A confession: I cried reading Jonathan Safran Foer's first novel. I've never admitted that before, not even to my wife. Well, it's true, babe. There I was, on the uptown C train as it rattled through Manhattan, shedding tears into "Everything Is Illuminated" as the shtetl Trachimbrod loses its residents to the Holocaust. I had started the novel in laughter at the broken-English braggadocio of tour guide Alex Perchov; now I was bawling, a testament to the young writer's alacrity — and also to the mood of New York City in that fall of 2002, to our desire to shift sorrow onto something other than the pile of rubble downtown. If the Strokes were the perfect post-9/11 band, then Foer was the perfect post-9/11 novelist.
Foer's latest novel, "Here I Am," is his third, and it was as wrenching to read as his first, only in ways the author could not have intended. At 592 pages of upper-middle class realism, it is an utterly enervating read, an interminable dinner at the house of a couple given to lengthy quotation from "The New York Review of Books." Coming nearly 15 years after Foer's celebrated arrival on the scene, "Here I Am" dispenses with the postmodern narrative tricks of "Everything Is Illuminated" and 2005's "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," (both of which were not only bestsellers but became major Hollywood productions), but replaces them with joyless prose about joyless people. Again I think of the Strokes, whose 2001 album "Is This It" seems today less like the beginning of something auspicious than a singular event whose genius consisted of production values.
"Here I Am" purports to describe the unraveling of the marriage between Julia and Jacob Bloch, who have everything except love: a well-appointed house in the Cleveland Park section of Washington, D.C.; prestigious degrees and the kinds of equally prestigious jobs such degrees bring (she's an architect, he a writer for television); three precocious sons, the youngest of whom, at 13, is able to "intuit" the Miranda rights, an obscure and not entirely enviable superpower. There's even a dog. We are obviously supposed to admire the Blochs, the way we admire families in Dwell Magazine. I fear that it never occurred to Foer that his precious creations are, in fact, insufferable.
Plenty of marriages coast along on seas of mundane unhappiness. Such inertia seems to be the Blochs' fate, but then Julia catches Jacob exchanging salacious texts with a female coworker. These are the kinds of sweet nothings that, if redacted for the purposes of quotation in this newspaper, would leave little more than articles, prepositions and pronouns: "...my...your ... the…" Their marriage was already cracking. Now, it shatters.
Foer is at his best describing this falling-apart, as when he writes, "She had no lives to compare with her life, no parallel aloneness to measure against her aloneness. She was simply doing what she thought was the right thing to do." The novel's most compelling scene is an argument between Jacob and Julia in their expensively-outfitted kitchen. "You are my enemy!" Jacob shouts at his wife. She too begins to drift toward infidelity.
Because "Here I Am" concerns Jews and sex, comparisons to Philip Roth are inevitable. They are also misguided, in good part because Foer is less than half of Roth's age and couldn't possibly have the same preoccupations. Yet he tries, as if the responsibility of being a Jewish American novelist required of him protracted shows of thematic fealty to his miglior fabbro. For Roth, Judaism was substratum, a world to which he always returned but was never afraid to leave, even if only for Manhattan or the Berkshires. For Foer, it is a carapace into which he retreats whenever the fundamental business of writing fiction true to life surpasses his abilities of observation.
The novel's melodramatic flights about faith have less to do with "American Pastoral" than the shtetl reveries of Marc Chagall, toxic for their refusal to see the crumbling world for what it was. The great art critic Robert Hughes once charged Chagall with manufacturing "cloying ethnic kitsch." The same accusation applies to Foer's fantasy, in which everyone is some derivative version of Susan Sontag or Norman Podhoretz. If kitsch has a "fairy-tale glow," as Theodor Adorno once said, then "Here I Am" is positively radiant.
In 2008, the culture critic Vivian Gornick told the Boston Review that "Jewish writing is over," noting that her two nieces were "Ivy League babies." Yet, she added, writers keep clinging to the outmoded genre, like barnacles to a craft run aground. She singled out Foer and Michael Chabon, the bearded bard of Berkeley. "They're cashing in on a world that's long gone and they're writing with open nostalgia," she lamented of that duo. "They're making things out of it that belong to their grandfathers."
But what worked for Roth in 1969 — the year that Alexander Portnoy committed unspeakable acts with a slab of liver — can't work today, not with Jews so fully assimilated into American society that we routinely wear boat shoes and sometimes even play professional sports. That has destroyed the possibility of a Jewish literature removed from the American mainstream.
About halfway through the novel, Foer swaps the plight of the Blochs for that of Israel. Israeli cousins come to visit Jacob; as they arrive in Washington an earthquake rocks the Middle East, potentially leaving Israel weakened relative to its Arab neighbors. Passages about sexting are replaced by passages about the Palestinian issue. Call me prurient, but I preferred the sexting, especially since Foer's depiction of Israelis seem as complex as that of "You Don't Mess With the Zohan," that little-remembered comedy in which Adam Sandler plays an Israeli soldier living as a hairdresser in Manhattan. Say what you will, at least Sandler tried for laughs. I haven't a clue what Foer was trying for.
Much of the Israeli half of the novel involves Jacob being needled by his relatives, in particular his cousin Tamir. As he tells Jacob in an attempt to convince him to move to Israel, "if you were capable of standing up and saying, 'This is who I am,' you'd at least be living your own life." Foer's protagonist, though, is far too timid to make any such change, even if an effete Yalie stationed on the West Bank would have made a far more compelling novel.
By the time Foer tries to reconcile the novel's twin strands, it is too late, sympathy for Julia and the children left far behind. When the family dog is eventually put down, you are glad the suffering is finally through — both his and your own. Why does the novel take such a radical break with its own premise? I suspect Foer thought the dissolution of the Blochs' marriage was tantamount to the potential dissolution of the Jewish State. Such an equivalence would require an obscene pomposity on the author's part.
Foer's greatest failing in "Here I Am," far more grave than its cynical reliance on ethnic kinship, is writing that is as incoherent as a curbside preacher. Take Foer's description of his protagonist during a nighttime argument: "Jacob wanted to cry, but couldn't. But he also couldn't hide his hiding." This seems like heavy stuff, but only if left unexamined. If he wasn't able to cry, then what was he hiding? And what does it mean that he "couldn't hide his hiding?" Is this apparent only to the narrator, or to Julia, who is next to Jacob? If so, how?
Here Foer describes Jacob's cri de coeur: "It was a scream that had been building in him for sixteen years of marriage, and four decades of life, and five millennia of history." I am not sure how a scream can "build" all the way from antiquity, but perhaps the next time my wife and I argue, I should invoke the Babylonian Captivity. If it works, Foer will have my apologies.
Kafka's dictum to shatter the frozen sea within is better realized by the average supermarket romance. "There would be no lentil salad, no shaved brussels sprout salad," Foer writes in a parody of profundity. "There would be calories." There would have been calories anyway, if I understand anything about cruciferous vegetables. More importantly, there is no need to supply the reader with this nutritional information. Nabokov once called editors "limpid creatures of limitless tact" whom he reveled in dismissing. This novel badly needed an editor who lacked tact and wielded a machete.
Foer is also toxically fond of rhetorical devices (some debased version of the chiasmus and the antimetabole, if Wikipedia serves me right), desperate to make clichéd sentiments appear profound through transparent syntactic tricks: "Disappointment need not be disappointing" and "Living the wrong life is far worse than dying the wrong death."
A good test to apply to any novel purporting to be serious fiction is to ask, very simply, "What does that mean?" Every time I asked this question about "Here I Am," I returned to the same answer: Absolutely nothing.
Foer's second novel, "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," was embraced by some and criticized by others for its unabashed, unrelenting whimsicality. In attenuating that impulse, Foer has decided to turn the dullest sections of Leviticus into suburban melodrama. He isn't trying to make us cry anymore, but we might well be bored to tears by passages like this:
"We said a lot of things."
"I just want to say that."
"I'm not sure what you just said."
I can go on, but pace Beckett, will not go on. Too much here is offensive and off-putting. Too much is wasted on too little. "That is a seriously good impersonation of wisdom," Jacob Bloch says. "Here I Am" is very much an impersonation of wisdom, Hebraic and otherwise. But a deeply unconvincing one.
Nazaryan is a senior writer for Newsweek.
Jonathan Safran Foer
Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 592 pp., $28
Jonathan Safran Foer reads from "Here I Am" in L.A.
Where: Zipper Hall at the Colburn School, 200 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, presented by Skylight Books
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 29