The student of Joyce Carol Oates at Princeton, he has published two bestselling novels, Everything is Illuminated (2002) and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005) — both made into movies — as well as the non-fictional Eating Animals (2009) on the necessity of vegetarianism.
In a certain sense, the impressively talented Foer is himself the product of factory farming. He is the ultimate hatchling of the academic creative writing industry.
I say that as one who makes his living in the creative writing biz. Like a thousand MFA theses, Foer’s fiction is characterized by perpetual interplay of different sorts of texts — among them the flip book, sexts, video games and the Bible. Moreover there is a sort of firehose cleverness.
On the opening page of his new novel, we find a reference to “egg salad becoming bird flu in the refrigerator.” Phrases like this appear on almost every page. It is if as Foer cannot see an open mike and remain seated.
This new story is, nonetheless, ambitious and interesting. In asking how and in what form Judaism can survive, Foer poses a question of urgency for all people of faith in an age of scattering and destruction.
Focusing on four generations of a single family, Foer presents a range of possibilities. The title Here I Am is, of course, Abraham’s answer when called by God to sacrifice Isaac. The phrase also speaks to the problem of how to be a Jew in America.
The main character is a writer in Washington, D.C., named Jacob Bloch, whose marriage to Julia is withering, with both partners on the edge of infidelity. Jacob’s grandfather Isaac, a grocer, escaped the Holocaust and is considering whether to end his own life. Irving Bloch, Jacob’s father, is an incendiary media personality who finds hatred of Jews everywhere. Jacob and Julia have three brilliant young sons, of whom the eldest, Sam, is trying to delay his Bar Mitzvah by acting out in school.
The family is coming apart in various ways. In an affecting series of events, Jacob must deal with a dog named Argus, who needs to be put down. The boys work out that Jacob and Julia are separating, and the arrangements for the Bar Mitzvah remain in doubt. Isaac takes his own life, just as a massive earthquake hits Israel and war breaks out in the Middle East. An Israeli cousin, Tamir, is stranded in Washington, and offers a tough Zionist foil to the bookish and rather ineffectual Jacob, who is seriously tempted to go with Tamir to fight for Israel.
One of the best sections of the book is the funeral of Isaac Bloch, in which a young rabbi speaks of two wars, one for the survival of Israel and the other, 70 years older, for the soul of Judaism. He asks how the Pharaoh’s daughter knows the baby Moses is Jewish. He observes that she saw he was crying but did not hear him: “She knew he was a Hebrew because only Jews cry silently.”
Jacob hates the Rabbi, but is swayed by him. Towards the end of the novel, the older Jacob has spent time with the Rabbi and seems to have regained his belief in God.
This novel appears at a moment, when, as the Rabbi observes, the generation of the Holocaust is dying out. So too, in American fiction, the great generation of Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and Isaac Bashevis Singer has almost vanished. The most important survivor is Philip Roth, whose influence can be seen throughout Foer’s novel.
Of course, Foer is not the only mid-career novelist struggling with Jewish identity, but he is one of the most interesting. The problem is that he is self-indulgent. At 571 pages, this novel is at least twice as long as it should be. Dialogue goes on and on in a dogged search for wisecracks. Foer may indeed become a major American author, but he has to pull himself together first. The good sections constitute about 250 pages. I have no idea why the rest of it is there.
Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer (Penguin Random House, hardcover, 571 pages, $35.)
(Greene is a professor of English at the University of Toronto and winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry.)