Author: Jonathan Safran Foer
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publishing Date: 2016
Number of Pages: 571
Genre: Jewish Fiction
In the book of Genesis, when God calls out, “Abraham!” before ordering him to sacrifice his son, Isaac, Abraham response, “Here I am.” Later, when Isaac calls out, “My father!” before asking him why there is no animal to slaughter, Abraham responds, “Here I am.”
How do we fulfill our conflicting duties as father, husband, and son; wife and mother; child and adult? Jew and American? How can we claim our own identities when our lives are linked so ‘closely to others’? These are the questions at the heart of Jonathan Safran Foer’s first novel in eleven years-a work of extraordinary scope and heartbreaking intimacy.
Unfolding over four tumultuous weeks in present-day Washington, D.C., Here I Am is the story of a fracturing family in a moment of crisis. As Jacob and Julia Bloch and their three sons are forced to confront the distances between the lives they think they want and the lives they are living, a catastrophic earthquake sets in motion a quickly escalating conflict in the Middle East. At stake is the meaning of home-and the fundamental question of how much aliveness one can bear.
In 2017, while browsing through a bookstore, a particular book piqued my curiosity. Its cover was the first thing that caught my attention. It stood out even though it is bereft of any flair or ostentation. This book is Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am. Without second thoughts, I purchased the book even though I barely had any iota on what it was about.
My anticipation for the book doubled after I learned that Foer is the author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. One of his works, Everything is Illuminated is also a part of the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. To keep myself from the tenterhook that usually accompanies books that has caught my attention, I included Here I Am in My 2017 Top 20 Reading List. As the year was drawing to a close, I finally got the chance to read the book.
And all that build up for excitement all proved for naught for reasons more than one.
Here I Am is about a middle class Jewish family, the Bloches, living in Washington, DC, who got caught in the whirlwinds of two wars. Both wars will mold them and shape their future. The first one is being fought within Jacob and Julie Bloch’s marriage while the second war is being waged beyond the family. This second war involves geopolitics and was spurred by a series of catastrophic events that literally rocked the Middle East.
After being married for years, Jacob and Julie finally decided to call it quits. The proverbial final straw was when their son, Sam, was accused of perpetrating a Hebrew school taboo. Sam categorically denied the unfounded allegations. While Jacob believed his son, Julie was otherwise. This disagreement is just one of many but this latest disagreement only underlined the chasm that has long made them drift apart from each other.
While the Bloches were immersed in their marital woes, Israel was struck by a devastating earthquake. This catastrophic event paralyzed the entire nation and made it vulnerable to possible conquests from its long-time adversaries. In its belligerence, it refused all aids that were offered to them by their neighboring Arab countries. Israel went up in arms to protect its borders.
Jacob, in spite Julie’s staunch opposition, decided to join the war. His judgment was clouded he wanted to step out of his quotidian existence. This escapism doused in superficiality shows Jacob’s mettle and real character. Jacob, although he was the story’s central figure, is a weak character, a caricature who fades amongst the litany of words. The book’s weakest character is Jacob’s father, a self-proclaimed blogger who kept on prattling on about his Jewish ancestry. He is also a staunch revolutionist who supports Israel’s stand on arming its citizens against Arab invasion.
The odd curveball towards geopolitics is baffling because the story carried on fine until this point. On the surface, this is a disconnect on the overall dynamics of the story. As one digs deeper, this is a further dive into Jacob’s utter sense of failure. Slowly, the book has become a pity party for Jacob. His marriage went down the drain and his hopes of helping his country also backfired. One can’t help but feel sorry for him. This is one of the book’s best facets that draws the readers into narrative because in spite of Jacob’s shallowness, he is but another human being.
At the onset, the Bloch’s three sons showed more spunk than their parents. Sam quipped that Jacob “can be such a pussy” while Julie “can be such a dick.” Surprisingly, Foer bestowed the Bloch children more maturity than their parents. Their wit, humor, wisdom and intelligence kept the first part of the story alive. They were the tonic to the intoxicating passé of Jacob and Julie’s marital woes. Foer took pains in developing the book’s younger characters. The children’s maturity aided in the interaction between the children and the adult. However, at times, the conversations were too sharp and too strong it bordered on the obnoxious.
One arresting aspect of the book is its take on Yiddish culture. It taught readers about Jewish practice, the foremost of which is the importance of the Bar Mitzvah. The book’s saving grace is Sam’s Bar Mitzvah speech. It was sincere, filled with hope and moving. In spite of the book’s bleakness, the speech is a fitting way to end the story.
Here I Am is a long painful read and could have been divided into two different books without affecting the story. It is an “ok” book, with glimpses of brilliance. However, it needs some serious editing to make it tighter. Beyond earthquake and marital trouble, the book is also about failure and regrets. To make up for the weak adolescent characters, Foer empowered his younger characters. Upon the children’s exit from the story, the narrative fell into a bubble.
After reading the book, I learned that Jonathan Safran Foer wrote it during the time when his marriage was under the rocks. Their separation makes one conclude that Here I Am is partly autobiographical. One can’t help but feel sorry for Jonathan Safran Foer and his affliction. His weak development of Jacob only depicts the endless pit he must have fallen into following his separation from his wife. Marriage falling at the seams is not a pretty sight.
Recommended for those who are interested in books about Jewish history and culture, those who like reading about family settings and those who have patience in reading lengthy novels.
Not recommended for those who are looking for a quick read, those who don’t like gloomy subjects and those who don’t like books with weak main characters.
About The Author
Jonathan Safran Foer shoot to fame with the publication of his debut novel Everything is Illuminated in 2002, earning him a National Jewish Book and a Guardian First Book award.
Born on February 21, 1977 in Washington, D.C., Jonathan attended Princeton University, with renowned author Joyce Carol Oates being his professor in introductory writing course. According to Foer, “she was the first person to ever make me think I should try to write in any sort of serious way. And my life really changed after that.” Oates took so much interest in Foer’s writing that she became his advisor in senior thesis. Foer bagged Princeton’s Senior Creative Writing award for his thesis.
After graduating with a degree in Philosophy, Foer traveled to Ukraine to expand his thesis which eventually grew to become his first novel. His 2002 success of Everything is Illuminated was shortly followed by another successful work, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Clear. Both of these books were adapted into film. Eating Animals, his third work, was published in 2009.
He married fellow author Nicole Krauss in 2004. The couple had two children before amicably separating after ten years of marriage. He is currently residing in Brooklyn, New York City.