hen the destruction of Israel commenced,” Jonathan Safran Foer’s new novel begins, “Isaac Bloch was weighing whether to kill himself or move to the Jewish Home.”
Which is the bait here, and which the switch—the Jewish state or the state of an American Jew? Here I Am has the grand scale and bifurcated structure of a state-of-the-Jews novel. Jews are set against Israelis, familial tragedy against national catastrophe, death and divorce against plagues and war. But its real subject is the midlife crisis of a failed novelist.
Jacob Bloch is 42, living in Georgetown and unhappily married to Julia. Jacob’s precocious start as a novelist has fizzled into writing scripts for a TV show. Julia trained as an architect but has never built a house. They shop at Whole Foods, sleep on organic mattresses, and have three sons and an incontinent dog. The eldest son, Sam, is preparing for his bar mitzvah.
Jacob’s father Irving is a neocon and a blowhard who hangs out “in the dining room at the American Enterprise Institute.” Jacob’s grandfather, the suicidal Isaac, survived the Holocaust in childhood and rebuilt his life in America. He wears a colostomy bag and belts his trousers “just below his nipples.” Jacob has trouble measuring up to their Jewish manhood, or indeed any other.
He is a terrible father. “Don’t you know that I won a National Jewish Book Award at 24?” he asks his 10-year-old son. He is a digital adulterer who sends sordidly crude texts to a colleague, but who cannot consummate physically. He is impotent with Julia, too, but this, like everything else in his life, is Julia’s fault. She has become fat and excels at “subtle belittling”— for example, when she cares more about the children than about Jacob’s writing.
The Bloch family escapes into fantasy. Isaac idolizes America. Irving idolizes Israel. Sam hides online in a game called Other Life, adopting a female avatar and playing at blowing up synagogues. Jacob maintains a rigorous and elaborate regime of masturbation. He fantasizes about Terri Schiavo and Nicole Brown Simpson—a woman who wanted to die, and a woman who got murdered.
Not unreasonably, Julia fantasizes about escape. When she discovers Jacob’s text messages, she demands a divorce.
“You are my enemy!” Jacob shouts. Throwing his cellphone through the window, he emits a scream that has accumulated over “sixteen years of marriage, and four decades of life, and five millennia of history.”
Foer’s problem resembles that of Jacob’s dog. Here I Am is nearly 600 pages long. To get to the phone-flinging and the “destruction of Israel,” the reader must wade through 300 pages of Jacob’s self-pity and self-abuse. The sexual scatology is relentless. The reek of self-loathing is deodorized with false poetry and the philosophy of the fortune cookie. Consider these three gems:
Julia needed an existential assessment of goodness. She needed to be renamed, to hear: “You are Good.”
Good people don’t make fewer mistakes, they’re just better at apologizing.
The great bulk of family life involves no exchange of love, and no meaning, only fulfillment. Not the fulfillment of feeling fulfilled, of fulfilling that which now falls to you .
The characters in Here I Am suffer from the habitual affliction of novels of ideas. Their inner monologues are undifferentiated, their rhythms patterned after their narrator’s. Their speeches arrive in paragraphs, as polished as Irving’s op-eds. Their thoughts are never permitted to be as clever as the intelligence that organizes them. Foer, who won a National Jewish Book Award at 24 for Everything Is Illuminated, remains energetic at the end of his fourth decade. But Here I Am dissipates its drive with puns, poop jokes, and pools of rebarbative wordplay: “She was unhappy, although unconvinced that her unhappiness wouldn’t be someone else’s happiness.”
Finally, Isaac hangs himself. Tamir, Jacob’s richer, hairier cousin from Haifa, comes for Sam’s bar mitzvah. And a pair of massive earthquakes devastate Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. Thousands are killed. Supplies of food, water, and electricity are cut. The Arab states collapse and cholera breaks out. Millions of desperate Arabs march on Israel’s borders. Israel raises its flag on the Haram al-Sharif, and Muslim states from Morocco to Pakistan declare war. Sam’s bar mitzvah is delayed.
The Israeli Air Force cannot operate its bases without electricity. The Europeans wash their hands. The Americans issue words, not weapons. The Saudis take Eilat, and the Syrians invade the Galilee. In a televised broadcast, Israel’s prime minister appeals for a million Jewish men of military age to be airlifted from the Diaspora. After his speech, the prime minister blows a shofar.
Here I Am is only a novel. It does not matter that Foer shows no real understanding of geopolitics and Israel, or has not considered whether the IAF’s bases have generators, or whether the Saudi military could invade a hotel buffet without American cover. It matters only that the tale is told well—not to be real, just realistic. So why would an Israeli prime minister contemplate doing something that even Foer admits is “so outrageously symbolic, so potentially kitschy, so many miles over the top, that it risked breaking the legs of the intended recipients just as they approached the necessary leap of faith”? Foer plays the moment for deep kitsch.
The prime minister inhaled, and gathered into the ram’s horn the molecules of every Jew who had ever lived; the breath of warrior kings and fishmongers; tailors, matchmakers, and executive producers; kosher butchers, radical publishers, kibbutzniks, management consultants, orthopedic surgeons, tanners, and judges; the grateful laugh of someone with more than forty grandchildren gathered in his hospital room; the false moan of a prostitute who hides children under the bed on which she kisses Nazis on the mouth; the sigh of an ancient philosopher at a moment of understanding; the cry of a new orphan alone in a forest; the final air bubble to rise from the Seine and burst as Paul Celan sank . . .
Foer has previous convictions for twee catastrophism and false moaning. In Everything Is Illuminated (2002), the Holocaust gave historic gravity to road-trip stand-up. In Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), 9/11 was deployed as an echo chamber for postmodern trickery. In Here I Am, war, natural disaster, the deaths of hundreds of thousands, and the possible genocide of the Israeli people are manipulated to make Jacob Bloch lovable.
Jacob hears the shofar and goes to the airport with Tamir. But he is too much of a “coward” to get on the plane. Next, the much-promised “destruction of Israel” turns out to be, in Jacob’s words, “classic Israeli hyperbole.” The IDF pulls back to “defensible borders,” and waits out its sickened, starving enemies. Foer, having failed to connect Jacob’s narrative to his people’s narrative, reveals Jacob’s “American Jewish bloodlust” and Israel’s “destruction” to be false bait. Israel survives this authorial bad faith, but the plot and the reader’s interest collapse.
The switch is that while the domestic crisis divorces Jacob from Julia, the political crisis divorces “Jews” from “Israelis.” Only 35,000 American Jews get on the planes. The rest watch CNN and are consequently unable “to forgive Israel’s actions”—the blocking of aid and food to enemy territory, and “a massacre or two.”
Jacob is among them: “Nobody wants to be a Jewish man, or a dying man.”
Liberated from the responsibilities of family and tribe, Jacob euthanizes his dog. Is this Foer’s unleashing from the inheritances of a modern Jewish novelist, a slaying of the daemonic dogs in S.Y. Agnon’s Only Yesterday and David Grossman’s Someone to Run With? Or is it the dull end of a shaggy dog story that euthanizes itself?
Dogs resemble their owners. As Jacob says when he excuses his faithlessness, “It never became anything other than words.”