Book review: Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer

Jonathan Safran Foer, the precocious postmodern wit of the Noughties, reaches a startling maturity in his study of love, life and anti-Semitism, writes Stuart Kelly

Jonathan Safran Foers new work imagines the destruction of the state of Israel. Picture: Getty Images
Jonathan Safran Foers new work imagines the destruction of the state of Israel. Picture: Getty Images

Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer | Hamish Hamilton, £20

Jonathan Safran Foer’s first two novels were almost flawed by their brilliance. In Everything Is Illuminated, an author called Jonathan Safran Foer travelled in search of the shtetl in Ukraine where a woman may have saved his grandfather’s life, assisted and frustrated by a local man, Alexander Perchov, whose fractured English offsets the eloquence of the author. In Extremely Loud And Incredible Close, Foer took on 9/11, through the eyes of a precocious child, Oskar, whose grief about his father leads him to turn detective.

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Both were pyrotechnic in their style, full of wit and innovation and humour; both were, in a way, the books that a very clever young man who knew a lot about postmodern theory might have written. But Here I Am, Foer’s first novel in a decade, is a different proposition entirely. Virginia Woolf once referred to George Eliot’s Middlemarch as a “novel for grown-ups”. My, but Safran Foer has grown up.

“Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof” says the Gospel, and Foer’s protagonist, Jacob Bloch, certainly has enough difficulties. His wife has found a mobile phone with compromising text messages; his son’s bar mitzvah may have to be postponed because of “inappropriate” language in school; his Israeli relatives, whom he considers boorish, are about to arrive; his father is becoming increasingly politically angry while his grandfather contemplates suicide; and his dog is incontinent. The filigree ways in which Foer unpicks this hideous mess of intentions, desires and needs is astonishing. For that alone it is the book that Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections ought to have been.

But the Bloch family’s difficulties are put into sharp perspective when a geopolitical incident occurs. Given that the first sentence begins “When the destruction of Israel commenced,” I don’t think it is a spoiler to say that Israel’s enemies take advantage of a seismic event. Israel’s leaders then send out a message to both Israelis and the Diaspora: come home. So, while dealing with his dysfunctional family, Jacob has to deal with whether or not he is truly Jewish. It would have been ideal if Jeremy Corbyn’s investigation into anti-Semitism had been sent proofs of this startling and urgent novel. It analyses anti-Semitism both from the outside and the inside; particularly when Jacob has to deal with his “foreign” extended family. In some ways, Here I Am has connections to Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. They are novels in which the extinction of Israel is not some Hamas fantasy, but a realised possibility. It makes the commentariat remarks about Israel all the more fatuous to see writers exploring how identity, land and history are so intertwined.

There are scenes so sad and so funny and so wry that I texted a friend repeatedly as I was reading it, just to say “goodness me!” My favourite has to be “Without love we die. With love, we still die.” There is a wry kind of melancholy to this; an eyebrow-raised Stoic humour. Life is not easy, nor is it possible to resign from it. Page after page shows skill linked to insight.

That Jacob is a screenwriter who has compiled a “bible” to his series, rather than actually write it, allows Foer to display the kind of literary high-wire acts that he displayed in stories like “A Primer For The Punctuation Of Heart Disease”. But the soul, if you will, of this novel is not in its technique, but in its soulfulness. It is a novel about why we love and how we love and how we might stop loving. It is humane in that no character is a caricature. Foer has become the novelist we deserve.

Foer makes me ashamed of contemporary writing in Britain – he, Jonathan Lethem, Mark Danielewski, Dave Eggers, Lydia Millet, AM Homes – have stretched and expanded the possibilities of the novel without losing either intellectual integrity or emotional honesty.

Here I Am is not just bold, it is brave. The “I” of the title is one of the ways in which the book demands a re-reading. Who is the “I”? One might think it ought to be Jacob, but various other characters have an equal right to that stance. And where is the “Here”? One might think it is New York, but the political questions of the novel make that equally problematic. The “am” is perhaps the only word in the title which is beautifully uncomplicated, since this novel’s guiding light is that other people (and animals) exist as well.

That this book is not on the Man Booker shortlist is nothing short of a disgrace: it will be remembered when all the second-rate crime fiction and dinner party novels are long forgotten.

• Jonathan Safran Foer, Edinburgh International Book Festival, today