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Thursday, September 15, 2016

Here I Am: Expansive, Exhausting

Here I Am, Jonathan Safran Foer's first novel in 11 years — the most anticipated novel of the year for many book nerds, me included — is a massive tome that sort of meanders through a bunch of big, important questions. What does it mean to be a Jewish man in this crazy world? How can any marriage survive the pressures of modern culture? And just what is Israel? 

Yeah, that last one throws you for a loop when Foer branches out and goes all geo-political. Again, this not a narrowly focused novel. It isn't a novel that'll be confused with anything like a focused, taut Phillip Roth novel.

The real story is about an upper class Jewish family living in Washington, DC. The parents Jacob and Julia, early 40s and married for about 15 years, are having marital issues. The cause of these problems so far is nothing major — just, as relationships do, suffering from the pain of a thousand small cuts. But it's soon clear all these un-discussed minor issues only need one major one to catalyze into a full-blown marriage blow-out. When Julia finds a phone Jacob had been using to sext with a co-worker, well, we have our major issue. And there's a major fight, where one tells the other "You are my enemy." Will they work out their problems and stay together for the sake or their family? Or will they dissolve their bond?

Yeah, these aren't exactly cheerful characters, and this is not a cheerful book. Nor is it an especially gripping one. You've heard the clichè "compulsively readable"? This is not that book. There are moments of wit, levity, and stretches that really do pull you in. But on the whole, it's a really exhausting read, not the least because it's 600 pages (and you know I'm person who actually enjoys long novels!).

One reason why this it's exhausting is the way Foer has his characters talk to each other — dialogue is a huge tent pole for the ideas of this novel. It's how we see how these characters — Jacob and Julia, most notably, but also their three children, Sam (13), Max (10), and Benjy (6), all of whom are precocious and witty almost to the point that they're not believable — relate to each other, their neuroses and pretentiousness (indeed, much of this novel could be described as neurotic and pretentious), and their complaints against one another. Indeed, there isn't too much self-reflection depicted here. Foer includes long strings of this rapid-fire dialogue with characters constantly asking for minor clarifications or making jokes or repeating the question the other person asked becomes an

And then there's an earthquake in Israel. And the marriage collapses further. And Jacob's grandfather dies. And we spend the last two-thirds of the novel with these strands of story mixed in with the Big Profound Questions Foer wants us to consider (or that he's considering, which he needed this novel as the vehicle, or something). Also, there's an incontinent dog.

I give this three out of five stars — I'm not sure I'd recommend it to anyone but the biggest Foer fans. There were definitely parts of this novel — about pages 150-250, and parts of the last 100 pages — that are utterly brilliant, and as fun to read as anything I've read this year. But the rest just really wilted and withered.

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