18 January 2018

Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer

This was my favourite book of 2017. I've spent this year reading a lot of non-fiction and it was so nice to pick up a heavy, long-ass piece of fiction again. I should note here that "long-ass fiction" is an actual genre for me ... There is no way I could properly define it, but what I'm trying to say is that I love a massive book that leaves you trapped in the world that author created (whether it be a fixation with a character or even just how the story is narrated). Because I can't describe what I mean I'll leave you with a few examples of long-ass fiction: The Goldfinch by Donna Tart, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (or anything by Franzen really), and Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

Anyways, Here I Am is in this same vein. It is a ~600-page family dramedy that serves as Jonathan Safran Foer's newest, and most mature, book. I say most mature only because he doesn't rely on any weird narrative structures or typography tricks the way he does in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Anyways, again, this is Foer's first book in TEN YEARS.

Here I Am starts off with the second most jarring line I've ever read in a book's first chapter: 

When the destruction of Israel commenced, Isaac Bloch was weighing whether to kill himself or move to the Jewish Home." 

**I need to note that the BEST first line I've ever read was Margaret Atwood's opener in The Blind Assassin: "Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge. **

Foer's opening line kicks off half of Here I Am's plotline: a cataclysmic earthquake that destroys Israel. The other half of the plotline deals with the destruction of Jacob and Julia Bloch's marriage. 

Nothing goes away. Not on its own. You deal with it, or it deals with you."

Jonathan Safran Foer

The book bounces between the perspective of Jacob and Julia, as well as their oldest son, Sam. Jacob and Julia suffer from the same martial problems we all will... they are sexually bored and frustrated with each other's parenting. The main conflict occurs when Julia finds an unknown phone in their bathroom with some GRAPHIC sexts. She confronts Jacob and he admits to it, though nothing physical ever happened between him and this woman.

From here everything happens in a way that feels too realistic ... there's nothing overdramatic, and the parents both work hard to make it an easy transition for the kids.

Sitting with her now, rehearsing the horrible conversation, Jacob wondered if maybe, all those years, he misunderstood the spaces surrounding Julia: her quiet, her steps back. Maybe they weren't buffers of defense, but of the most extreme humility, the purest generosity. What if she wasn't withdrawing, but beckoning? Or both at the same time? Withdrawing and beckoning? And more to the point: making a world for their children, even for Jacob."

One narrative trick Foer uses is the whole "what was said" vs. "what was thought" comparison, and I will say it did work really well in this context. There are a lot of scenes where he will attribute something Julia said out loud, but then will follow it up with "what she really thought was..." This never passes into overuse or being too cheesy.

There is also a ton of beautiful / soul crushing discussions about marriage and child rearing which I obviously loved. There are two quotations from this book that will be seared in my memory for actual eternity. The first is just so simple and short that I want to sob my eyes out right now. Julia asks Jacob this question in the first half of the book and Foer constantly returns to it:

Does it make you sad that we love the kids more than we love each other?"

Oh god I'm in agony just typing it. This is honestly something that I struggle with so much and what TERRIFIES me about having children. I don't ever want to love someone more than I love my own partner. And I know it's a different kind of love, but still, I don't want it.

My other favourite passage is from Jacob's mother. She delivers this in a speech at their wedding:

'In sickness and in sickness,' Jacob's mother had said at his wedding. 'That is what I wish for you. Don't seek or expect miracles. There are no miracles. Not anymore. And there are no cures for the hurt that hurts most. There is only the medicine of believing each other's pain, and being present for it.'"

Goddamn that's good. Please, someone invite me to speak at their wedding...

There is also a great moment when Jacob just screams at Julia after being confronted about the texts, "YOU ARE MY ENEMY."

I know this may seem weird out of context of the fight, but it's one of those things that if someone genuinely screamed this at me I would be devastated... He literally spits it out. It's one of those things you can never take back, and it would honestly burn into my memory for the rest of my life.

There is also a lot of comedy in the book. One of my favourite scenes is when Jacob, his father, his cousin and his youngest son are at the airport. Jacob goes to the bathroom and finds himself peeing next to Steven Spielberg. He immediately looks at Spielberg's dick. This alone is so funny because OF COURSE you would look. It's fucking Steven Spielberg. But Foer goes on! The punchline is that Jacob is convinced he is looking at an uncircumcised penis. He runs out to tell his father (I should mention that the Bloch family are Jewish and identify as Jewish) and his dad starts to have a meltdown. He is DEVASTATED that Spielberg is uncircumcised.

Safran Foer and his ex-wife, author Nicole Krauss

As for the stuff about having children... Jacob and Julia have three sons with the oldest being in high school. Foer has a son with ex-wife (and author) Nicole Krauss. I was actually so sad to read of their divorce because they seemed like such a perfect pair. I loved reading Eating Animals because you get to see how they've tried to raise their son. He writes this passage about one of the youngest sons in the book asking their father for privacy:

'Could we have a little privacy?' Max asked. The absurdity of it, the agony and beauty of it, almost brought Jacob to his knees: these two independent consciousnesses, neither of which existed ten and a half years ago, and existed only because of him, could now not only operate free of him (that much he'd known for a long time), but demand freedom."

I imagine this is how literally all parents feel as their children grow up. It's always funny to see a toddler say something so adult-like and demanding, and parents have a million of these stories. But I imagine that even though they laugh, their heart breaks a tiny bit inside. Another reason not to procreate.

This is a very long review and honestly it's because I LOVE this book SO SO SO much. Again it was easily my favourite book I've read all year. Don't be an idiot, pick up some long-ass fiction.

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