Book Review: Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer

I had to take a break before writing this post. Seriously. I couldn’t bring myself to cry, and yet I felt a huge lump in the back of my throat as I turned the last page of Jonathan Safran Foer’s poignant novel Here I Am, and at last breathed a sigh of relief.

I read Foer’s other works before: in my Animal Rights seminar we read and studied Eating Animals, a brilliant non-fiction account about vegetarianism and animal rights. I read and didn’t finish Everything is Illuminated on a train in Chicago, and picked it up again after letting it sit on my shelf, calling to me to finish it. To this day, I still can’t shake that novel from my memory because Foer’s writing is so powerful and deep.

Here I Am grabbed me. It beckoned me, no, commanded me to finish it. It is, at its core, a meditation on life, success, family and identity. Jacob and Julia are a Jewish American couple living in Washington, D.C. They have three kids, a nice house, a dog and relatives who spend time with them. However, when Julia finds out that Jacob sent sexually explicit texts to another woman, she files for divorce. They seem far apart after their separation, but after an earthquake hits Israel, their lives change. This novel covers a lot of serious themes, so I had to take quite a few notes so I wouldn’t miss any details.

One of the major themes is identity. In my junior year of college, I was interested in learning about the historical bonds between white Jewish Americans and African-Americans. At first I was learning about just the context of the U.S., but then I understood that my scope wouldn’t be deep enough if I just focused on the U.S. It turns out that what divided a lot of Jewish people and black people was the debate on Israel and how it treated Palestinian people. I won’t share my own personal thoughts on this because I don’t really know where to stand, but after reading Here I Am, I understand that the Israel-Palestine debate is complex and has had a huge impact on both Israelis and Palestinians. In one scene, Tamir and Jacob are sitting at the kitchen table and watching the TV. Tamir asks Jacob why he stays in the U.S. but never actually goes to Israel to help people. Jacob tells him that he donates to the state of Israel and supports it enough as it is even while living in the States. Tamir then reminds him that while people in Israel are dealing with armed conflict and the psychological toll of the earthquake, not to mention everyone’s criticisms of Israel, he, Jacob, lives in comfort and can watch the plight of the Israeli people on his TV because he’s not living their lives. I am aware that Jewish Americans are divided on this issue: some Jewish Americans have told me they support Israel, other Jewish Americans have told me they do not support Israel. As someone who isn’t Jewish American, I can’t say much on BDS (the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement against Israel) or about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians as a whole, but even just reading Foer’s novel reminded me that the entire debate and the war has hurt people in both communities and that in the end, no one actually wins because so many people lost their lives in this decades-old war. Jacob wrestles with his identity as a Jewish American because he knows his roots lie in Israel even though he was born in the U.S., but he also wonders whether he should support Israel or not.

The novel also wrestles with the concept of success and “making it” as an American. Even though Jacob and Julia seem to have the perfect life, it’s quite messy. Their son Sam is accused of writing racial slurs in class and they are also trying to get ready for his bar mitzvah even though Sam is reluctant to have one. They also are struggling with their divorce as well as the death of Jacob’s grandfather Isaac. Rather than keeping them farther apart, the news of the earthquake in Israel brings them closer together. This book reminded me that no matter how much money you have, whether you get married and have kids or have the best dream job in the world, no one is immune to loneliness, and even the most successful people struggle with it. Even when he is surrounded by his family, Jacob always asks whether his life has a purpose. He feels an emptiness that can’t be cured by wealth or success. The reason I majored in philosophy was because it forced me to wrestle with those tough questions: what constitutes a good life? what happens after we die? what is identity? what is home? Reading literature helps me contextualize my studies in philosophy because the characters ask themselves these tough questions even when they seem too busy to think about them. Life and death are not easy topics, but death happens to everyone, whether it’s the death of a marriage, the death of a loved one or the death of a beloved animal. Death forces us to stop and reflect on our existence and transcend our urgent need to always crave success, money and happiness. Philosophy often seems like it’s separate from religion, but the two are interconnected, and through the dialogues between Jacob and his family, philosophy unites with religion.

The thing that attracted me the most to this book was the use of dialogue and the constant theme of communication throughout the novel. When Jacob doesn’t communicate in an honest way with Julia about the texts, it hurts both of them. When Julia talks with Mark, the dad of one of Sam’s friends, their dialogue captures how much pain Julia feels when Jacob cheated on her and that Mark serves as a vessel through which she can embrace that pain and openly talk about how wrong it was for Jacob to cheat on her. A lot of times when writers have dialogue between characters they use “he said”, “she said”, or “they said”, and like many writers, I have done this, too. But in Here I Am, Foer treats the dialogue as if Jacob and Julia were real-life characters just having a regular human dialogue. He rarely uses “he said”, “she said” or “they said” when the characters talk to one another, and this helped me engage with the novel more because I wasn’t bored by the “said”. The dialogues seemed like something out of a movie (I’m wondering if anyone’s written to Mr. Foer about the film rights for this novel. It’s that good.) and I felt for them because their discussions are so real. When Jacob and Julia are talking about their divorce and Jacob cheating on her, it is so raw and genuine. The characters also communicate through silences, and these moments of silence bring them together, make their world smaller than before. In Buddhism, there’s this concept of interconnectedness, and the reality that no one is separate from each other and that we are all connected to one another and met each other for a reason. By communicating with Jacob in a frank no-holds-barred discussion, Julia forces Jacob to confront his insecurities because he keeps them buried deep inside and doesn’t do much to address them. He texted the other woman those messages because he did not feel confident in his relationship to Julia and moreover, to himself.

The novel meditates on life and reminds us through the deaths of Isaac and Israelis during the war and the earthquake that life is precious and we should cherish it. Towards the end of the novel, Jacob ponders the statement “Life is precious”, and regrets that he didn’t learn that sooner when Argus, his dog, is dying and Jacob must decide when to let him go. For too long, Jacob was so busy moving and doing things that he didn’t consider how his own success and life decisions would impact the people around him. Argus’ illness makes Jacob confront the fact that none of us should take life for granted because it can leave us before we know it.

I am still digesting this novel, so this review doesn’t do much justice to it. But I still recommend you read it. Foer is an incredible writer and worth reading.

Here I Am: A Novel. 2016. Jonathan Safran Foer. 571 pp.

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