With parallels to Homer’s Odyssey, Jonathan Safran Foer’s third novel takes on the subject of
Jewish identity in modern America. Its main character, middle-aged Jacob Bloch, struggles
with his multiple identities — writer, father, husband, son, Jew, modern-day male. With
his aging dog, the faithful Argus, by his side, Jacob navigates satisfying responsibilities to his
various family members, his culture, his homeland (whether that means Israel or the United
States), and himself.
Like Foer’s earlier novels, which deal with huge calamities (the destruction of a Ukrainian
town before the Holocaust, the destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11), Here I Am
contains a crisis that threatens to change everything for the book’s characters. In this case, it’s
a massive earthquake in Israel, quickly followed by war with neighboring Arab countries and
a call to the Jewish diaspora to return home. Meanwhile, Jacob’s marriage is facing a crisis that
could tear apart his family. Thus Jacob has a choice: stay at home in his upper-middle-class
residence in Washington, D.C., and keep his family together, or heed the call to defend the
Words, writing, text, communication — these are the mainstays of the novel and its
characters. Two generations of the Bloch family make a living from writing, and key plot twists
occur through sexting and public speech. In fact, the climax of the novel is represented as a
series of speeches at a bar mitzvah, on television, in the public square. The novel’s dust jacket
is wrapped by handwritten words, text from the novel itself. Even Jacob’s marital indiscretion
occurs via cell phone rather than in person.
Foer’s humor comes out in the many puns that for a time hold together key relationships,
including the marriage of Jacob and Julia. There’s also a great deal of endearing humor in
conversations between Jacob and his sweet and clever children, Sam, Benjy, and Max. Jacob
knows his children well; he is clearly a father who pays close attention. Other funny bits
include commentary on traditional Jewish food, and a fictitious NPR radio interview between
a reporter seeking facts about the earthquake in Israel and an Israeli engineer who seems
unable to answer a simple question without reference to the entirety of Jewish history.
As well-drawn as the male characters are, many of the female characters lack depth, existing
mainly in their relationships with men. Save for Deborah’s thoughtful speech at the wedding
of Jacob and Julia, most of the good lines are left for the boys (old and young). Julia’s desire
for solitude gets little discussion; her great promise to Jacob — “I will literally die before I
remarry” — is quickly tossed aside when she marries another version of her first husband.
Sam’s girlfriend, Billie, comes across as a sophisticated and insightful teenager, but then she has
a masculine name.
Foer’s novel deals with personal, familial, and cultural loss. By the end, readers appreciate the
challenges of playing multiple roles while navigating our quickly changing society and world.
SEEKING IDENTIT Y ON THE VOYAGE HOME
JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER,
HERE I AM: A NOVEL
(Farrar, Strauss and Giroux), 2016, 571 pp.
JENNIFER HYNES, Ph.D. ( Texas A&M University), is a full-time faculty member at the University of Phoenix, teaching
writing, literature, and critical thinking. She is a graduate of Texas A&M and the University of South Carolina.