Friday 20 April 2018

Genius on the verge of being a true masterpiece

Fiction: Here I Am, Jonathan Safran Foer, Hamish Hamilton, tpbk, 571 pages, €16.99

Novel brimming with ideas: Jonathan Safran Foer
Novel brimming with ideas: Jonathan Safran Foer
Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer

At the start of Jonathan Safran Foer's third - and long-awaited - novel, Here I Am, the Blochs are on the brink. That is Jacob and Julia Bloch, who share their comfortable Washington DC home (Miele vacuum, Vitamix blender, Misono knives, Farrow and Ball paint) with their three highly-precocious sons, Sam, Max and Benjy.

Despite appearances (and appliances), the Blochs are struggling to stay afloat, such that three catastrophes (one minor, one major and one global) suddenly and swiftly succeed in undoing life as they once knew it.

The first, minor catastrophe occurs when list of vulgar words is found on Sam's desk - a crime that runs the risk of jeopardising his impending, all-important Bar Mitzvah.

The second, major catastrophe is also caused by some inappropriate vocabulary, this time in the form of the salacious text conversations Julia finds on her husband's mobile phone.

The third, truly life-shattering catastrophe is the earthquake in Israel, which manages to destroy the former stability of the Middle East - both literally and metaphorically - in one fell swoop.

Each catastrophe could be said to serve as a metaphor for the other. And indeed, this is a novel obsessed with metaphors and avatars; with the different versions we present and those other versions we should or could have been. So Julia, architect-turned-interior designer, endlessly draws up plans for one-bedroom apartments, imagining a life in which her children (and, perhaps, her husband) are gone. Meanwhile, said husband, a novelist-turned-screenwriter, works on a secret script wherein he converts his life and family into an unlikely TV show.

Julia and Jacob's eldest son, Sam, spends his days playing the alternative reality computer game Other Life (although, of course, you don't 'play' it, you 'live' it), while his parents decide to meticulously re-enact their honeymoon trip in an attempt to recapture their own 'other life', back before it all spiralled away.

A school Model UN enactment stands in for the real UN trying to deal with the unfolding situation in the Middle East; the Bloch family dog recalls the ailing great-grandfather; the Israeli cousins represent the Blochs' repressed personalities - the 'other' kind of Jews they might like to be - while Julia admits she has mastered the 'appearance of happiness', but of the real thing, hasn't a clue.

This preoccupation with the boundary between projected appearance and reality reaches beyond the novel itself. Safran Foer was also raised in Washington DC as one of three brothers; he is also a Jewish novelist who dabbled in screenwriting; he has also recently gone through a marriage breakdown with fellow artist and mother of his sons, Nicole Krauss.

The latter fact, in particular, has invited widespread speculation about the novel's autobiographical nature. Safran Foer's editor has made a half-hearted attempt to dispel any rumours: "It's not autobiographical, but so firmly grounded in personal experience and emotional energy."

The author himself, however, has been far more definitive: "There's nothing to recognise, actually, in the book," he said in a recent interview, before revealing that Krauss has in fact read, and approved, the manuscript.

Apart from his highly-publicised marriage (and divorce), Safran Foer is best known for his two novels and one work of non-fiction, Eating Animals (which is currently being turned into a documentary). His debut, Everything is Illuminated, was published when he was just 25, and went on to win (among others) the National Jewish Book Award and the Guardian First Book Award. His second novel - which Safran Foer says was a direct response to the first - was Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and dealt poignantly and inventively with the aftermath of 9/11.

For some, however, this inventiveness and poignancy crossed the line into kitsch or over-sentimentality, a fact nowhere more clear than in the resulting sugary-sweet film adaptation starring Sandra Bullock and Tom Hanks.

Here I Am is a very different novel. Gone is the formal gimmickry which populated Safran Foer's earlier work; gone (mostly) is the tendency towards schmaltz; the deliberate tugging of heartstrings. Indeed, Safran Foer himself has said "I consider this my first book", drawing a division between his previous forays and this.

Such a division, however, belies an overarching desire for this novel to be taken seriously - profoundly seriously - a fact which threatens to overpower the narrative. Safran Foer may or may not want to write the great American-Jewish novel - to be the next Philip Roth - but either way, the constant recourse to profundity often spoils the moment.

Because for a lot of the time, the novel is very, very funny, and also very, very sad; it is a novel brimming with life and ideas - ideas about family, about faith, about the role of ritual and the transience of identity in today's modern world. That said, many will argue that there are in fact too many ideas; too many digressions. Here I Am is 600 pages of non-stop genius, but whether it all belongs here, crammed beneath the one, Biblically-inspired title, remains to be seen.

One comes away with the feeling that Jonathan Safran Foer is on the brink of writing a true masterpiece. Here I Am, for all its energy, is not quite it. But in some ways, it is incredibly close.

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