Over the last few years, I’ve developed a certain pattern for whenever Jonathan Safran Foer or his writing come up in conversation. First, I admit that I’ve read all of his books and liked them. Second, I provide the caveat that I was a teenager when read them and haven’t looked at them since. Third, I say that I still stand by Eating Animals and find it to be an interesting piece of literary journalism, but that, of course, I no longer have a high opinion of his fiction. Much of the literary community seems to feel the same way, if they were ever on his side in the first place.
Cursory research indicates that even at the beginning of his career he was a polarizing figure, winning awards and making end-of-the-years lists alongside middling reviews in The New Yorker and The New York Times. This time around, it seems a little more universal. Here I Am received negative reviews from The Boston Globe, The Atlantic, The New Republic, and many other prominent outlets. Is the book that much worse than his others? Or are we just different?
My first encounter with Foer’s work was in an English class my junior year of high school. After reading many of the canonical American works — Catcher in the Rye, Beloved, etc. — we closed out the year with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
The book is about a nine-year-old boy, Oskar Schell, whose father passed away in the September 11th terrorist attacks. I was around that age in 2001 and had similar youthful difficulty making sense of what happened. Unlike much of the other work that I had read in English classes up to that point, I felt like I really understood what it was trying to do. The novel was also built on a series of formal techniques that I had not seen before. He dispersed letters from grandparents throughout the narrative and used photographs in contexts that seemed unconventional. These elements created the illusion of complexity, which dazzled me at the time.
The summer after this class, I read Everything Is Illuminated. In it, a character named Jonathan Safran Foer sets out to Ukraine to learn about a woman who saved his grandfather’s life during the Holocaust. Just like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, it switches between two storylines, and just like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, it resonated with me deeply. I had never read anything else like it.
In the years since this, I have come to think about these novels as sentimental and emotionally manipulative works. It does not take a particularly good writer to make the story of Oskar Schell an emotionally resonant one. The same goes for the story of (the fictional) Jonathan Safran Foer in his first novel. Centering books around flashpoints of international trauma is a quick way to the heart of a reader, and there is something about the way he does it that does not feel earned.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, for example, uses 9/11 as a prop to make its narrative heavier and more believable. His father could have died any other way, and he still could have found the envelope with the word “Black” on the front, and he still could have gone on his adventure. Perhaps, outside the specter of international trauma, it would be unbelievable that all these strangers are willing to speak with this child, but it is unbelievable within the specter of international trauma, anyway. In fact, the collective trauma has nothing to do with why people are so open to him, because in the end the reader learns that it was his mother pulling strings for him the whole time that made it possible.
Similarly, Everything is Illuminated relies heavily on the fictionalized history of the real town of Trochenbord, an exclusively Jewish shtetl located in Poland before the Nazis and the Soviets invaded during World War II. Almost all of the residents were murdered before the Holocaust ended. But replacing the real history with an imagined one turns a town that experienced tragedy into a device that coerces sympathy from the reader. The book takes the name and weight but leaves the substance behind, repurposing real-world suffering into a gimmick.
Still, I couldn’t deny that I found his books deeply moving, and if art is deeply moving, is it possible that it failed? If the impact is there, does it matter whether the writer “earned it” or not? They were gimmicks and tricks and manipulative, yes, but does it matter that they work?
It has been six years since I read his fiction, and it has been 11 years since he has published any. I was curious to see how his writing has changed over the years, as my perception of his work also changed. To bridge the gap between perception and reality, I read his new book.
Here I Am is a much more straightforward family novel than his prior two. The three central conflicts are also basically familial: Jacob and Julia, middle-aged parents of three, are spiraling toward divorce. Sam, their eldest, is 13 but does not want to have his bar mitzvah. Isaac, the great-grandfather, is deciding whether he wants to kill himself or be moved to a nursing home. These three conflicts are done well, or at least well enough.
Foer’s dialogue is also strong, crackling with energy reminiscent of gatherings with my own Jewish family. He proves especially proficient in busy scenes with more than two speaking characters.
However, there are long stretches of time when nobody is speaking, and interiority is not his strong suit by any means. Julia’s inner life is constructed particularly poorly. The writing is overwrought and leans on lists of superficial opinions to create the illusion of character depth, and sometimes it borders on unreadable. When he is willing to allow actions to characterize her, they are bizarre and unbelievable. Once, she asks Jacob to stare at her vagina in order to bring her to orgasm, which works. Another time, she masturbates with a doorknob she got from a hardware store. These moments are predictably unconvincing. As if to prove that his sexual misunderstanding is not sexist, he also devotes an enormous amount of page space to men thinking about their penises and talking about them with other men. These also fail to appear believably on the page.
The major events of the book are similarly hard to believe. About 275 pages into the book, there is a major earthquake in the Middle East, causing devastation in Israel, Jordan, and other surrounding countries. This leads to a series of events that make sense if you squint and are maybe a little drunk, including a total and unconditional withdrawal of Israeli soldiers and citizens from occupied territories and the unification of Jordan and Saudi Arabia into Transarabia. All of this leads to pretty much every country in the region declaring war on Israel.
The point of this, of almost starting World War III, is not to highlight the instability in the Middle East or the danger citizens of the region face or to even add to the conversation about Israel and its relationship with those around it. Instead, the point of this is to highlight the dissonance involved in being an American Jew, and specifically being Jacob, an American Jew who feels like a feckless wimp because he is a feckless wimp and struggling to bear the weight of how “manlier” men see him.
And all of that is very bad. It feels wrong in the moment, and the more one thinks about it, the worse it gets. It is, in a lot of ways, exactly the issue I started to see in his work as I grew up a little and read a lot more. The tragedy that is supposed to give the book its power is a shortcut, a way of giving the book emotional muscle without doing any weightlifting.
Still, I can’t avoid the way I felt at the end. Once the utter bullshit of the “war” falls away, once we are back with the family, the ending works. It is sad, and it made me feel sad. In spite of Foer’s issues, in spite of the flaws wounding Here I Am, in spite of the fact that it’s at least 100 pages longer than it needs to be, when I closed the book for the last time, I was genuinely moved. It ends quietly with a scene that is inevitable, but no less excruciating for it.
Foer is the writer I thought he was. I have a hard time saying the book failed. Maybe Foer’s project is bad, or too sentimental. But if he was trying to get me to feel something, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t work.