Jonathan Safran Foer is considered one of the greatest and most talented novelist of contemporary times in the United States. It’s been roughly a decade since his last published novel (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, 2005).
H is last novel “Here I Am” tells the story of approximately one month of the life of Bloch family. A married couple Jacob and Julia are struggling with the eternal problem namely, how to live your life and while time passes still wanting with the same force to care about things and relationship that seem to be dear and valuable to them and that used to
be at the center of their attention. Sam, Max, and Benjy, Bloch’s children as well as their grandparents Irv and Debora are the completion of this story.
Foer asks both his characters and us – readers a fundamental question:
He was a father to his boys, a son to his father, a husband to his wife, a friend to his friends, but to whom was he himself?
Sounds trivial? Maybe. However, the answer to the questions has never been obvious. Jacob father, son, husband, head of the family, being in all those functions at once, is looking for himself, for fulfilling his desires. “Here I Am” are the words of Abraham in the Bible who answers God’s calling. It is unconditional submission to God here and now, at the precise moment of speaking them. It is at the same time allusion to a role in a family, in a relationship that is no less similar. Well, it seems it is unanswered in this situation thus the real question is where and when, and to what degree – if any – there is a space to be yourself at the same time being put in other functions for others. In “Here I Am” we can distinguish three axes around which the story is told: Sam’s bar mitzvah and his alleged misbehavior at school to which he forcefully declines, Jacob’s hidden phone, and the earthquake that substantially devastate whole Israel and some of the Arabic countries.
First of those milestones is Julie finding Jacob’s phone which he secretly used to text obscene and provocative messages with his female colleague. This event is an impulse catalyzing already progressing inevitable collapse of their marriage. They both know they became everything they used to laugh at – routine and conventional. This phone and Jacob’s messages are also a symbol of his distinct, private, own life within all those family functions that he sincerely and respectfully tries to fulfill. In those texts, forgivable or not, Jacob can be himself and let go his fantasies. He also could effectuate them albeit only in innocent words, keeping a safe distance from what could be ultimately destructive. Foer spends a lot of time trying to subtly and accurately describe this strange relationship and nonsense of humans’ behavior, the absurdity of a marriage that results not from its nature but from infantile and twisting human nature.
Let’s go to bed. Those four words differentiate a marriage from every other kind of relationship. We aren’t going to find a way to agree, but let’s go to bed. Not because we want to, but because we have to. We hate each other right now, but let’s go to bed. Let retreat into ourselves, but together.
It is incredibly captivating how sensitively, subtly but also straightforward Foer can put all those unspoken emotions into words. On the one hand, he discusses the notion of the apparent, or not, right to be oneself, and preserve one’s space to execute it. On the other, pays a lot of attention to a family, bonds, and relations that people built up over the years. Inevitable and fundamental in Foer’s novel are the patterns of people’s behavior that once they promised to themselves to avoid and which eventually become their sad fate.
In sickness and in sickness. That is what I wish for you. Don’t seek or expect miracles. There are no miracles. Not anymore. And there are no cures for the hurt that hurts most. There is only the medicine of believing each other’s pain, and being present for it.
Above are the wishes that Debora made at Jacob and Julie wedding. In the novel, we can find an endless number of beautifully literary crafted allusions to everyday life situations, conflicts, and disputes between Jacob and Julie.
Another axis of the book is the earthquake in the Middle East. By this event, Foer builds a
ground for another discourse. What does it mean and what one understand in contemporary times by being a Jew? He also opens discussion on indispensable religious issues and how they influence daily life as well as the meaning and the perception of the Jewish state. Does living in Israel means one is Jewish or Israeli? Is there any difference? Jewishness is an important element of this novel. One of the examples can be Sam’s bar mitzvah that opens discussion on the phenomenon of becoming a man. Destruction of Israel, on the other hand, contributes to contemplating a comprehension of one’s identity and nationality, differences in perceiving oneself and one’s place in the world somewhere between being Israeli and an American Jew. I believe we cannot neglect this issue in the discussion on “Here I Am”. However, since Jewishness does not determine – in my opinion – all the relations in the book, neither we should overestimate it as some of the reviews tend to do. The grand question is who we are in life? Where is the line between unconditional devotion and preserving yourself? And finally, how much should we value and care for the things that truly matter.
Life is precious, Jacob thought. It is the most important of all thoughts, and the most obvious, and most difficult to remember to have.
“Here I Am” is, in my modest opinion, the best novel published in 2016. It is undoubtedly a masterpiece of literary art. It’s an extraordinary example showing not only Foer’s literary craft but also his unrestrained imagination. Most of all, in all those beautifully crafted words and descriptions he preserves accurate, convincing and touching narratives of Bloch’s family struggles.