I knew the name Jonathan Safran Foer. I knew that he was a great author who was supposedly pushing boundaries or creating new forms of writing (even though I didn’t know what he was pushing or creating and still don’t really know). But before last month, I had never read anything by him.
So, when I saw the words Here I Am staring at me in the bookstore, being the good, curious Christian that I am, I picked up the book and read the description. After the description intrigued me, I read the first few pages. After those pages kept my interest, I bought it.
It’s a strange novel, really. It’s about the dissolution of a Jewish family—both a small Jewish family living in America and the entire Jewish family throughout the world and its aftermath—existential, huh?
It centers on four generations of the Bloch family, who are all as unique as they are dysfunctional. There is the blogging grandfather, who is controversial and a little bit too politically opinionated. There is the self-aware, not-comfortable-with-who-he-is father. The confident, yet restrictive mother. The brilliant son who says and thinks things that make him sound like he could be a serial killer in a few years’ time. The video game son who is a lot more aware than either of his parents truly know. The warm, ethnically true great-grandfather, who just wants to live long enough to go to his great-grandson’s bar mitzvah. And a whole host of other unique, funny characters. It’s like a Dickens novel.
The characters are not the only unique thing in the novel. The storyline itself seems to come out of nowhere and surprises the reader at every turn (at least, it surprised me). There is infidelity, virtual reality, the death of a dog, an earthquake in Israel which turns into a World War, misbehavior at school, the death of a grandfather, model UNs that prove to be microcosms of things happening in the real world, bar mitzvahs, and everything else you can think of really.
Everything is a story inside of a story, just as Sam (the oldest son) plays a video game called Other Life, in which he is a character named Samanta. Everything is also existential in this novel. I’m not sure if this is a quality of Foer in his other novels, but on every page you feel as if there’s something deeper going on. Every conversation hinges on something the reader doesn’t know yet can feel. Everything feels tense, fragile.
Foer’s and Human Loneliness
The single most definitive quality about this book, however, is not its existentialism or the insane plot, it’s the loneliness of each character.
Jacob—the main character and father—goes through such great loneliness that he resorts to buying another phone just so he can sext another woman. He tries to hide the phone, but his son finds it.
The saddest part is that he doesn’t even go further than sexting. He can’t bring himself to do it. And I know you might be thinking that’s a good thing and it’s not sad, but Foer makes him such a pathetic character in this weakness that you begin to feel angst for him and almost agree with Julia, his wife, when she confronts him and mocks the fact that he couldn’t even sleep with someone because he lacked the courage.
Julia isn’t excluded from the loneliness either. When she discovers her marriage is falling apart and is on a trip with her son Sam for a model UN, she comes a few drinks away from sleeping with another chaperone on the trip. She is the character who is the best at hiding her loneliness, but when confronted with the fact that her husband was actually sexting another woman, she breaks down and just longs for a normal life with someone who can make her happy.
Sam, the eldest son, is one of the loneliest characters of them all and is only a child. But he hides it and compresses it in his video games. He willingly compresses and hides the fact that he is lonely by playing video games and living another life with other virtual people on a computer screen. And while that is not a terrible form of community, he is lacking the essential physicality present in healthy relationships. (I’m not talking about sexuality here. Foer goes at lengths to prove that sex will never make a person feel less lonely. It only masks the loneliness for a time, like a drug.)
The other two sons also don’t deal directly with loneliness, partially because they’re not major characters, but through their personalities and their parents’ concerns over certain tendencies they have, the reader knows what awaits them in the future and hopes they can escape that life.
Other than those three main characters, every other character deals with some kind of loneliness. It’s on almost every page. Even how they have conversations with each other—in short, curt, less-than-five-word responses (like a happier version of Cormac McCarthy)—makes the very words on the page feel solitary.
Every person portrays themselves on an island, demonstrating through their conversations and their actions that no one else gets them or understands what they are going through. But each character knows all too well what the others are experiencing. They are just too afraid of the truth that they themselves are alone too.
Knowing when to fight and when to let go.
Foer’s solution to the problem of loneliness seems to come in a blunt idea of simply knowing when to let go. This is summed up best in the fight that Jacob has with his wife over whether or not they should put down the dog. It pops up in random places in the novel and it is literally the last story in the novel.
There are hundreds of things and events in this where someone has a choice to either fight for what they love or let it go. And Foer paints the picture that it’s sometimes more loving to let someone or something go than to hold on for dear life.
I don’t know if I agree with him or not, really. But I do know the one thing that kept coming into my head as I was reading the novel was the poem “Reluctance” by Robert Frost. In the last stanza he writes this.
Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?
It is one of my favorite poems because it lends an ear to the idea that things you love are worth fighting for, that it isn’t in the heart of a person to go with the drift of things or accept the end of a love.
Now, the end of things might be inevitable—no one can stop the end of a season—but Frost seems to be saying that it’s still worth fighting for. Even though you can’t stop it, fight it.
And this is where the title of the novel strikes a chord. Here I Am are the words that Abraham spoke to God when he was told to stop from sacrificing Isaac on the alter.
Fighting for Presence
I don’t know what the symbolism is in a lot of this. I don’t know if the dog was like the ram that God provided so that Isaac could go free. Maybe the dog really saves everyone in the end and the implication is that everything will work out just fine. I don’t really know, to be honest.
But I do know that Foer seems to end the novel with a physical representation of the phrase “Here I am,” and I think this is the best attribute of this already brilliant novel.
Loneliness is soothed by simply being present. By physically being with people and being in that situation as if no other situation in the world matters. That it’s only when we forget everything and simply live in the present situation that we can begin to feel a smidgen less alone.
I get this because the end of the novel is the only real calm portion of the entire thing. When I read it I felt like everything was going to be okay because there were two people simply enjoying the company of each other and living for that moment alone. It was beautiful, really. And it made me want to live in the moment. It made me want to say, “Here I am.”