It’s been 11 years since Jonathan Safran Foer’s last novel, and expectations for his latest, “Here I Am,” understandably are high. Lengthy, grave, laced with themes of Jewish identity and survival, the book might be expected to elevate him into the same paragraph of the literary conversation as Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth. But for all its evident ambition, “Here I Am” is a disappointment from a writer of his talent.
The novel takes its title from Genesis, from Abraham’s response when called upon by God to sacrifice his son Isaac. And the Bloch family of present-day Washington, D.C., couldn’t provide a greater contrast to the patriarch’s unquestioning devotion. Jacob, a television writer, and Julia, an architect who’s never built anything, are the sort of American Jews “who will go to any length, short of practicing Judaism, to instill a sense of Jewish identity in their children.”
This alienated couple, who “tried not to acknowledge how secular they had become,” are thrown into turmoil when, on the eve of his bar mitzvah, their eldest son, Sam, is accused in Hebrew school of writing a list of words that includes the most vile racial and religious epithets. That transgression and Jacob’s suspected infidelity deepen the fault lines in the crumbling marriage.
For a time, it seems the family’s implosion will be eclipsed by a massive earthquake beneath the Dead Sea that sets off a chain of events culminating in war against Israel. Those catastrophes are glimpsed mostly from afar, save for the presence of Tamir, a robust Israeli cousin who arrives for Sam’s bar mitzvah and who embodies the “something strong, natural, unselfconscious” that Jacob admired in the faces of Israelis when he visited as a teenager.
In juxtaposing domestic drama with a world-altering geopolitical catastrophe, Foer has created a potent dramatic premise. But instead of using it to explore the eternal dilemmas of what Jacob calls the “Ever-Dying People” in a television script he’s worked on in secret for years, Foer never shifts his attention for long from the Blochs’ only mildly interesting marital woes.
Foer abandons the appealing magical realism of “Everything Is Illuminated” and the verbal pyrotechnics of “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” for a more conventional narrative style. He skillfully captures the lacerating criticism and frequent dry wit of Jacob and Julia’s exchanges, but even the sharpest of these eventually lose their power.
Jonathan Safran Foer is a smart and daring writer, unafraid of risk. Although he hasn’t succeeded here, he still has ample time to produce someday that compelling work of American Jewish fiction.
Harvey Freedenberg is a freelance reviewer and member of the National Book Critics Circle. He writes from Harrisburg, Penn.
Here I Am
By: Jonathan Safran Foer.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 571 pages,$28.
Event: 7 p.m. Sept. 22, Weyerhaeuser Chapel, Macalester College, St. Paul, sponsored by Common Good Books.