Friday, December 16, 2016
Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer: A review
The Bloch family of Washington, D.C., are very annoying people. They embody the worst of all the traits that "flyover states" right-wingers mean when they scathingly refer to "East Coast liberals." On a personal level, they are all wise-cracking, fast-talking smart-asses, except for five-year-old Benjy who still manages to retain an aura of sweetness.
Jacob and Julia Bloch are an enlightened liberal Jewish couple. Jacob is a novelist turned writer for a successful television series. Julia is a frustrated architect, with big ideas for structures that she never gets to build. They have been married for sixteen years and live with their three sons (Sam, who is on the brink of becoming bar mitzvah; Max, who is nearly eleven; and the aforementioned Benjy) in a posh townhouse in a posh neighborhood in Washington.
They see themselves as special people. They are essentially living in a bubble. A bubble that encompasses Washington and Israel. But there are plenty of problems lurking underneath that bubble.
Sam is resisting the whole idea of bar mitzvah and has recently been accused of writing racial epithets on a paper at his Hebrew school. He denies having written them. His father chooses to believe him. His mother does not. The first sign of a rift perhaps.
Then Julia discovers sext messages sent to another woman from Jacob's phone. He says they were just words and that he never acted upon them. The rift widens.
Julia is attracted to another father of one of the students at Hebrew school. Jacob senses the attraction and is jealous. A little wider still.
The family's old dog, Argus, has become incontinent and Julia is constantly having to clean up his messes. She had never wanted a dog in the first place and yet she's often the one caring for him. Another tiny fracture.
The Blochs receive a visit from two of their Israeli cousins who have come to be present for Sam's bar mitzvah. In the midst of their visit, a massive earthquake hits the Middle East, causing enormous destruction and casualties in Israel and neighboring countries. All air traffic to Israel is halted and the cousins cannot go home.
The earthquake disaster leads to a predictable humanitarian crisis. Israel chooses to withhold assistance from its neighbors, essentially closing its borders and hoarding medical and food supplies. The humanitarian disaster leads to a war against Israel by its united neighbors and the Israeli government puts out a call to all Jews of a certain age group to come to Israel and defend it. Will Jacob answer the call?
The main action of Here I Am takes place over a period of four weeks in the present. It's a period during which the Blochs wrestle with the disintegration of their marriage and the potential destruction of Israel. The author explores the questions of what it means to be a Jew in modern America and what are the ties that bind such a person still to the country of Israel. How does one reconcile the conflicts inherent in familial duties and religious identities and an international crisis?
Here I Am is a jigsaw puzzle of all these pieces and it is a credit to Foer's talent that he is able to piece them all together as well as he does. He gives us a thoughtful and understanding account of how history affects families, even to the third and fourth generation, as we see the effects of the Holocaust on the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of the survivors. It feels like a very personal novel on many levels, particularly at the end.
I did not learn to love most of the Blochs, but at least after reading the book I understood them a little better. They are just another family, broken by the events of history and trying to piece themselves together in a way that makes sense to them. In that, their story is universal.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars