Here I Am
BY RUBY SMITH
Jonathan Safran Foer’s new novel, Here I Am, borrows its title from the Book of Genesis. When God calls out to Abraham before asking him to sacrifice his son, Abraham replies, “Here I am.” Foer’s largest project to date probes what it means to fulfill our familial roles as sons, daughters, husbands, and wives; it also asks how we care for the ones we love.
Here I Am is Foer’s first novel in eleven years, and he makes up for his long absence from the literary scene with the many magnitudes this book spans. It is at once the story of a splintering family, a coming-of-age saga, and an examination of what it means to be, or not be, religious in today’s world.
The story is centered around the slowly declining marriage of Jacob and Julia Bloch and their three children. The Bloch’s live in comfort outside the nation’s capitol. Jacob is a TV writer and Julia an architect. Their three young children (the eldest is thirteen) enjoy the modern comforts of suburban life, which Foer names in detail, and include: Vitamix blenders, iPads, American Girl Dolls, and organic pony hair mattresses. The landscape of 2016 is painted with surprising precision.
Foer’s deeply felt and well observed portrait of family life plays out in front of a budding international crisis. A massive earthquake hits Israel and chaos in the Middle East ensues. At times the dystopian element of the story felt, if not far fetched, a bit out of reach from the unexceptional streets of suburban D.C.
Foer might be considered the Wes Anderson of literary fiction, but his eccentric style has taken a backseat in this novel. Fans of his will find an older, wiser voice to return to. The flamboyance of his earlier prose has given way to a more thoughtful and serious tone. That being said, Here I Am is still filled with the same sharp wit and endearing characters Foer is known for. His dialogue reads flawlessly; it is so poignant, one should question how a child could ask such profound questions, though Foer is convincing and pulls it off.
Here I Am ticks many clichéd boxes: it will make you laugh, it will make you cry, and it will warm your heart. But the novel itself never feels trite. Foer is so meticulous in his descriptions he makes frequently used tropes and the grueling nature of everyday life feel inventive and bountiful.
Here I Am is teeming with life; messy, tedious, delightful, tragic life. Foer manages to capture the minutiae that consumes our days just as acutely as he tackles life’s grander moments, giving equal weight to both.
Originally published Fall 2016