingly earnest belief that it is worth thinking about big questions rather than cynically tossing them aside. And in the decade between novels, he developed a clear-eyed sense of the power dynamics of families and how easily they can sour.
The characters of Here I Am try to replace religion with family
Jacob and Julia Bloch are the comfortable middle-class parents of three boys, living in Washington, DC, and approaching their eldest son’s bar mitzvah. Jacob is the grandson of a Holocaust survivor and the son of an infamous neo-conservative Zionist blogger, but he is not personally religious.
Instead, he tries to make his family his religion. As newlyweds, Jacob and Julia created a "religion for two": ritualized kisses and sunset walks, a policy of radical and complete honesty, Shabbat readings of love letters and poetry. And as they had children, they expanded their rites to include ritualized bedtimes, whispered parental praise, an after-dinner ceremony of walking through the house with closed eyes.
None of these rituals are sustainable, and they have all lapsed by the time the book opens. Which, honestly, comes as a relief: Can you imagine trying to make it through 600 pages about people who read love letters to one another every Friday night? Who could bear it?
But in the world of Here I Am, that cloying portrait of early marriage functions as a kind of lost Eden, a pure state of innocence for which the characters long as they remain mired in their corrupt present.
Now, Julia and Jacob rarely talk to each other, let alone have sex. Their sons are alien, mysterious creatures beyond their parents’ understanding. Julia, an architect, keeps designing dream houses for herself that are just big enough for one. And Jacob is exchanging filthy texts with a co-worker on a burner phone.
As the Blochs’ marriage falls apart and they begin to discuss divorce, a massive earthquake ravages Israel, destabilizing its military. Soon, the country is involved in a war on multiple fronts. In a last-ditch attempt to reclaim its military strength, the prime minister calls on the entire Jewish diaspora to return to Israel and defend the homeland.
The Blochs have spent the first half of the novel grasping for things to which to belong as their family begins to feel less secure — things like houses and virtual realities and TV shows — so for Jacob, Israel’s plight feels like a second chance. Maybe he can belong to Israel. Maybe Judaism is his home. Maybe he can save a country, since he couldn’t save his marriage.
Spoiler alert: He does not. He makes it as far the airport, and then he turns around and goes home.
The book’s tendency toward solipsism is its fatal flaw
Equating the dissolution of a marriage to the dissolution of the Jewish state is a bold move, to say the least, and it is not entirely successful. The balance is confused: Israel functions here more as an emotionally weighted symbol than as a political entity, but Foer gives it just enough page time to distract you with political questions. Does it make any sense at all for Jordan and Saudi Arabia to "temporarily unify?" Doesn’t the Ayatollah’s speech read a little bit Disney villain-ish?
With those political questions comes the intrusive awareness that Israel is a country that carries many complex meanings for many different people, and it begins to feel dismissive to reduce it to a symbolic supporting player in the portrait of a yuppie marriage. (There’s even some paralleling between divorce and nuclear weapons.)
If it had been allowed to stay quietly in the background of the novel, without the long newsreel sections depicting its turmoil, the equation might have felt illuminating rather than trivializing. As it is, the book’s focus feels vaguely solipsistic — and that tendency toward solipsism extends to the portrait of the Blochs’ marriage.
It is impossible to ignore the biographical parallels between Foer and Jacob. Like his author, Jacob is a novelist who won the National Jewish Book Award at a young age. He’s currently a TV writer for HBO, where Foer was set to be a showrunner before he decided to turn his attention back to novels, and he’s spent the past decade working on a painfully autobiographical project.
And Foer, famously, is rumored to have ended his marriage after some emailed indiscretions with a co-worker, just as Jacob ends his own marriage after sexting with his co-worker. (Granted, in Foer’s case the co-worker was Natalie Portman.)
It is likewise impossible to ignore that it is Jacob who gets most of the novel’s empathy. His inferiority complex, his various childhood traumas, his creative ambitions, his insecurity about his hair, are all rendered in loving detail. Julia, in contrast, is treated rather more distantly, and most of what we know about her concerns what it’s like to be in bed with her.
We learn that Julia is tired of dealing with her husband’s inferiority complex, that she is tired of taking care of their children while Jacob gets to be the fun parent, that she is tired of remodeling houses when she wants to design new ones. Then there is a long scene in which we watch her fuck a doorknob.
We know almost nothing of her childhood, or whether she has any of her own insecurities, or what her other dreams or aspirations might be, but we sure do know what she looks like in her sexual fantasies. It’s a one-sided portrait of a marriage, and it feels self-centered, which can make this enormous book feel a little claustrophobic.
Adding to that sense of claustrophobia is the unrelenting Freudian analysis constantly running through these characters’ heads. Every single character in Here I Am is obsessed with anuses and everything that might conceivably enter or exit an anus, and every single character in this book is so analytical that they think hard about what this obsession says about their Freudian development, whether they should be worried that they’re stuck in the anal fixation phase. It’s a lot.
Foer still knows how to write some truly beautiful prose
All the same — despite the claustrophobia and the solipsism and the Freud — there is an undeniable joy to be had in reading Foer’s textured, playful prose. Consider this early passage:
All happy mornings resemble one another, as do all unhappy mornings, and that’s at the bottom of what makes them so deeply unhappy: the feeling that this unhappiness has happened before, that efforts to avoid it will at best reinforce it, and probably even exacerbate it, that the universe is, for whatever inconceivable, unnecessary, and unjust reason, conspiring against the innocent sequence of clothes, breakfast, teeth and egregious cowlicks, backpacks, shoes, jackets, goodbye.
The way Foer pounces on that overused Tolstoy quote about happy families and then twists it just a little, dives off into that long litany of slights from the universe, and finally slams the door shut with "goodbye": It’s fun. It’s lovely. It’s satisfying to read. It’s a beautiful sentence, and there are plenty more like it in Here I Am.
Moreover, the portrait of the slow deterioration of Jacob and Julia’s marriage, as they forget how to talk to one another or touch each other, is clear-eyed and compelling — and the fights in which they viciously and precisely rip one another apart are harrowing.
"I’ve protected you from so much," Julia tells Jacob. "Cared for your pathetic, baby-bird insecurity." And in response, he screams at her, "You are my enemy!" It’s a moment that is much more successful than the Israel parallel at evoking how a failed marriage can feel like an alliance turned into a war.
Despite its flaws, Here I Am’s lofty ambitions make it worthwhile
Here I Am is a big, messy, bombastic book. It’s seriously flawed — it doesn’t know how to handle its political angle; it’s self-centered; it’s navel-gazey. But it also reminds you why Foer made such a splash when he first arrived on the scene.
When it comes to sheer aesthetics, you can rely on Foer to string together some beautiful, playful sentences. And he has some careful, thoughtful things to say about marriage and family and home, and how they come together and fall apart.
Here I Am is not perfect, but damn it, it tries. It swings for the fences. It’s ambitious, and if nothing else, its ambition makes it exciting to read.