As I may have mentioned once or twice, I keep this blog as a record of what I read. If I don’t blog it’s probably because I haven’t been reading, but occasionally there are novels that really challenge my ability to say something interesting. ‘Here I Am’, Jonathan Safran Foer’s third novel, is a case in point. I read it a couple of months ago, but found it so underwhelming that when I finally found the time to write this review I had to look the title up. What is more remarkable is that it seems to have taken the author 10 years or more to write it!
‘Here I Am’ is the story of the Blochs, a very familiar dysfunctional American family. Julia, an architect, and husband Jacob, a TV screenwriter, live in Washington DC with their three sons, Sam, Max and Benjy. Their marriage is falling apart for all the usual reasons – boredom, disrespect, mid-life crises, infidelity. An extended family provides supporting cast members including Jacob’s grandfather Isaac, planning to defer death until after Sam’s bar mitzvah; Jacob’s parents, Irv and Deborah, and others.
The Guardian’s review described “Here I Am” as
“a novel of diaspora, of the elasticity of its numerous possible meanings, and of the pain caused by both the presence and the absence of the homeland it invokes. It moves from the intimate dissection of a family that has ceased to become a home for its members to the question of what Israel means to American Jews, and what they might consider to be their duty in the face of its imperilment.”
Which is a useful thematic summary, but will also give you a strong flavour of the worthiness of the novel. Worthiness can be fatal to any attempt at comedy. Because despite the big themes, this is undoubtedly intended to be an albeit dark comic novel. Divided between writing a serious novel about the experience of being a Jewish American family (already very well-explored novelistic territory) and the more comic aspects of that experience (ditto) Safran delivers neither very well.
Part of the problem is that very little happens, and it takes a long time to not happen. Minor incidents become central plot elements. Sam leaves a list of “rude” words on his desk at school then denies doing so – it is not until near the end of the novel that we find out he did write the list, as a profoundly unrealistic exercise in intellectual curiosity. Jacob “loses” the secret mobile phone on which he and a producer have exchanged explicitly sexual texts, in a pretty pathetic attempt to make himself more interesting to his wife. As mid-life crises go this is mundane stuff.
The bulk of the narrative is conveyed through the family’s conversations. The repetitive dialogues and monologues may be realistic representations of the way families talk to one another, but it felt a bit like being harangued for 500 and more pages. Realising the novel needed something by way of incident or drama, Safran Foer goes “all-in”. An apocalyptic earthquake in the Middle East strikes Israel, gifting the surrounding states an opportunity to recover lost territories/invade, depending on your perspective. A domestic chronicle suddenly becomes a diary of this catastrophe, which ends with the Israeli prime minister’s absurdly unlikely call to the men of the Jewish diaspora to return “home”. As if a country struck by an earthquake needs an influx of untrained volunteers to defend it. Jacob’s half-hearted attempt to volunteer falls flat, being turned away at the airport due to him having nothing worthwhile to contribute. As a metaphor for the turbulence in the Bloch family the earthquake and ensuing crisis is clumsy in the extreme, and as a statement on the position in the Middle East it is at best irrelevant and worst tasteless.
And if you have found the preceding paragraphs an unsatisfactory account of this novel, well you can’t say I didn’t warn you!