Jonathan Safran Foer is a very important writer to me. I’ve read all his books, except for Eating Animals because I’m a hypocrite when it comes to eating meat. His work made me want to write myself and it opened my eyes to what authors can do with books besides simply using it as a vessel for text. He was a literary superstar, but then it stayed quiet around Foer for a long time, upping the anticipation for what he would do next.
When Here I Am was finally published and reviews started to roll in, many people seemed disappointed with the novel. It was too big, too self-indulgent and too messy. To some degree these reviewers are right. The novel tries to cover many themes and ideas, it’s again clearly based on Foer’s own doubts and questions and not everything works perfectly. But to be honest, I haven’t read his other two novels after 2005 and I’m pretty sure that if we would be reading those as critically as everyone has been reading Here I am, we’ll find plenty of flaws in them as well.
To me, the ‘flaws’ are what make Foer’s book so great. He exposes the ugly humanity of his characters, making you either hate them or feel sorry for them, but often recognizing yourself in them as well. In Here I Am we follow the Blochs, a Jewish American family that is dealing with a failing marriage, raising three boys, a great-grandfather who refuses to move into a home and an ailing family dog. Oh, and they’re dealing with the destruction and downfall of Israel is somewhere in the back as well. Every character is trying to cope with their own set of problems, all arising from their questions of identity. Who am I as a man or woman, as a husband or wife, as a child or man, as a Jew or American and even as a great-grandfather or burden?
As always Foer knows how to make light of heavy subjects. Throughout all the existential wanderings, there are plenty of jokes and funny facts that he intersperses through the novel. I’ve learned about Jewish astronauts in space, how you should never smell a flower in Second Life and all kinds of strange ways boys try to masturbate. If all the angsty navel gazing gets a bit much for you, this will surely help balance things out.
I actually love all the navel gazing Foer does in this book, all the worrying about who you are in life, who you want to be and who you ought to be. These are questions we all struggle with in different degrees, but as a fellow philosophy student I find this constant questioning easy to relate to.
Not every story line came together for me though. I felt like Sam’s Second Life addiction just sort of sizzled out as did the great war in the Middle East. Although I see the importance of including the struggle in Israel, I do wonder if the book would have felt more present if it had only focused on the family drama without the greater issues at hand. My favorite parts were when Foer focused on their family life and I especially loved the rituals he came up with for the Bloch family. These details are to me what make the characters come to life. Besides that, Foer is again great at writing heartfelt speeches. There are many speeches in Here I Am and I read a review saying that the book is made of speeches, but I always love these parts. Sam’s Bar Mitzvah speech was particularly great, but what really hit me was the rabbi’s speech at the funeral. Here Foer gets to show off his prose, his sense of character and sense of drama. The speech builds up slowly, talking about the great-grandfather first and then growing into something that touches every character present, breaking down some of the walls they’ve build around themselves.
I’ve read the e-book version of this book, so I can’t tell how much Here I Am experimented with the physical form of the book. It does experiment a lot textually, using mostly dialog with the Bloch family so it’s unclear who’s saying what, but also cutting big events in pieces, separating them with stories that reflect or juxtapose what is happening right now. This might make it more of a challenging read, but it is so rewarding when it all pays off in the end.
I really liked Here I Am. I think it’s a very typical Foer book, but in all the ways I like it. It discusses grand ideas in a way that is a little messy, but it asks you to find meaning in the mess, just as we try to do in life.
Review Copy attained through Netgalley with special thanks to the publisher Penguin UK.