“When the destruction of Israel commenced, Isaac Bloch was weighing whether to kill himself or move into a Jewish home.” So begins Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book Here I Am, his first novel for over 10 years, and one his US editor Eric Chinski calls “a big step forward” in his writing, noting a new “kind of toughness” to it.
An attack on Israel by its Arab neighbours, following an earthquake in the Middle East, is a central crisis of the book; it forces a choice on the main character, Jacob, a Jewish American screenwriter and father of three, based in Washington DC, whose grandfather—the Isaac of the opening line—is a Holocaust survivor.
When a call is put out for all Jewish men of combat age to defend Israel in battle, which way should Jacob jump? He’s Jewish American—but is that Jewish, or American? How can he be both?
The novel—which devotes most of its space to exploring the joys, disasters and compromises of Jacob’s family life—has a rich vein of comedy, often directed at the absurdities of Jewish American identity. Jacob’s eldest son, Sam, is involved in a scandal which threatens the preparations for his upcoming bar mitzvah: those preparations include the unlikely purchase of dozens of Israel-themed snowglobes as party favours. “There are more wars than snowfalls in Israel, but the Chinese are smart enough to know that Americans are dumb enough to buy anything. Especially Jewish Americans, who will go to any length, short of practising Judaism, to instill a sense of Jewish identity in their children,” observes Safran Foer drily. When Jacob meets his rugged Israeli cousin Tamir, possessor of a kind of overt masculinity Jacob will never emulate, he notes: “His chest was broad and firm. It would have made a good surface on which someone like Jacob could write about someone like Tamir.”
Meanwhile amid the all-consuming business of raising the children, a distance has grown in Jacob’s relationship with his wife Julia. In a devastatingly intimate portrait of a failing marriage, Safran Foer has Jacob look for refuge in a fantasy affair, conducted only through graphic text messages, with another woman— which is then uncovered.
On the telephone from his home in New York, Safran Foer says it is no coincidence that the length of time between the publication of his last novel (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, 2005) and Here I Am is precisely the same as the age of his elder son. In the decade-long gap, despite publishing non-fiction, he says “I devoted myself to life, really. My primary identity was not as a writer.”
“Life” included marriage to writer Nicole Krauss, parenthood to two boys, and then the ending of his marriage—Safran Foer and Krauss split in 2014. While he insists that, contrary to appearances, he did not draw on his marriage for the novel, he acknowledges that when he returned to writing, it was with a wealth of new experience which profoundly affected his approach, making the novel “socially realistic, much more traditional” than his previous work.
That was “not a literary decision”, he says. “I became a different writer because I became a different person. My concerns were quite different, the things I was passionate about. It amazes me in certain ways how my instincts as a writer changed: the things I am most proud of in this book are things I not only wouldn’t have written five or 10 years ago, but would possibly have even dismissed as not being particularly significant in any literary way.”
Here I Am is predominantly about “small actions” rather than “big feelings”, he says: “Obviously there are some momentous events [in the book]—an earthquake, or a war—but my feeling of the book is it is much more about things like how dishes are washed, what kind of moisturiser one applies, why a certain kind of mattress is purchased instead of another, what it’s like to take a baby’s temperature. Things that actually not only comprise the minutes and hours of our lives but are the expressions of our devotion.”
Of one scene, in which Julia and Jacob are getting ready for bed together, brushing their teeth and communicating and miscommunicating in a way that characterises their mutual discomfort, Safran Foer says: “I probably devote two pages to their hygiene ritual, and those pages are specific in a way that would be inaccessible to a lot of people. I name brands that perhaps in England you don’t have—and certainly in a place like Italy or Japan, they don’t have—and brands that didn’t exist 20 years ago and are unlikely to exist in 20 years. And I think in the past I would have thought of that as just diminishing or cheapening or topical to the point of being unliterary, but now I think there is something about the inaccessibility of the precision that makes it true.”
The novel’s title refers to the Biblical passage in which Abraham is tested by God, who asks him to make a sacrifice of his beloved son Isaac. When God first speaks to Abraham, Abraham responds, Safran Foer says, without “conditions, or reservations, or ho-humming, but instead, ‘Here I am’—‘I am fully present’.” But Abraham also uses exactly the same words to reassure his son, Isaac, when Isaac realises that something is amiss: “Here I am.”
Safran Foer observes: “They are contradictory identities: you can’t be fully present for a God who wants you to kill your son, while being fully present for a son who doesn’t want to be killed. The book takes on that problem—conflicting identities, or a lack of identity— when asked the question, for whom and to what are you unconditionally present? Jacob wrestles and wrestles throughout the book: how can one be—and I think this is something everyone feels to some extent, but it is difficult to talk about—how can one be married, or in a monogamous relationship, while still being an individual in the world? How can one be a parent while still being an ambitious professional? How can one be a Jew while being an American?
“These things are largely irreconcilable but they are not completely irreconcilable—and in the course of most of our lives one can push that into the background —and the book creates these moments of crises when it just becomes impossible. You can pretend there is no great conflict between being a spouse and a parent, and a spouse and an individual—until the phone [bearing evidence of the affair] is found.”
Safran Foer, who will attend the Edinburgh Book Festival in August before making another UK visit in October, says he wanted the novel to be “a very close expression of myself”, and he feels he achieved that. It has left him feeling “vulnerable, exposed—both trepidation and extreme enthusiasm” as he approaches publication.
But he is looking forward to the process of deep communion with readers; the whole point of writing, he says. “It doesn’t have to be a happy communion—it’s not what I prefer, but I have no problem with people taking issue with what I write. I’m looking forward to those kinds of engagements which aren’t really people’s opinion, about praise or criticism, but are about this intimate communion and dialogue. It’s the point of the book.”
Imprint: Hamish Hamilton
ISBN: 9780241146170, 9780241966372
Editor: Simon Prosser; Eric Chinski at Farrar, Straus and Giroux (US)
Agent: Nicole Aragi
This article was originally published in The Bookseller magazine 3rd June 2016.
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