Here I Am
by Jonathan Safran Foer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

“Is there something you need to tell me?” This question is posed by Julia Bloch, the heroine of Jonathan Safran Foer’s long-awaited third novel, to her husband, Jacob, in the first of several fantastic set pieces. The couple have been happily married for almost two decades and have three young sons: Sam, Max and Benji.

Julia’s question, ominous at the best of times, sends shockwaves through the couple’s relationship. In superficial terms, it refers to a mobile phone she has found hidden in a bathroom. “There is not a single story about a cell phone that ends well,” another character, Mark, says later. He’s not wrong: Jacob has been sending sexually explicit texts to a colleague (he’s a television writer).

Her husband’s idiocy notwithstanding, Julia’s question is really aimed at their entire marriage, her family (including maverick grandfather-in-law Isaac), and everything the Blochs can and, more importantly, cannot say. After some skin-crawling sparring about passwords, the scene and the marriage unravel with a dizzying hysteria. Jacob is unintentionally hilarious as he frames and reframes the rhetoric of the discussion, deferring the grist of the conversation until the truth – or truths – finally emerge.

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Anger lends Julia (who knew what Jacob had written all along) cool, devastating precision: “You want to want some kind of sexually supercharged life, but you actually want the gate-checked stroller ... ’cause it spares you worrying about erections.” While Julia is “letting go of appearances”, Jacob will do anything to maintain them: he contextualises, minimises, rationalises and plays the victim. “I am disgusting,” he says, without really meaning it. The family’s infirm dog, Argus, moans at conveniently inappropriate moments as if he were a Greek chorus in canine form.

It’s a bravura passage that will make many cringe with recognition at the low blows, self-pity and sudden aggression that characterise most heated arguments. As so often in Safran Foer’s novels, certain phrases pop before the eyes. When Jacob answers Julia’s initial question by saying, “There is always something I need to tell you”, it resounds variously as a plea, a defeat, a deflection, an admission of (mutual) hiding.

But it also sounds like he’s ventriloquising Safran Foer’s raison d’etre as a writer. What does Safran Foer need to tell us in Here I Am? Several themes are proposed by the title, taken from Genesis: “Here I am” are God’s first words to Abraham during his infanticidal test. Safran Foer is less interested in scripture than in the challenge of being present: “I don’t believe you’re there at all,” Julia says to Jacob.

Later, presence will become deeply political, as Jews across the world (including the Blochs) are urged to fight for the future of Israel. Safran Foer is on safer ground examining it as a #firstworldproblem: the work-life-love-personal-fulfilment-happiness balance. This, of course, is a daily preoccupation for the people who inhabit Safran Foer’s novels: intelligent, prosperous, self-aware but fatally flawed cosmopolitan intellectuals.

Here, Safran Foer emerges as a Woody Allen for the 21st century, and not only because his characters are Jewish and funny: they are also likeable, infuriating and given to speaking endlessly and wittily. It is characteristic that Jacob restricts his virtual infidelity to text messages rather than visual matter. For Julia, this is a sign of his passivity and sexual cowardice. But one senses the hand of Safran Foer making a postmodern literary point: “An image is what it is. A text could be anything.”

Another assault on “being here now” is led by technology. Jacob can let his hair down – so to speak – via texts but it’s his children who really express themselves online. Sam, the middle son, plays an online game called Other Life, which every adult is informed is not a game and is not played. Sam’s avatar is Samanta, a young Latina. Jacob patronises Sam’s love of Other Life until (in another great passage) he accidentally kills Samanta. The company’s helpline informs him that virtual death can only be rectified for US$1,200. Jacob’s fury at the company is nicely undercut by his own inability to solve material problems.

Broader contexts eventually appear. Sam’s main story involves a scandal at school that is threatening his imminent bar mitzvah (Samanta stages and destroys a virtual one on Other Life). He is accused of writing a series of offensive epithets in class, climaxing with the “n-word”. This echoes other main storylines involving Jacob’s grandfather, Isaac, who has offended the Arab world. Both pale when Israel itself teeters on the brink of extinction after an earthquake.

Safran Foer is among the most entertaining of literary novelists. Acute, elegant, funny, he is a joy to read. Yet his very facility can be a handicap. Take this account of the tiny griefs inherent in family life: “No baby knows when the nipple is pulled from his mouth for the last time. No child knows when he last calls his mother ‘Mama’. No small boy knows when the book has closed on the last bedtime story that will ever be read to him … No mother knows she is hearing the word Mama for the last time. No father knows when the book has closed on the last bedtime story he will have read.”

This graceful wheeling riff, which chases its tail with the ironies of life’s slow changes, is moving but a little too cute in its plangency and even glib. Safran Foer likes a running joke (such as a fantastically paranoid section on what Jacob and Julia believe the other is thinking) but sometimes doesn’t know when to stop.

This is also visible on the micro level. When a furious, tearful Sam tells his mother to go away (“You aren’t wanted”), Julia “just stayed there, an ice sculpture of frozen tears”.

Safran Foer’s tendency to polish shines up the novel’s rougher edges. Jacob and Julia’s row climaxes with the glorious comic fury of Jacob screaming, “You are my enemy”. Their precocious son, Benji, who has overheard the exchanges, adds, “You mean epitome”. The mistake is heartbreaking, but also contrived. Benji’s precocious vocab has been carefully prepared. Just in case the word wasn’t dripping in enough significance, Benji asks: “Why isn’t falling the epitome of life?”

Here I Am is a fine book and profoundly enjoyable; you can almost smell the well-heeled HBO series. At the same time, the somewhat hermetically sealed narrative never quite takes off. While this suits the hothouse of the self-attentive Blochs, it works less well for the stranger, broader sections about Isaac’s past and Israel’s present.

Maybe Safran Foer is simply too good for his own good.