by Jonathan Safran Foer
571 pages, Hamish Hamilton
Review by Marc Nash
And yet you chose to give it 4 stars...
Indubitably Foer is a skilled, talented author. Lots of bon mots, observations, modern homilies and pocket-sized bites of philosophy in this tome, "…that man finds it hard to accept insults" being one little gem. But for all the weight of literariness and learnedness, somehow it seems like he wasn't even trying. Firstly, the subject matter of Here I Am is as it ever was with him, middle-class New England Jewish family life (at least this time he moved it from NYC to Washington, but that's about the limit of radical departure). In the same way that Tarantino needs to make a movie without a single gun or a knife in it, Foer needs to write fiction outside of the bubble of New England Jewishness. Of course he can write what the hell he likes, but to be considered a true literary force, that is my recipe. Roth did it, even if most of his characters were Jewish, many still had an everyman feel so that they spoke for all of America. I just don't know how much of the tight Jewish focus (cultural and religious) here will be accessible to non-Jewish readers. And yet you chose to give it 4 stars...
Okay I don't mean he put no effort into this. But he certainly doesn't seem to be moving out of his comfort zone. This reads like the output of a thousand and one Friday Night Sabbath dinner conversations, talks across wedding and bar mitzvah party tables, taken verbatim and set down here, some actually within the settings of Sabbath meals and funeral and bar mitzvah tables. Except... the style being wholly a mix of extended dialogue or inwardly directed reflections, this is a book entirely without joy, which through their humour Jews usually manage to insert into their exchanges no matter how morbid they may be overall. Take the dialogue - it is always bitter and grudging one-upmanship. The humour is lacking. The children wisecrack as if they were adults, wordplay to the fore, but again without true feeling. The kids are wise before their time intellectually, but emotionally they seem completely bereft (not unlike what I extrapolate Foer himself to have likely been as a child, intellectually precocious, but emotionally stunted – more of which later). For the self-reflection, it is handled in leaden fashion. In conversations with others, more often than not his wife as their marriage falls apart, someone says they lack one thing but have plenty of its opposite, which only goes to prove that they have the other thing in spades after all. This gets very tedious rather quickly as a device or form of logic I can tell you. The other unconvincing technique is for the character to take you out of the present by recalling something from the past, more often than not from their own childhood, and then that further devolves to another past association even further back, neither of which were experienced as such back at that time, before eventually coming back to the comparison in the present. It all seems like the most clunky way to set up a metaphor. For example, a memory about the day they got their rescue dog starts with speculation as to how dogs get their names, before eliding not so smoothly into how tropical storms get their names, the worst of which have their names retired like baseball jerseys, which returns us to the original notion that the character's grandfather who has just died is a one-off whose name will also be retired and not passed on. Now the whole point of the book is about being in the present, trying to be real and the person you are rather than the distorting roles of parent, spouse, etc., because of the compromises duly entailed in such relationships, and naturally there is a search back into childhood for clues to inner consistency and the person you truly were constituted to be, but 600 pages of this just drags. His eldest son lives online and plays "Second Life" – there he actually summed it up in one metaphor. He could have left it at that. And yet you chose to give it 4 stars.
But it's not just remembered conversations at social functions. When you read Foer's email exchanges with the actress Natalie Portman with whom he was collaborating on a film of his non-fiction work and for whom he walked out on his wife without checking that Portman was of similar mind towards him (which she wasn't), you realise that the intense exchanges in the book are exactly how Foer thinks and expresses himself in real life. The book is him talking aloud to work himself out having depth charged his own marriage. I gauge that the period of writing this book (his first long fiction in 10 years) coincided with his secret one year separation from his wife, and therefore I am forced to conclude the creation of this book seethed and roiled in those feelings. Foer seems to be asking the reader to forgive the character (who is perpetually asking for forgiveness for things he is unsure of and as to why). Or perhaps it is Foer himself who is asking us the reader for forgiveness in the guise of this book. For how emotionally sophisticated could he be not to check that the inamorata feels the same way towards him? And this guy is supposedly a great observer of the human condition on all our behalves? So it is not as I first suggested that he's not trying, for indeed he is working very, very hard to try and figure it out. But it smacks of indulgence. Of a laughable private grief we really shouldn't be asked to rubberneck in on. Do I care that he and his literary power couple wife have crashed and burned their relationship? Not really, but then I don't live in NYC and have never been invited to any of their dinner parties at which books like this are seemingly composed. Is the subject matter of what it means to be a parent and a long-time married spouse legitimate for literary treatment? Of course they are. Am I particularly interested in them myself? Not terribly much unless they're attacked in a really off-kilter or politically radical way (i.e. whither marriage, why have kids? Etc.). But again, I am beached by the narrow Jewish filter which Foer brings to these themes and feel he has filed off any such universally interesting burrs that the subject could possibly offer. And yet you chose to give it 4 stars.
There is an interesting speculative backdrop of the geopolitical situation in the Middle East which Foer takes in a fascinating direction. But sadly he doesn't really develop it, and apart from stranding an Israeli family member in America, I actually question why it is in the book at all. Yes it allows Foer to compare American Jews with Israeli Jews (or just 'Israelis' as he makes the point), but again who really cares, apart from perhaps US and Israeli Jews? I'm a British Jew and I'm not really all that bothered by these distinctions. But, and here I give him credit, his speculations on one future for the Middle East provoked my imagination. Albeit I think he made a miscalculation. He talks of an 'inverted' or 'reverse' diaspora, that when Israel is under a major threat of destruction at the hands of its hostile neighbours, American Jews are called upon to rush to the holy land and come to its defence. But that is not what I understood by the term 'reverse diaspora'. So I was stimulated enough to go away and write a 2000 word short story on what I take that term to mean and if you're really interested you can read it on my blog from next week. So a bit of a law of unintended consequences there. The only positive way I felt provoked by this book. Maybe it bumped up my rating, earning Foer an extra half a star or so. And yet you chose to give it 4 stars.
One final gripe. The book never really builds up a head of steam, largely with its reversing and forwarding back over the same incidents and time itself, like trying to tow a car stuck in mud, gunning the accelerator and just getting further mired. Additionally, it's also because of its monochromatic tone, but whatever energy it has is completely leached out by a painfully spasmodic, desultory and irrelevant last 45 pages or so that go absolutely nowhere.
And yet you chose to give it 4 stars.