Extremely Safran and Incredibly Foer

By Ray Rahman
Updated September 08, 2016 at 03:41 PM EDT

What a time to be alive for fans of the Big Important Novel. For readers not sated by such recent doorstops as A Little Life, Purity, City on Fire, and the rest, the book gods (namely, FSG) have now given us Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am, thick with 600 pages and 11 years of high expectations.

Foer’s first two novels—2003’s Everything Is Illuminated, published to raves when he was just 25, and 2005’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which was adapted into a Tom Hanks movie—quickly cemented him as a literary wunderkind, a Jonathan to watch (alongside the Franzens and Lethems of the publishing world). The number of years between then and now seemed to be a sign that his third would be grand and ambitious, and, well, Here I Am is definitely both of those things. It is, at times, also pretty good—if not always enjoyable.

All the trademarks of a Foer work are here: big ideas; unabashed earnestness; precocious children who talk, think, and read at a Foer-grade level; questions about what it means to be Jewish; and, relatedly, questions about what it means to be home. The story is personal and intimate, but stretched out on a gigantic and political canvas: The Bloch family is falling apart, and so is Israel.

At the center is Jacob and Julia Bloch, a 40-something Washington D.C. couple whose marriage is on the brink of awkward collapse. Julia renovates homes for a living, a juicy metaphor that Foer squeezes with vigor, while Jacob is a writer who overthinks the death out of everything, including his own overthinking. His grandfather Isaac is a Holocaust survivor who’s considering killing himself. And on top of all this, an earthquake in the Middle East has caused a political crisis—and perhaps the end of Israel.

And I haven’t even mention the Blochs’ three kids and Jacob’s beloved dog. There’s a lot happening, but the book’s first section, which obsessively and intimately details the demise of the Bloch marriage, is the most personal—and most satisfying—part of the novel. Foer has a knack for making minutiae moving. His burrows deep into their domestic anguish and comes back out with captivating prose, refreshingly free of the gimmicky bells and whistles of his earlier novels. Even if you find Foer’s cloyingly clever characters and overuse of metaphors to be insufferable (and many do), the marital autopsy might keep you around.

Then comes the rest. Israel is hit with an existential crisis, and so are Foer’s characters as their individual anxieties turn universal. Foer goes on to spend countless exhausting pages wrestling with big-picture questions about family and home and belonging, and then goes on to spend more countless exhausting pages doing it some more. The short version: Jacob uses the embattled Middle Eastern country as a proxy for his embattled family.

Early in the novel, Jacob describes “the embarrassment of trying and failing”—“an extended limb is far easier to break than a bent one,” Foer writes. Here I Am certainly has its limb extended all the way out, for better or for worse.