HERE I AM
Jonathan Safran Foer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
2016, pp. 592, $28.00
"A glass slips from your hand onto a granite countertop. You see the bright line of the break etching up the curve of the vessel, and yet the glass hasn't shattered. It holds its shape. It might even still hold liquid. But you know it's only a matter of time; that the glass is done. Sure enough, as you toss it into the trash, it falls into lacerating shards."--Here I Am
The greater part, the best part, the sometimes brilliant part of Jonathan Safran Foer's new novel Here I Am takes place in this moment between that crunch of impact and inevitable fragmentation. What's at stake is a marriage. The crunch of impact is the moment when a wife finds her husband's secret second cellphone and reads the graphic sexual messages it contains. On this fulcrum turns one of the most complete, and completely satisfying, novels of modern love and family. As the novel unfolds in the month that follows the phone's discovery, Foer creates a tension that is as essential as it is unbearable. We want to believe that, just this once, the laws of the material world might be proven wrong, that the damage isn't, after all, irreparable.
Like all good novels, this one is both particular and universal. It's tightly focused on a singular class, culture and moment in time, yet capacious enough to contain timeless emotional truths. As the Bovarys are to 19th-century rural French bourgeoisie and the Karenins to Tsarist Russian aristocrats, the Blochs are to affluent Jewish intellectuals in 21st-century Northwest Washington, DC. You don't have to have attended a funeral service at Adas Israel to appreciate Foer's deft rendition of that scene in Here I Am, but there's an extra frisson of recognition and admiration if you have.
As the novel opens, there are four living generations of Blochs, and as 13-year-old Sam staggers toward his bar mitzvah, his great-grandfather, the fading patriarch and Holocaust hero Isaac, is preparing for a dreaded move to the Jewish Home. Foer builds up the character of each member of this family--even the ailing dog, Argus--with the exquisite detail of a Mughal miniaturist, layering on the light and the dark with piercing exactitude. The result is a book that is as humorous as it is tragic which is to say, at its best, a mirror of life as we actually live it.
There's no doubt that Foer has planted a flag here: Philip Roth is retired, and here...