BY CONOR HARRINGTON Jacob Bloch, is a fortysomething writer and father of three whose marriage of 16 years is already ripping at the seams when his wife Julia discovers his second phone and triggers the book-length unraveling of his life that is at the center of Jonathan Safran Foer’s third novel, Here I Am. Toggling through Jacob’s text messages, Julia reads her husband’s dirty talk texts to a co-worker — e.g. “give me your cum, then you can have my cock” and “you don’t deserve to get fucked in the ass.” This tawdry revelation is devastating not just for the betrayal and violation of trust it represents, but for what it reveals about her own feelings for him, or lack thereof. “Do you want to know the worst part? I don’t even care,” she says to Jacob, “The saddest thing about this has been confronting my own lack of sadness.”
For me, this central plot twist hits a little too close to home. Having recently been delivered the news of my own parents impending divorce many years after discovering text messages on my father’s phone, the painful unraveling of Julia and Jacob’s marriage was all too familiar, yet I found myself constantly drawn back to the book. Foer helps us see all of the small but significant instances where the rifts started and how Jacob and Julia’s mutual unwillingness to be truly open and communicative turns the emotional distance into physical space between them: empty conversations and a bed no longer shared.
The Bloch family lives in present day Washington, D.C. area, and the novel bounces all around different places and times; Jacob and Julia’s trip to a rural Pennsylvania hotel, a present day pilgrimage to the family rabbi to parse the moral implications of Sam’s penchant for writing bad words that Jacob’s grandfather would claim “aren’t bad, just have bad usage,” and then into the future, when each child is grown up and on their own. Some chapters are news reports on the state of Israel while others are just texts back and forth or messaging between characters in a video game. Here I Am is absolutely hung up on the way we choose to communicate things and even more so on the things we choose not to communicate.
Julia’s fateful discovery coincides with a confluence of tragedies of varying degrees of severity. One being that Sam’s bar mitzvah is coming up, a coming of age celebration he doesn’t understand nor want to partake in due to his own agnosticism and the fact that he sees how not-Jewish his family actually is outside of the hollow observances and rituals. Another is the suicide of Isaac, Jacob’s Holocaust surviving grandfather, which opens the book. Also center stage is the impending war over Israel after an earthquake ravages the country, leaving it vulnerable, and the call goes out for Jews across the world to come defend the homeland from the hostile neighboring Arab nations that exploit the chaos the disaster leaves in its wake to reclaim what they consider theirs, destroying much of the holy land in the process.
Jacob’s struggle with his Jewish identity is another major theme that Foer explores in the relationship with his Israeli cousin, Tamir, the many rituals observed after his grandfather’s death, and his father’s pleading with him to write the Great Jewish-American novel. Jacob’s sense of self shatters when he is forced to make choices about who he really is, what he is willing to live with, and what he can live without. Does Israel mean enough to him as an “American Jew” that he is willing to go fight for it? Does leaving his wife mean leaving his family, or at least changing it? Can he let Argus, his ailing dog which is clearly in pain, die as arguably one should when it’s for the better?
All of these conflicts take form over a well used 571 pages that move quickly thanks to Foer’s rich dialogue and masterful pacing. Foer is often heralded as Gen X’s Philip Roth (though I think this only holds up prima facie) and Here I Am will only further the comparison. Foer’s writing is extremely involved with Jewishness as Roth’s was, and is also strikingly autobiographical. Many of the novel’s characters and subplots bear more than a passing resemblance to Foer’s personal life. Just as Jacob and Julia are divorcing after 16 years of marriage that yielded three children, Foer and his wife divorced after 10 years of marriage that yielded two children.
Jacob’s holocaust surviving grandfather, Isaac, parallels Foer’s own grandmother, holocaust survivor Louis Safran. Foer’s first novel, Everything is Illuminated, is even about a character named “Jonathan Safran Foer” going to look for the man who saved his grandmother. Jacob and Julia’s oldest child, Sam, had his hand ripped open in a door hinge, a trauma that has caused him to become a reclusive, sensitive figure who spends most of his time absorbed in his alternate reality game, Other–Life, where he builds and destroys synagogues as the female Samanta. When Foer was 8, a chemical explosion at a summer program left him with second degree burns on his hand and face. The physical and mental scarring left him a scared, fragile child, prone to pants wetting and fears of the outside world. As the saying goes, write what you know.
Some of the best writing comes out through the mouths of the Bloch children — Max, Sam, and Benjy — especially in their bar mitzvah speeches. Max focuses on a section of Torah which describes the name Jacob and the naming of Israel, but seems to speak directly to the unraveling of his family:
“Israel, the historical Jewish homeland, literally means ‘wrestles God.’ Not ‘praises God, or ‘reveres God,’ or loves God,’ not even ‘obey God.’ In fact, it is the opposite of ‘obeys God.’ Wrestling is not only our condition, it is our identity, our name.”
“‘Closeness,’ he said, surveying the congregation. ‘It’s easy to be close, but almost impossible to stay close. Think about friends. Think about hobbies. Even ideas. They’re close to us–sometimes so close we think they are a part of us–and then, at some point, they aren’t close anymore. They go away. Only one thing can keep something close over time: holding it there. Grappling with it. Wrestling it to the ground, as Jacob did with the angel, and refusing to let go. What we don’t wrestle we let go of. Love isn’t the absence of struggle. Love is struggle.”
Jacob can relate. Having found himself pulled in different directions, just as Abraham was between God and his son Isaac, and in the end must decide what is truly worth holding on to. Like all the characters in Here I Am, he struggles to reconcile the disconnect between who he considers himself to be and who he really is within the confines of his reality, between the fantasies of his aspirations the acceptance of the limitations the world has imposed on him.
Throughout the course of the novel, the precocious, Royal Tennenbaum-esque Bloch children are prone to portentous utterances. The most important of them is uttered by Max Bloch towards the end of the novel at the outset of his barmitzvah speech: “You only get to keep what you refuse to let go of.” Within a novel that is largely focused on identity — how we construct our identity and how the people and choices we make shape that identity — that line rings true on every page and in every major event, be it death, divorce, or destruction.