About The Author
Jonathan Safran Foer was born in 1977 in Washington, D.C. He is the author of two earlier novels, Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; and an account of where meat comes from, Eating Animals. Everything Is Illuminated won several literary prizes, including the National Jewish Book Award and the Guardian First Book Award. His stories have been published in The Paris Review, Conjunctions and the New Yorker. Foer teaches Creative Writing at New York University.
His latest novel, Here I Am, now out in paperback, asks what keeps a family together – and what can tear it apart? For the Bloch family it’s supposed to be a time of joy: soon they’ll all come together to celebrate their eldest son’s Bar Mitzvah. Except that he’s just done something so unspeakable the whole thing might have to be called off… For screenwriter and dad Jacob it’s further proof of his incompetence as a parent. For mum Julia, an architect slumming it as an interior designer, it’s a reminder of the sacrifices of motherhood. For younger brothers Max and Benji it is obvious that all adults are idiots. And for the eldest son Sam it’s time to ask if he’s truly ready to be a man.
As the crisis of faith of one family member sparks deeper crises in his wider family, the personal and the political collide and conspire to test the Blochs like they’ve never been tested before.
Exclusively for Foyles, Frances Gertler talked to Jonathan about having fun while also addressing some very serious questions about identity, continuity and loyalty, irreconcilable dilemmas and the uncomfortable place where words and action break.
Author photograph © Jeff Mermelstein
Questions & Answers
What was the starting point for your novel?
There were many starting points. For a few years I’d been creating a TV show for HBO, which, while quite different from the book, also featured an affair discovered by way of a cell phone. Around the same time, I was in Israel for a few weeks and became interested — for no obvious reason — in the notion of an earthquake in the Middle East, and the chain of events it might inspire. And for years I had been working on a short story that took the form of notes to actors, much like the section “The Bible” in the book. I don’t usually begin books with an idea or plan, but rather a set of instincts that will hopefully assemble coherently as I write.
Here I Am has a much more intimate feel than the grander scale of your two earlier novels. Was it a conscious decision to move away from the larger, more exotic canvas of your first two novels and were you nervous about doing so?
The book is actually twice as long as my previous novels, and also moves through history and global events more freely. That said, it does pay more attention to the domestic — much of the book takes the form of dialogue, and takes place in kitchens and bedrooms. I did not make a conscious decision to write it this way. I’m not even sure I was aware of the change, which spared me from being nervous about it.
You are very scathing of – and often very funny about - Jewish Americans, who ‘will go to any length, short of practising Judaism, to instil a sense of Jewish identity in their children’. How do you manage this dichotomy yourself?
I don’t feel that I was scathing. I was having fun — usually with joy rather than irony — while also trying to address some very serious questions about identity, continuity and loyalty.
The book is full of other such irreconcilable dilemmas, one of which gives it its title: how to be both a partner and a parent, a parent and a son or grandson, and so on, as Sam says, ‘who we are wholly there for’. How do we live with the impossibility – perhaps the undesirability – of being wholly there for any one person?
We barely notice the paradoxes most of the time. It’s only in moments of crises — or at least moments of extreme reflection — that we are forced to confront how un-integrated we are. The novel is organized around two such crises: the discovery of the affair, and the earthquake in the Middle East. Those events force the characters to claim ultimate identities.
The destruction of Israel is all too convincingly rendered: do you feel the kind of scenario you depict (not the earthquake but the invasion) is all too likely, and how does that make you feel, is the country dispensable to you in the way that Tamir suggests to Jacob that it is?
There is nothing outlandish about the scenario I created for the book (I ran it by numerous geological, political, and military experts), but neither is it likely to happen. “Dispensable” is a very strong word, but then, that’s why Tamir uses it. Like so many characters in the book, he is tired of the weakness of language, and pushes Jacob to the uncomfortable place where words and action break.
The children, especially Sam, see the end of their parents’ marriage before they do themselves: ‘Sam knew everything would crumble, he just didn’t know exactly how or when…He saw what they either couldn’t see or couldn’t allow themselves to see…’ Did having two children roughly the same age as your characters make it easier or ironically harder to get inside their – often very sophisticated - thoughts?
I wasn’t trying to create believable children, per se, but a certain kind of reading experience. The children in the Bloch family are not “accurate” in the journalistic sense, and certainly have no models in the world. I enjoyed writing them, and enjoyed the way they opened up certain ideas and conversations that the adults in the family couldn’t.
There is a thread of loss and nostalgia throughout the novel, not just of the marriage, of Isaac Bloch and his kind, but of the sheer passage of time: ‘No mother knows she is hearing the word Mama for the last time. No father knows when the book has closed on the last bedtime story he will ever read.’ Would we lead better lives were we able to keep these thoughts in mind at the time, or would we be crippled by them?
At the end of the book, Jacob reflects on life’s preciousness, noting what an utterly basic thought it is, but also how hard it is to self-generate. (Most of us only think about life’s preciousness when there is occasion to do so, i.e., a health scare, or a birthday, or a catastrophe of some kind.) There is nothing more crippling or inspiring than the memory of one’s mortality.
At one point Jacob asks, ‘What’s so wrong with making good-enough money eating good-enough food, living in a nice-enough house.’ In the age of the Tiger Mother, do you feel we are actually setting up our children for more and more disappointment and sense of failure, and are there enough people willing to step away from the game?
I don’t know about our children, but it often feels that we are setting ourselves up. It’s one of Jacob’s many problems: he defines happiness as that which is out of his reach. His emotional climax comes at the end when he imagines himself pounding on an enormous, heavy door, which separates him from the life he wants. He pounds and pounds, and begs to be allowed in, unaware that the door opens in, not out, and that he has been inside the entire time.
Have you started work on another novel and can you tell us anything about it?
I have made a bit of progress on a few projects, but none of them yet feel promising enough to justify sharing.