It's been 14 years since Jonathan Safran Foer's first novel, Everything Is Illuminated
, propelled the author onto the American literary landscape. Only 25 when his debut novel was published, he garnered critical praise, a National Jewish Book Award, a Guardian First Book Award, and later a movie deal. His second book, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
, was a similarly acclaimed bestseller. He also wrote the beautiful Tree of Codes
, which was an artwork based on Bruno Schulz's The Street of Crocodiles
, and the nonfiction work Eating Animals
. But his fans have had to wait a while for his latest novel. Here I Am
is more than worth their patience.
Jacob and Julia Bloch are an intelligent, troubled, well-meaning married couple with three fascinating sons facing a moment of reckoning after Julia finds a second phone of Jacob's with lascivious texts on it. Amidst that fallout — along with preparations for their son Sam's bar mitzvah, a visit from Jacob's Israeli cousins, and other difficulties — a major earthquake hits Israel, roiling the region into war and creating a call for American Jews to come over and fight. Foer's characters are remarkably realistic and vivid, particularly the 13-year-old Sam, and his dialogue is poignant, hilarious, and frequently heartbreaking. A powerful, inventive, masterful portrait of a family in crisis, Foer's Here I Am
is a marvel, both intimate and epic. We are extremely excited to announce it as Volume 61 of Indiespensable
What was the genesis of Here I Am
Jonathan Safran Foer:
There were a couple, actually. One was that I had been working for a few years on a TV show for HBO with Scott Rudin. It was an entirely different plot, but there was a moment in the show when a character finds a telephone belonging to her husband that has all these lewd text messages on it. That was one genesis.
Another was this idea of an earthquake in Israel. I don't even know why it entered my radar, but it did, and I pursued it. I didn't really know where it was going but just had it simmering on a back burner. None of it exactly made sense on its own, and none of it made sense together until it did, which is often how it works with me.
I'll write in a lot of different directions at once without any objectives other than to write in a way that feels energetic and interesting to me. I don't really question if it's adding up to anything. I don't question if it's good or bad. If I have energy for it, if it holds my — more than my attention, my deep attention — then I keep doing it.
It's a very inefficient way to write. I end up throwing out more than I keep, but it produces results that I don't think I would have come to had I tried intentionally.
That's interesting because there's so much going on in this book, but it does feel deeply connected. It's tied together in an organic way.
I suspect the subconscious is more tightly connected than the conscious mind. That's one thing. The other thing is I described it like a genesis, but a huge part of the process was editing. When I was editing, then it was completely different. Then I really was intending things. I was asking questions about, How does this work with that? How can this be of use?
So it takes both parts of the process.
Do you enjoy one process more?
I probably like editing more, only because with editing, you feel like you're moving in the right direction. Things are getting stronger. With writing, there's just so much more uncertainty and, for me at least, fear.
None of it exactly made sense on its own, and none of it made sense together until it did, which is often how it works with me.
The title of the book, Here I Am
, is a concept that Sam talks about. In the Abraham and Isaac story, Abraham says "Here I am" to God but also to his son. Sam asks how can both of those opposing things be true at the same time, that Abraham is here "without conditions or reservations or need for explanation" for both God and his son, who God has just asked him to sacrifice. How did this concept come to figure into the new book?
I think I just learned about it in Hebrew school when I was a kid. I come from a very non-observant family. We didn't really go to synagogue but once a year, twice a year. We weren't believers in any way. We weren't ritualistic.
But it was important to our parents that we have some literacy, and that was really a familiarity with stories in the Old Testament. I assume I learned it then. It wasn't exactly something that was on my mind at all. I don't remember when and why it came back into my vision.
I did not write the story from that title. In fact, the title came at the very, very end of the writing process. Truly, it was the last thing I wrote for the book.
So it was not that I was writing from an idea, but it became a really nice organizing story, or an organizing expression at least, for what I had written about and the struggles that the characters have in their own lives to hold conflicting identities — identities of, for example, being a parent and being an ambitious professional. You really can't be both of those things optimally at the same time, but there are a lot of versions of those kinds of conflicts in identity, whether they're political or romantic.
The characters in the book, like most people in life, are able to sustain those paradoxes over time, and they don't cause them great destruction, and they don't even really cause tons of pain, until there's a moment of crisis like the discovered phone or the war in the Middle East.
Suddenly, the absence of choices is replaced by compelled choices. Are you going to stay in this marriage or exit the marriage? Are you going to go to Israel to fight? Are you going to choose not to go to Israel to fight? We're normally able to kind of say, "Here I am," in two places at once, but when something happens and we're no longer able to say that, we really do have to stick to one choice.
That concept of being fully present in one identity comes up several times, too. Julia says it to Sam at the moment of a serious injury. I have to admit, as a semi-new parent, reading about Sam's injured hand and how he said, "It's funny, right?" when he got hurt — it was almost unbearable. Obviously, it’s unbearable for Jacob and Julia, too. It's something that becomes a touchstone for them that is too painful to look at or talk about.
One way of looking at that situation is that I think it's probably fair to say that everybody in the family, they're fundamentally good people. They're people who certainly want to do the right thing. They're not indifferent to what's right and wrong. A lot of the hurt that they inflict, not all of it but a lot of it, is actually a byproduct of an attempt to love or to protect.
Jacob reflects on this quite a bit, ways in which he might have screwed up his children in efforts to love them. He wants to spare Sam his pain. In that effort, he forbids him, in essence, from fully experiencing his pain, which makes him a stunted human being and unprepared for the real world, which necessarily involves lots of pain of lots of kinds.
Oftentimes, the withholdings between Jacob and Julia are not inspired by passive aggression or nastiness, but either good intentions or simply being incapable of extending when feeling vulnerable or hurt, fragile.
I also find that moment very painful. Surprisingly painful. I think part of what I find painful in it, it's not really that the kid gets injured, because kids do get injured. It's the way that… Jacob talks in one part about "too much love for happiness." Especially with kids, the desire to protect them can so easily become distorted into hypervigilance or well-intentioned lying that ends up hurting them more than the original hurt. That idea of the hurt that is worse than the original hurt seems true to me as a parent.
Yes. Jacob and Julia's competing concepts of childhood that you write about, whether it should be about soul formation versus this time of being safe and happy and protected, seem true to me, too.
It's very real. I felt that pull in myself. I know a lot of friends who are parents who feel that pull, as well. One of the mistakes is thinking it's binary. As Jacob often says, "Why so binary?" [Laughter
I liked reading about this marriage and I agree that they’re fundamentally good people. They're trying pretty hard. As a reader, you almost wonder why they're separating sometimes. There is so much love between the two of them, and they're good friends and co-parents, as they say.
Yes, I know. There's something tragic about their closeness. I think Julia's explanation is actually just right: they divorced because they divorced. It's not a tautology. It was a choice that they made. It was also being willing to make the choice.
Another image about parenthood in the book that I found really striking was the idea of cleaning up a dead squirrel, and how that becomes a symbol of fatherhood. Then Jacob's nightmare of hundreds and hundreds of dead squirrels was funny and horrifying. I was wondering how that specific image came to you.
I have no idea. I feel like maybe in my life I had such a dream, but I can't exactly remember it. It's also the kind of thing I might accidentally make up. I've never had an experience like that. My dad never picked up a squirrel or had done anything like that.
But I definitely remember, as a kid, having an awareness of the things my parents did, because they were the end of the line. There was nobody after them. I remember my dad holding me down when I got stitches on the bottom of my lip. Even at the time, I remember having some empathy for him, like, Oh, that must be horrible.
There are some horrible parental burdens. Not burdens because they're work — burdens because they're so emotionally unpleasant.
As a kid, I do remember feeling that, well, one day I'll be at the end of the line, and I'll have to do that stuff. Then, sure enough, when I became a parent, it just comes up all the time. All the time. I wish there was someone above me, but there isn't, so I will now do this thing that I really don't want to do.
In Everything Is illuminated
, Alex's mother says, "One day, you will do things for me that you will hate. That's what it means to be a family." That seemed to come back up in this book a bit.
How did you decide to include Sam's life in Other Life [a virtual world he spends a lot of time in]? Why did you want to have that in the book, and did you have to do any research for it?
I didn't really think of it in that way of consciously deciding something. At some point, I just started writing it. I don't know exactly why. It is not something I planned. I just started writing him and writing that environment. I liked the kind of energy that it unleashed. It just fit.
said, "The rhyme is smarter than the poet." It's one of my favorite quotes about writing. I think what he meant was people write in verse because it's really pretty and it sounds good, but also because when you create a situation where you have to end a line with a word that rhymes with the word at the end of the line above, there's a problem.
The solution to the problem is oftentimes more interesting than what you would have done without a problem, unconstrained. When I write, I often create these accidental problems or these situations of really disparate voices or disparate themes.
People in the book are always coming up against the limits of what they're able or willing to say.
Sometimes they just don't work together; one has no place with the other. Sometimes the effort to bring them together and to make them rhyme becomes productive and can result in a structure that seems really complex but is, in fact, really intuitive or unearthed rather than manufactured.
That does seem to describe the structure of this book. It jumps around in time sometimes, somewhat abruptly, and it's in a close third person that moves between the main characters. It also includes the phone and text conversations, the news reports, and the bible for the show that he's writing, so there are a lot of moving parts. But it seems like it works all together really well.
I hope so. As I was saying before, there are the two different parts of the process, one of which is really intuitive and involves instincts and trusting, rather than asking lots of questions.
Then there's editing and just throwing huge numbers of pages away and making dramatic changes, like, Okay, what had been Julia is actually going to be Sam here. I'm just going to shift everything
. Or, What had been taking place here is now going to take place at this model UN convention.
Being deliberate and making use of what had been created freely, without constraints.
One of my favorite parts of the book was the stoned conversation between Jacob and Tamir, which is amazing on a lot of levels. Dialogue in general seems to be something you do really well. How do you think about dialogue differently than your other prose?
I think there are a lot of ways in which this book is different from my previous books. One of them is that it's really dialogue-driven, and my other books certainly have some dialogue, but they're not at all dialogue-driven.
The first book is driven by voice, really, by Alex's voice, and by this kind of magical realist style, this flamboyant style. There's letter-writing, which is just basically monologues. My second book as well was driven by a kind of flamboyant style. There were some dialogues, but they weren't really central.
In this book, it feels like it's happening in real time. You're watching two people engage with each other with strong drives, and incompatible drives, and seeing how their sentences butt up against each other, or push at one another.
Some of that is probably the result of having worked on this TV show. TV shows are only dialogue, really. And some of it is a result of a movement toward social realism in my writing. I just became more interested in domestic dramas, not the huge gestures, not the big experimentations, but what kind of facial moisturizer somebody uses before going to bed, or what frozen breast milk looks like, or the sound of the car seat engaging.
Those things, which I think I would have dismissed before as not really being the terrain of art, became the center of the art that I was trying to make. Domestic life is organized around talking, conversation. When I think of this book, I think of people talking to, or at, one another.
That makes it ring true in the domestic ways that you're describing, but also, in moments, it can feel very powerful and raw, depending on what they're saying to each other.
People in the book are always coming up against the limits of what they're able or willing to say. That tension feels good to me. It just feels alive.
You said that the earthquake in Israel was one of the first things that you had been writing about. I was wondering why an earthquake, a natural disaster, as opposed to something political, as the instigating factor in the wars?
Well, Tamir says there's nothing that's not political. [Laughter
] I have no idea how I thought of it. I really don't know. All I know is I found myself at one point at the Earthquake Preparedness Institute in Tel Aviv. I spent a day with the guy who ran the place.
Sometimes an idea gets in my head, and I can't let it go. Sometimes it's very vague. Recently, for whatever reason, just the other day I was thinking about Civil War reenactors, and what they would do if they were just stumbled upon. The idea that they would maybe, in order not to break character, be compelled to treat somebody like a time traveler from the future, and what that conversation would be like. I have no fucking idea where an idea like that comes from. [Laughter
The other day, my smaller son, who's seven, and I were playing trivia. I was just asking questions and he'd answer them. I asked him if he could name five dinosaurs.
He said, "Did you ask me that because there's a dinosaur on the back of my T-shirt?" I said, "Is there?" He turned around, and I had to say, "I guess that must be why. I don't remember looking at your T-shirt, but it just must be the case."
A lot of writing for me is like that, except that I can't point to the dinosaur on the back of the T-shirt. It must be the case that it was the result of something, like a connection to something I've seen or heard. Every now and then, I'll know what the referent was, but usually I don't. It must be the case that it was inspired by something in life.
I found Sam's trying to grapple with what it meant to be Jewish interesting, where he's thinking about suffering and loneliness and shame. Is that something you thought about growing up?
I'm not sure. There are things in the book about Sam's Jewish education, or Jacob's or Julia's for that matter, that really echoed my own, like being put in front of Holocaust documentaries, for example, without any real explanation or conversation afterwards. Or the idea that Jewish people's names are somehow linked to suffering. You're always named after somebody who's dead. It's never celebratory. So that stuff had some basis in my life.
But I wasn't trying to make any larger points about what it is to be Jewish. Even to Sam, it doesn't make any sense, not any more than saying what it is to be white or what it is to be gay. There's just such a diversity of experience. I probably was being true to something about my own experience in terms of the kind of arguments or voices or perspectives that created the atmosphere around me, and the melodies in my ears, and that continue to.
Finally, I wanted to bring up Argus, the family dog, because he's such a sweet character and another focal point for the whole family throughout the book, and because you've written about dogs a lot in your work.
I knew at some point not that late in the process that I wanted that scene with Argus to be the final scene. It was one of the few things that I knew was going to happen. I don't even know what you'd call it — “bittersweet” is an easy choice of words, for that readiness. The feeling of, I'm ready, not only for something to begin, but for something to end, for the moment of empowerment to be ending the life of something.
Argus was a good way to reveal the softness in different characters, to reveal, as is obviously the case with Max and Jacob, their attitudes about what is worth fighting to preserve, and what isn't, what is humane, and what isn't.
He's a good foil or symbol for a lot of the conflicts between people, as animals always are. And having him — the connection to The Odyssey
, reinforcing this idea of the journey home, and just wanting to get home, however you define home, as a place, as a family, as an individual, as an identity, as something on the other side of a glass screen. That yearning, the longing to get home.
I talked to Jonathan Safran Foer on August 2, 2016.