Reviews — From the September 2016 issue

The Man Who Loved Metaphors

Jonathan Safran Foer’s authorial intrusions

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Discussed in this essay:

Here I Am, by Jonathan Safran Foer. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 592 pages. $28.

In the opening scene of Jonathan Safran Foer’s new novel, Jacob and Julia Bloch have been summoned to the office of Rabbi Singer, the head of their son Sam’s Hebrew school. Sam, in the midst of prepping for his bar mitzvah, is facing suspension for having written down a long list of racial, ethnic, and sexual epithets, a catalogue of taboo words whose power fascinates boys his age. Adding to the delicacy of the situation, at least in Rabbi Singer’s mind, is the fact that Jacob is the son of a famous Jewish intellectual, a detail introduced as follows:

The rabbi shifted in his chair. “If I can speak frankly for a moment.” He paused, thumbing the inside of his nostril with plausible deniability. “It can’t be easy for Sam — being Irving Bloch’s grandson.”

Julia leaned back and thought about sand castles, and the Shinto shrine gate that washed up in Oregon two years after the tsunami.

“Sorry,” Jacob said to the rabbi. “What?

Illustration by Steven Dana

Illustration by Steven Dana

What’s most striking in this passage is not the offbeat nose-picking detail or Jacob’s mock confusion but what we are told Julia thinks about in between: two phenomena whose connection to the putative emotions of the moment is purely figurative, thematic — in a word, literary.

This turns out to be a signature move in Here I Am. A while later, Jacob, who writes for a successful TV show (after winning a National Jewish Book Award at the age of twenty-four, as did his author), is caught having a stupendously filthy, texting-only affair with a woman from work; an incriminating second cell phone is discovered behind a toilet. During a climactic argument, just a few lines after Jacob has “screamed” at his wife (“You are my enemy!”), we are told that she “sees, through the prism of her tears,”

her kitchen: the cracked rubber gasket of the faucet; the casement windows that still looked good but whose frames would crumble if gripped. She saw her dining room and living room: they still looked good, but were two layers of paint over a layer of primer over a decade and a half of slow decay. . . . Staring at the shell of her kitchen, the saddest thing was her knowledge of what was beneath, what a tiny scratch, in a vulnerable place, would reveal.

As for Jacob, jealousy — during a phone call with his wife, a particular background noise suggests she is not where she says she is — prompts in him this thought:

More than a thousand “constructed languages” have been invented — by linguists, novelists, hobbyists — each with the dream of correcting the imprecision, inefficiency, and irregularity of natural language. Some constructed languages are based on the musical scale and sung. Some are color-based and silent. The most admired constructed languages were designed to reveal what communication could be, and none of them is in use.

And so forth. We are told, in each instance, that it is the character who establishes the conceptual bridge, who thinks spontaneously of the connection between what is happening and something else only metaphorically related to it. But what’s really on display in these passages is an authorial droit du seigneur: the characters, reacting to the duress of the moment according to the dictates of their personalities, may have their own immediate thoughts and feelings, but their author has a less quotidian idea, to which their interiority is made to yield.

This has an unnerving effect on the reader, to be sure, but it also seems to have an effect on the Blochs themselves. They are, even in their most intimate moments, an exceptionally self-conscious family — or perhaps it is not themselves they are conscious of but their author, and of the concomitant need to behave in a certain way, a way that might best be described, again, as literary. Julia, Jacob, and their three sons regularly perform a “ritual whose origin no one remembered and whose meaning no one questioned”: after dinner they close their eyes and walk around the house as if blind, for as long as twenty minutes. “Each time,” we are told, “it was revelatory.” Little wonder they are such an insular, tight-knit family. It’s difficult to imagine the neighbors inviting them over. They often seem at least as concerned with making a kind of art out of their feelings as with feeling those feelings: after a particularly rapturous sexual encounter, at an inn in Pennsylvania in the early days of his marriage, Jacob expresses his joy by getting out of bed and stopping a clock. You know, to stop time. He keeps that clock with him for the next fifteen years.

The Blochs do not, in short, seem real. But perhaps to feel disappointed on this score is simply to fail to judge the novel on its own terms. Is it appropriate to try Foer’s work in the court of realism in the first place? The Blochs are not, after all, real people — their superficial similarities to the real-life Foers (a socially prominent, absurdly accomplished Washington, D.C., family with three sons of extravagant intellectual gifts) notwithstanding — so maybe one’s skepticism (Julia can see the faucet gasket through her tears?) is a function of bringing to Foer’s art a set of expectations regarding character and representation that it may not be fair to apply.

What kind of art does Foer want to make? His two previous novels — Everything Is Illuminated (2002) and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005) — feature strong, playfully disruptive postmodern structures, so it’s not a stretch to think that maybe straight-up verisimilitude isn’t what he’s after. Illuminated toggles between historical magical realism and a present-day comic plot that includes, though it is not narrated by, a writer-character with the same name and attributes as Foer himself. Extremely Loud incorporates photographs of locks and keys, a flip-book, and other flourishes as a kind of typographic overlay to the story of a boy trying to come to terms with the loss of his father on 9/11. It’s worth pointing out that none of these techniques originates with Foer: the photographs come via Sebald, the messing about with typography is as old as Sterne, and as for the notion of a character in a novel sharing a name with his or her author, the precedential roll call is extensive.

We all borrow from tradition, of course — it’s difficult not to — but what’s curious in Foer’s novels (“curious” in a way that may be the secret of their tremendous success) is that the postmodern narrative japery is so at odds with the narratives themselves, which are simple, traditional, and sentimental, sometimes in the extreme. They have a Capraesque heart that they seem to want to both exploit and conceal. That Extremely Loud sometimes looks like a production by Mark Z. Danielewski helps take some of the sugarcoating off a story that repurposes the violent deaths of thousands of real people as an occasion for a treasure hunt, a tear-jerking coming-of-age story that shares numerous plot points with the movie Stand by Me.

Ten years ago, Zadie Smith, in her influential essay “Two Paths for the Novel,” described “lyrical realism” — the traditional, dominant mode of the Anglophone novel — as sitting “at an anxiety crossroads.” Foer is perhaps best read as an incarnation of that anxiety. He wants to write the stories he wants to write, but he also wants to be taken seriously. The formal disruptions in his work do not grow out of it, they are imported into it, in order to lend it an air of aesthetic interrogation it wouldn’t otherwise have.

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is the author of A Thousand Pardons (Random House) and other books. His most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “Disappearing Act,” appeared in the April 2016 issue.

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