“Here I am.” In Hebrew the phrase is conveyed by one stark, declarative word—hineni. It is Abraham’s response to God’s test, commanding him to sacrifice his son, Isaac, on Mount Moriah. But “Here I am” is also Abraham’s response to Isaac when he confusedly exclaims, “Father!” How can two opposite situations elicit the same words? How can Abraham be there for God and at the same time be there for a son whom God has just asked him to sacrifice?
That tension is the underpinning of Jonathan Safran Foer’s massive and dense new novel, “Here I Am.” The book has elicited an avalanche of emotional, wide-ranging reactions from reviewers. One NPR critic proclaimed the book to be both “dazzling and draining.” The New York Times Book Review found it to be “often brilliant, always original, but sometimes problematic.” The Boston Globe’s scathing review, which was in the form of a letter to Safran Foer, mournfully concluded: “‘Here I Am’ was your chance to prove that you’re not just extremely precious and incredibly self-absorbed. Unfortunately, it’s a lost opportunity.”
“Here I Am” is Safran Foer’s third novel, and his first in 11 years. In many ways it doubles as a clarion call for the novelist who seems to be declaring that not only is he here, but he is also back. Safran Foer, however, was never altogether absent. In the intervening years he married and had two sons, then divorced the novelist Nicole Krauss. In 2010 he wrote a non-fiction book, “Eating Animals,” a treatise on animal welfare. That same year he also published “Tree of Codes,” an experimental novel based on Holocaust fiction writer Bruno Schulz’s “The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories.” In 2012 he collaborated on a new translation of the Passover Haggadah, “New American Haggadah,” with fellow novelist Nathan Englander. He also worked on an HBO show about a rabbi that was to star Ben Stiller. After penning seven episodes, he had a last-minute change of heart and pulled out of the project.
Sponsored by Jewish Arts Collaborative and Brookline Booksmith, Safran Foer recently came to Brookline to promote “Here I Am.” He told an audience that filled most of the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s main theater: “Novel writing is the most ambitious kind of writing for me. It offers me that feeling of awe or wonder and inspires me to say the Shehecheyanu [a Jewish prayer expressing gratitude].”
The new novel’s title further reflects Safran Foer’s intensity and his affinity for complexity. “Here I Am” is not only an allusion to the binding of Isaac; it is, as he explained, an inherently paradoxical story for the ages.
“[Both times] Abraham says ‘Here I am’ with complete presence—unconditional, unreserved presence,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what you are going to ask me, the answer is going to be yes. ‘I am here’ is paradoxical in that story. You cannot have that presence for God once you kill your son. But I’m interested in something much more subtle—those conditions of identity in modern-day paradoxes, like here I am a parent, a professional. Here I am between religious and secular values. Some people have that paradox of being in a devoted partnership or having a sense of being an individual in the world. Paradoxes are not too destructive and don’t cause a whole lot of pain. I think we’re not aware of them most of the time until a crisis ensues.”
“Here I Am,” the novel, is full of crises big and small. It’s the story of four generations of an upper-middle-class family, the Blochs, who live in Washington, D.C. The main protagonist is Jacob Bloch, a one-time novelist who had some critical success with his first book at the age of 24. Now, in his early 40s, Jacob pays the bills as a television screenwriter. His wife, Julia, an architect with ambitions to design buildings, mostly oversees kitchen and bathroom renovations.
The Blochs’ high artistic aspirations—aspirations that have been jettisoned for the mundane—are highlighted against the backdrop of their collapsing marriage and their eldest son Sam’s upcoming bar mitzvah. But Sam has sabotaged his milestone event by writing out a list of racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic words in Hebrew school. In a sense, Sam’s blunder foreshadows the sexually explicit text messages that Jacob has been sending to a coworker. Words not only have serious consequences in this family, they are life-altering.
Julia’s discovery of Jacob’s texts is as cataclysmic as the earthquake that has just happened in the Middle East, setting Israel and its Arab neighbors on the road to Armageddon. Despite this set-up, Safran Foer is adamant that he did not write a political book. “There are no clear politics in the novel,” he said. “It has a lot of perspectives and a lot of voices in it, a lot of needs and desires and fears and hopes. It’s not in association with any one of those things, but kind of the sum of those things, and the atmosphere of those things.”
While the title of the novel may be an organizing principle, the questions with which “Here I Am” grapples are eternal. Safran Foer pointedly folds the idea of home into the greater notion of a homeland. He searches for answers about what exactly constitutes happiness. One of the answers to that familiar yet ever-provocative question comes from the rabbi shepherding Sam through his bar mitzvah. The rabbi quotes a Hasidic proverb that resonates for Jacob and may well touch many of Safran Foer’s readers who have loyally stayed with him for almost 600 pages: “While we pursue happiness, we flee from contentment.”