Saturday, September 24, 2016

Review: "Here I Am" by Jonathan Safran Foer

As much as I hated his first two novels, you’d be surprised at how much I was looking forward to Jonathan Safran Foer’s new novel Here I Am. It was getting a lot of good buzz, especially from TIME Magazine’s Lev Grossman, and I’m always a sucker for big books, so my curiosity trumped my trepidation, and I went in with rather high expectations. Well, those expectations were smashed because this is the kind of book that Foer can stake his claim to greatness. Gone are the emotionally manipulative techniques of his first novels, ones that were showy yet shallow and maddening, and with this 571-page behemoth, you can tell he has grown from the little squirt responsible Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. This is a serious adult novel (although it is hysterical at many places) about marriage, family, the shaky bonds that hold us together and the times when those bonds reach their breaking point. Jumping effortlessly between narrative moods, all of which are inviting as opposed to distancing as was the case with his first two novels, the characterization of the Bochs and the four weeks where their lives change is nothing short of masterful: everyone has a their shining moment and their connection is tenuous at times, strong at others, but never did I find it false or cloying (again, another problem I had with the first two novels, and I will stop mention them from now on). It begins as Isaac Boch, the patriarch of the family, struggles with what to do with his lingering life when Israel is devastated by a severe earthquake, and all the major Jewish monuments are all but destroyed. But he is a mere background character whose presence is always felt in the lives of the two main characters: Jacob, Isaac’s grandson, a famous writer for a television show (quite obviously a stand in for Foer himself), and his wife Julia. They are in their early forties with three kids, Sam, the oldest, Max and Benjy, a kid wise beyond his years, and the family dog, Argus, whose importance grows as the story goes on. Over four weeks in their home in D. C., major problems arise that threaten to tear the family apart. Sam gets in trouble at school for writing curse words in class, an extension of his ongoing problems with an online RPG and morbid sexual explorations. Argus is getting old and is quite incontinent, leading to some rather funny scenes as they look for where he pooped. But the major problem concerns Jacob and Julia: Jacob is sexting a girl he has no intention of sleeping with, and Julia entertaining the idea of an affair with a friend to sooth her dissatisfaction with Jacob’s complacency. The earthquake happens, and someone dies in a tragic way that makes it so they can’t be buried in Israel. I won’t spoil what happens after that, but it takes a few breakneck jumps in the timeline, but I never felt out of breath. This is a very heartwarming and funny story with funny characters, such as Tamir, Jacob’s rich cousin from Israel, a straightforward man who’s a mirror to Jacob’s unwholesome qualities, funny jokes, like the one about the zoo with one animal and sometimes astounding revelatory scenes of human fears and emotions, like its perfect ending, one which we see coming, but whose satisfaction lies in how much it says about the story as a whole. Bring your hankies for this one. A truly great book coming from an author I had given up on. Color me surprised!

Rating: 5/5

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