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The personal, as the 1960s student movement slogan has it, is political. And in Jonathan Safran Foer’s new novel, Here I Am, it’s a maxim that holds special resonance for Jewish people.
At the center of Foer’s novel, his first in 11 years, is a lengthy, late-evening conversation between Jacob Bloch, the book’s resident Washingtonian, and his cousin Tamir, visiting from Israel. They drink beer. They core an apple and get high. They do the one thing you’re not supposed to do with family: talk politics. Tamir interrogates Jacob’s allegiance to Israel in a way that manages to be tense, awkward, and funny all at once—everything you’d expect from a candid stroll through the minefield of identity politics.
An extreme geopolitical conceit sparks this familial battle of ideals: A major earthquake tears through Israel, prompting disease, panic, a lack of aid to Palestinian victims, and a coalition of Arab states mobilizing to destroy Israel in its moment of weakness. But the international crisis facing the State of Israel seems to pale in comparison to the domestic crisis facing the State of Bloch.
Residents of Cleveland Park, the Bloch tribe comprises Jacob, a writer; Julia, an architect; and their three children, Benjy, Max, and Sam (precocious in that almost-too-cute way Foer’s young characters usually are). There’s also the incontinent dog Argus; Jacob’s father, a hardline Zionist and controversial blogger; Jacob’s great-grandfather Isaac, a survivor of Nazi Europe; and the aforementioned Israeli relatives. Jacob and Julia’s marriage crumbles under the weight of sexual dissatisfaction, and Sam’s impending bar mitzvah is marred by juvenile antics at Hebrew school. And the Jewish homeland teeters on the edge of collapse.
Foer, following in the serio-comic tradition of literary patriarchs like Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, seems more invested in the destruction (and survival) of the modern Jewish American family than the destruction (and survival) of the Jewish state. Here I Am is a wholeheartedly Jewish novel, in that its concerns are specific to the anxieties of American Jews, who live in relative comfort while their international cousins live in perpetual turmoil.
Which is not to say the book’s concerns aren’t ultimately universal. In a sense, it’s about every family. It’s about personal sacrifice, existential dissatisfaction, and generational duty. It’s about how to grieve at funerals. How to stand up for one’s personal beliefs. How to decide when to put down a sick animal. How to save (or quit) a marriage. How to masturbate if you’re in your teens. How to sext with coworkers if you’re in your forties.
Which brings us to the comedy. Here I Am is, as they say in the review industry, uproariously funny. There’s a delightful banter to the dialogue; at times, the narrative is so speech-heavy it reads like a script. But the greatest moments are those in which the tangled history of persecution and prejudice is played for pressure-relieving laughs. In one scene, the Bloch family tunes in to news of the international crisis on (what else?) NPR. Tamir, newly arrived from Israel, starts to take stock of where his family is. One of his sons may have been called in to active duty. And his daughter, Jacob asks? “She’s fine,” Tamir says. “She’s in Auschwitz.” He quickly clarifies: on a school trip.
Foer is infamous for his sentimentality in the wake of historical trauma (see his 9/11 novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close). Is all this peace, love, and understanding too much for a story in which the Dome of the Rock is set on fire and the Wailing Wall crumbles? It depends on how sensitive you are to somewhat saccharine scenes of family life.
Here I Am, like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, is a work about homeland security. Not an abstract political homeland but the personal homeland of our everyday life; the land of spouses, children, and pets. When disaster strikes, when war looms, they’re the ones who help us survive.
Victory, as another 20th-century American slogan has it, starts at home.
Jonathan Safran Foer will discuss Here I Am tonight at Sixth & I at 7 p.m. $20-$45.