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.”
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Nothing Is Illuminated
Must-Reads from Magazine
Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.
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Convenience, wrote Columbia University law professor Tim Wu, is a tyrant. It makes our lives easier and more enjoyable, but everything comes with a price tag. We may not recognize that which we are sacrificing in the pursuit of convenience, but we are sacrificing nonetheless.
The instant gratification associated with on-demand society has made America’s shared cultural moments a thing of the past. The explosion of online shopping has eliminated the time consumers wasted traveling from store to store, but physical retail is dying as a result. The modern public square and the daily human interactions that it encouraged will disappear along with it. Machine learning has the power to introduce a “more compassionate social contract” and reduce physical risk associated with workplace hazards or lifestyle choices. But risk is just another word for freedom and, in the pursuit of convenience, we risk sacrificing our independence along with our hardships.
“We’re really reinventing the traditional insurance model with our vitality program,” said Marianne Harrison, the CEO of one of North America’s largest life insurers, John Hancock, in a recent appearance on CNBC. The beaming insurance executive boasted of her firm’s effort to marry a “technology-based wellness program” with an “insurance product.” That’s a loaded way of saying that this American insurer is soon going to charge based on the real-time monitoring of your daily activities. Behavior-based insurance will track the health data of policyholders through wearable devices or smartphones and distribute rewards based on individual choices. You don’t have to wear a tracking device to participate in this program—at least, not yet. Harrison assured skeptics that they could also dole out rewards to policyholders who take simple steps like reading preapproved literature, the consumption of which they presumably track.
This innovation is optional today, but the savings it yields for both consumer and insurer guarantee that it will soon become a standard feature of the insurance landscape. Your freedom to eat poorly, use tobacco products, drink alcohol, or perform any number of physical activities that include varying levels of risk are not limited. You’ll just have to pay for them. And if Democratic policymakers succeed in nationalizing the private health insurance industry under the auspices of Medicare-for-all or single-payer or whatever other euphemisms they apply to the public confiscation of private property, these “tools” will only become more pervasive.
A similar rationale—the primacy of collective health—can be applied to any number of activities that invite unnecessary risk that technology can mitigate. Foremost among these is the terribly dangerous American habit of driving a car.
In 2017, there were over 40,000 automobile-related fatalities. This was the second consecutive year in which the roads were that deadly and, if observers who attribute this rate of fatal traffic accidents to an increase in smartphone ownership are correct, there will not be a decline anytime soon. A 2015 study purported to show that replacing manual vehicles with autonomous cars or vehicles with advanced driver-assistance systems could eliminate up to 90 percent of all fatal accidents and save as many as 300,000 American lives each decade. It is perhaps only a matter of time before the option to own a driverless vehicle becomes a mandate with a hefty financial penalty imposed on those who opt out.
“[T]he threat to individual freedom that the driverless car is set to pose is at this stage hard to comprehend,” wrote National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke. Presently, the car transports its diver to wherever they’d like to go, whether there are roads to facilitate the journey or not. In a driverless world, as Cooke noted, the driver becomes a mere occupant. They must essentially ask the car for permission to transit from point A to point B, and the whole process is monitored and logged by some unseen authorities. Furthermore, that transit could ostensibly be subject to the veto of state or federal authorities with the push of a button. That seems a steep price to pay for a little convenience and the promise of safety.
The pursuit of convenience, as Professor Wu explained, has resulted in remarkable social leveling. We enjoy more time today for “self-cultivation,” once only the province of the wealthy and aristocratic, than at any point in history. And yet, we cannot know true liberty without hardship. “The constellation of inconvenient choices may be all that stands between us and a life of total, efficient conformity,” Wu concluded.
There is more to celebrate in the technological revolutions of the last quarter-century than there is to lament. But in the pursuit of convenience, we’ve begun to make spontaneity irrational. In life, the rewards associated with experience are commensurate with that which is ventured. In a future in which the world’s sharp edges are bubble-wrapped, your life may exceed today’s average statistical length. But can you really call it living?
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Podcast: Christine Rosen on Brett Kavanaugh.
The podcast welcomes COMMENTARY contributor and author Christine Rosen on the program to discuss the allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Have his confirmation hearings have transformed into another chapter in the national cultural reckoning that is the #MeToo moment?