Here I Am, By Jonathan Safran Foer – A review

This review of the Hebrew translation of "Here I Am", was first published in the Israeli Daily Yedioth Aharonoth

by Arik Glasner

One could cut out 200 of the 635 pages in Jonathan Safran Foer's new novel and even then, of the remaining 435, there would still be fields of kitsch, but it would be impossible to remove them surgically without killing the novel. Even so, this is not only Safran Foer's best novel to date, but a generally very impressive work.

The novel, which was published this year in the U.S., describes the separation process of Jacob and Julia, a 40+ American Jewish couple who live in Washington. Jacob is a novelist and script writer, Julia an architect. The couple has three children.  The couple are fully and consistently non-believing, non observant Jews, but their connection with Judaism is important to them, and they preserve a few rituals, among them the upcoming Bar Mitzva ceremony of their firstborn son, Sam, during the harried preparations of which the novel begins.  In parallel with the family plot, there is a broader plot that depicts how as a consequence of a natural disaster (earthquake), Israel is forced to struggle for its existence in the face of a war that breaks out as a result of what is perceived as Israel's improper treatment of the disaster's aftermath for the West Bank population under its control, with its Palestinian population, and also its treatment of the Temple Mount, which was also damaged in the disaster.  During this war of survival, the Prime Minister of Israel calls upon American Jews to volunteer for active support in the war, so that the issue of Jacob and Julia's allegiance to their Jewishness or to Israel is put to the test.

This is an impressive work, first of all because Safran Foer succeeds in escaping from the stance of the cute boy, both from the kitsch in describing nice smart kids and also from the stance of a narrator who shows off his talents as a boy wonder expecting applause. That is the malady shared by his contemporary writers, Jews and non-Jews, the refusal to become men (Michael Chabon, for example, and also Foster Wallace, the older of the two). In place of the "great male narcissists", as Foster Wallace referred to Phillip Roth, John Updike and Norman Mailer, The male American writers have found the single substitute for their guilt feelings about their masculinity: the child's standpoint.  But except for this typical American neurosis (within the literary milieu), negatively related to emerging masculinity, in the case of Jews it was a calamity.  The emergent masculinity of Phillip Roth is the secret of his literary strength, since it occurs against a background of the emasculating Jewishness of a stifled, rationalistic culture.  Roth's extrication is in exchange for the moralistic suffocation of the "Mentsch"ideology. As Safran Foer and his contemporaries retreated in horror from this attitude, they actually became semi-impotent in literary terms.  Jacob's struggle to break out of his marriage is also the writer's struggle to attain the level of his great literary forebears. Jacob's increasing maturity is also literary maturity.  This struggle is carried out over hundreds of pages here.  Actually, this novel with its wildly sharp wit as well as its treatment of the question of Jewish identity (with justified hostility toward what for Heller in the '70's were the buds of Jewish neo-conservatism and is today the full bloom of the genre), recalls chapters of Joseph Heller's "Good as Gold", as well as with a different sort of humor and primarily in the main theme, masculinity and maturity, the works of Phillip Roth.  And that is a great compliment.

Aside from the main theme, there are impressive philosophical sections here (for example, against Jewish self-victimization and focusing Jewish existence around the Holocaust); there are witty, lively descriptions of family life and intimacy, not without kitsch, but also filled with insight, humor, sharp bitterness and emotion.

Joining Jacob and Julia's private story with a catastrophic event emphasizes Safran Foer's weakness: his attraction to the sensational, the sentimental and the kitschy (little children and great catastrophes star in his novels).  But here this joining also constitutes a powerful tool for advancing the novel's main theme, and therefore we can't chop it out of the text.  In a terrific satire on Jacob's Israeli relative, a successful high-tech entrepreneur, Safran Foer illustrates the recoiling attitude of a cultured American Jew toward the harsh, braggart, materialistic, national emotional extortionist Israeli. But this Israeli also poses a model of masculinity of which Jacob, restrained and neurotic, is jealous. Thus the Israeli, Israel, is involved in an issue that preoccupies Jacob in his private life.  If Phillip Roth's Mickey Sabbath expresses his explosive masculinity so that he never takes interest in Israel's fate, Jacob momentarily considers expressing his emerging masculinity by volunteering to help Israel.  Pairing together the destruction of a private home with the destruction of the National Homeland enables Safran Foer to introduce another theme: the clash between commitment to people close to you and national commitment.  In a marvelous midrashic excerpt, Jacob confronts the "Here I am" that Abraham answers G-d who is sending him to bind his son, with the "Here I am" with which he answers his son Isaac, on the way to slaughter. Sometimes one needs to choose between commitment to family and theological or ideological commitment.  And for Jacob it's clear, through most of the novel, that the choice will go to his family.  In an aside, the novel points to the worrisome alienation from Israel by liberal Jews, on the verge of a divorce decree to Israel, alienation, divorce, that should worry us very much.  But in a way that the author is unaware, in  my view, this linkage between the family story and the national story places Safran Foer at the forefront of written literature today (Houellebecq , Knausgård, A.B. Yehoshua, for example). The great subject placed at the forefront of this literature is whether atheists can really devote themselves to the great sacrifice required in order to establish and maintain a family.  Isn't our demographic fate sealed, to lose to traditional populations? As though the novel asks unconsciously: Were it not for national commitment, national identity, revenge against the Nazis, concern for Israel and the Jewish People, etc., wouldn't the question arise whether to raise a family at all? Thus, it's not just positioning the family vs. the nation, a somewhat banal subject, but rather the nation and the family as one vs. bachelorhood, vs. individual existence. Individualism splits the family and nationhood together.

Thus despite the manic load of the text, its verbosity and kitsch, Safran  Foer has succeeded in turning contemporary American Jewish existence into a significant work of art, and has succeeded in ascending to the league of his American Jewish literary forebears.


Translation by Roy Abramovitch



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