November 18, 2018

Shock is followed by awe over Foer’s new novel

A colleague of mine admonished me to include a warning in my review of Jonathan Safran Foer’s brilliant new novel, “Here I Am” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). And so I will.

Be forewarned, dear reader, that there is plenty of explicit sexual language in “Here I Am.” Or, to be more precise, plenty of sexual imaginings, if not actual sex. For example, when Julia Bloch discovers that her husband, Jacob, has been engaged in sexting, Jacob thinks his wife is hinting that he should actually sleep with the other woman. “If you’re going to write pornographic texts to someone else,” Julia says, “then yes, I want you to have an affair. Because then I could respect you.”

Foer may address such lofty issues as the existence (or nonexistence) of God, the survival of the Jewish state, and destiny of the Jewish people, but he also understands and depicts the workings of human sexual imagination. For example, when it comes to the sex talk among the bar mitzvah students of the Adas Israel religious school, he observes: “If God existed and judged, He would have forgiven these boys everything, knowing that they were compelled by forces outside of themselves, inside themselves, and that they, too, were made in His image.” 

Like his earlier novels, “Here I Am” is both deeply literate and intentionally shocking. Foer’s stock of allusions range from Tolstoy to Yu-Gi-Oh!, from NPR to “Driving Miss Daisy,” from Descartes to Beavis and Butt-Head. Camus is somehow linked with Honey Nut Cheerios. The lyrics of a Kurt Cobain song are deconstructed. Brand names of personal care products are braided together into a kind poetry, and an actual poem, six pages in length, pops up in the narrative. A bathroom encounter with someone who may or may not be Steven Spielberg turns into a short discourse on the mysteries of circumcision. Thus does Foer seek to shock us and make us laugh, and he succeeds at both.

The storyline focuses on a family in crisis. The marriage of Jacob and Julia Bloch is slumping toward failure. “I walked seven circles around you when we got married,” Julia says. “I can’t even find you now.” Their son, Sam, is exploring gender identity through the avatar named Samanta, whom he created in an online game, and he is definitely uncomfortable in his own skin: “I am not good at life,” Sam tells his mother. Yet his bar mitzvah promises to be an extravaganza, if only because Jewish Americans “will go to any length, short of practicing Judaism, to instill a sense of Jewish identity in their children,” as Foer puts it.

At the same time, “Here I Am” presents us with a crisis with global repercussions, a mega-quake whose epicenter is under the Dead Sea. The cataclysm promises to draw Arab refugees into Israel in search of food, shelter and medical attention — and to frighten away Jews. The pope promises to pay for the restoration of the Holy Sepulchre, but the Greek Orthodox and the Armenians protest against papal interference with their holy sites. “Under cover of repairmen,” Foer writes, “a squad of Israeli extremists penetrates the Dome of the Rock and sets it on fire.” A regional war yet again threatens Israel’s survival, and the prime minister considers the nuclear option.

The two narratives collide. “The news that reached America was scattershot, unreliable and alarmist,” Foer explains. “The Blochs did what they did best: they balanced overreaction with repression.” Sam discovers the difference between fantasy and reality when he encounters his adolescent Israeli cousin, Noam, as yet another avatar in the online game that is Sam’s second life, or maybe his real life. On CNN, what may be the death throes of the Jewish state are on view. “It will pass,” Jacob Bloch insists to Noam’s father, Tamir, who is visiting America and is desperate to go back home and fight. “It won’t,” Tamir insists. “This is how it will all end.”

For all of his musings on sex, and his fascination with the downward spiral of marriage and family, Foer insists on confronting us with the most consequential of events and decisions. At last, Jacob vows to go to Israel and fight along with his cousins. Julia taunts him: “I’m guessing you’re not going to be called upon for specialized operations, like bomb defusing or surgical assassinations, but something more like ‘Stand in front of this bullet so your meat will at least slow it before it enters the person we actually value.’ ” But Jacob and other Jews like him are compelled to choose between their private lives and their place in history, a choice that was denied to so many Jews in previous generations. That’s what “Here I Am” is really all about.

The story reaches a moment of stirring moral grandeur when Foer imagines how the prime minister of Israel uses a shofar to summon a million American Jews to the fighting front. “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 and radical publishers, kibbutzniks, management consultants …; the false moan of a prostitute who hides children under the bed on which she kisses Nazis on the mouth …; the final air bubble to rise from the Seine and burst as Paul Celan sank, his pockets full of stones; the word clear from the lips of the first Jewish astronaut, strapped into a chair facing infinity.”

You will need to read Foer’s book to know the outcome of Israel’s imagined war of survival as well as the slow-motion collapse of the Bloch family. The book ends on a sorrowful and deeply poignant scene, but even the moments of pain and loss do not diminish the vital spirit, so authentically Jewish, that is the real glory of “Here I Am.” “Life is precious,” goes Jacob’s mantra, “and I live in the world.”

JONATHAN KIRSCH, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.