Here I Am, by Jonathan Safran Foer

Hamish Hamilton, £20, 592 pages

September 17 2016 / Financial Times

It was said of Martin Amis’s The Information that it was a novel about a midlife crisis that itself was the embodiment of a midlife crisis. Something similar could be said of Jonathan Safran Foer’s sprawling and erratic Here I Am, his first novel for more than a decade.

The Information (1995) was a long, chaotic book, a comedy that aspired to tragic depths — just like Here I Am, in fact. The Information was about a man in his forties whose marriage is disintegrating and whose life has stalled, and so is Here I Am. Foer’s protagonist, Jacob Bloch, has three bright, hyper-articulate sons whom he loves, and yet he feels imprisoned by the routines and demands of domesticity. He wants to be free — but to do what?

Amis’s protagonist in The Information, Richard Tull, was a failed novelist; Jacob is a scriptwriter who yearns to do better, to write a major novel or movie. Like Richard, Bloch is impotent or at least acutely anxious about sexual performance. Like Richard, he is also preoccupied by astronomical speculation.

As well as a failing marriage, Jacob has a guilty secret. From a phone he keeps hidden from his wife, Julia, he sends obscenely suggestive text messages to a female colleague at work.

Julia is an architect, who in different ways is as frustrated as Jacob is, but has allowed her ambition to be subsumed by the responsibilities of motherhood. She finds Jacob’s “second” phone and, with the help of one of her sons, unlocks it and reads the messages. The scene in which she confronts her husband about his betrayal is tense and gripping. Julia accuses and abuses him, her long-suppressed fury waking the children.

Foer excels at dialogue, and captures well the voices of the five members of the Bloch family: funny, affectionate, always questing, sometimes enraged. Many sections have the pace and urgency of a good script, with characters addressing one another in short, clipped sentences, with little authorial interruption or guidance. The three boys, the eldest of whom is preparing for his bar mitzvah, are engagingly portrayed, often challenging their parents by asking the great unanswerable questions of being.

Yet this novel is more than just a tragicomic family drama. Foer has other designs, and these centre on the state of Israel, which he imagines being devastated by a huge earthquake that happens at the midpoint of the book, but is portentously foreshadowed from the beginning. Foer could never be accused of lacking ambition, and he grapples with the biggest subjects — the Holocaust and its legacy in his 2002 debut, Everything is Illuminated; the al-Qaeda attacks of September 11 2001 and the firebombing of Dresden in his next novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005).

In Here I Am he destroys much of Israel and the West Bank and then unleashes war in the Middle East. This is no laughing matter. The aftermath of the earthquake in Israel is represented second-hand, through news reports and extracts from official statements. The whole thing is, however, woefully under-imagined and reveals a very shaky grasp of geopolitics as the earthquake results in the rapid unification of the “Muslim world”.

New states are created (Saudi Arabia and Jordan enter into union) and the Lebanese Shia militia Hizbollah joins forces with the Sunni Islamic State. Believe that, if you will.

Foer could never be accused of lacking ambition, and he grapples with the biggest subjects

Several leading American-Jewish writers have, of course, written ambivalently and provocatively about Israel, pre-eminently Philip Roth, whose influence one feels pressing in on Foer. (There’s a nice in-joke when one of his sons tells Jacob he’s never heard of a writer called Philip Roth.) In Operation Shylock: A Confession, Roth has a character called Philip Roth who, in turn, has a doppelgänger, or avenging double, who is an anti-Zionist and whose self-appointed mission is nothing less than to lead the Jews out of Israel. For his part, Foer brings the Israeli cousins of the Blochs to America, and then, after the earthquake, has Jacob agonising over how — along with other American Jews — he should respond to the traumatic events.

But what’s happening in Israel is mostly of less significance to Jacob than his own tortuous family drama, which seems odd in the circumstances.

Foer is immensely gifted and he knows it. But he ought to use his gifts more wisely: in this new novel he has overplayed his hand and is ultimately undone by a combination of look-at-me overconfidence and self-indulgence.

A serious problem for writers such as Foer who have enjoyed early success and worldwide acclaim — the big film and international rights deals, the spectacular advances — is that they are seldom edited rigorously enough, if at all. For buried beneath the rubble of this book — beneath the collapsed walls and buildings of Foer’s ruined Israel — is a more poignant, concise and modest work about a once-happy couple who cannot quite understand why or how they stopped loving each other. If only this novel could have been excavated from the extravagant mess that is Here I Am.