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Jonathan Safran Foer's 'Here I Am' Is Both Dazzling And Draining

Sep 8, 2016
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. It's been 11 years since Jonathan Safran Foer published his last novel, the award-winning, 9/11-inspired story "Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close." This was the week that many of Foer's readers have been waiting for. His third novel "Here I Am" has just been published. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Dazzling and draining, dazzling and draining - that's how my response seesawed for most of the time I was reading Jonathan Safran Foer's new novel. Until the last hundred pages or so brought home the final verdict - just dazzling. Foer's novel is called "Here I Am," and it's a long and very dense novel about a marriage and family falling apart, a personal disaster paralleled on a grand scale by a catastrophic earthquake in the Middle East that propels Israel and the Arab world into near Armageddon.

Foer's title "Here I Am" is taken from one of the most disturbing passages in the Bible where God commands Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac. That passage begins when God calls out to Abraham, and Abraham answers hineni - here I am. The core question that Foer's novel explores is to whom do we respond here I am when called - our families, our religious communities, our country? Who or what do we show up for?

"Here I Am" takes place over four weeks in the life of the Bloch family, who live in Washington, D.C. Jacob is a novelist turned television screenwriter. Julia is an architect. They have three sons. The eldest of which, Sam, is about to make his bar mitzvah - or that is he will if he apologizes for the list of racial epithets he scrawled on his desk at Hebrew school. Jacob and Julia are shocked. They're the kind of enlightened liberals who talk openly and exhaustively with their kids, eat pretentious pasta and, yes, always have NPR on in the car. Sam's offensive list, however, will soon be augmented by another damaging string of words when Julia finds a cell phone hidden at home - never a good discovery.

Sure enough, the phone turns out to contain erotic text messages that Jacob has exchanged with another woman. The Bloch's marriage fractures. That summary of the opening pages of "Here I Am" does almost nothing to give you a sense of the frenzied atmosphere of this novel. Foer chronicles the parallel disintegrations of the Bloch family and the Middle East through an array of voices, memories, leaps into the future and pages-long catalogues. He riffs on everything from the contents of the Bloch's medicine cabinet to the old-fashioned and now unpopular names on the headstones in a Jewish cemetery, names like Pincus, Beryl, Hymie, and Wolf.

Foer's tone is constantly slip-sliding from melancholy to comedy, as in a brilliant scene in an airport bathroom where Jacob spots Steven Spielberg at the urinal beside him and notices to his dismay that Spielberg appears to be uncircumcised. As Foer keeps reminding us, Judaism has a special relationship with words, and he embraces his logophilic legacy here with gusto. But it's also extremely loud and incredibly close, and we readers are asked to stop and applaud so many virtuoso set pieces that the novel is, yes, draining and dazzling. There are many provocative commentaries here, for instance, on political commitment and Jewish identity, particularly when Jacob's Israeli cousin, Tamir, comes to D.C. for a visit.

The cousin's life histories are contrasted this way (reading) Tamir had fought for his homeland while Jacob spent entire nights debating whether that stupid New Yorker poster where New York is bigger than everything else would look better on this wall or that one. Tamir tried not to get killed while Jacob tried not to die of boredom.

And yet as absorbed as this novel is with those larger issues, it, too, like Jacob, privileges the personal over the political. Foer takes us deep into the despair that marks the crumbling of the Bloch family. For instance, in the middle of his first tense conversation with Julia after the discovery of that cellphone, Jacob thinks these words to himself, a spare elegy on the end of a marriage. (Reading) So many days in their shared life, so many experiences. How had they managed to spend the previous 16 years unlearning each other? How had all the presence summed to disappearance?

"Here I Am" is a profound novel about the claims of history, identity, family and the burdens of a broken world that weigh upon even the most cleverly evasive people. As the great boxer Joe Louis said about one of his savviest opponents, he can run, but he can't hide, nor can any of us.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Here I Am" by Jonathan Safran Foer.

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Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.