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[Reviews]

The Man Who Loved Metaphors

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Jonathan Safran Foer’s authorial intrusions

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.

Authorial self-consciousness plays its part in Here I Am as well: the novel’s status as a novel — as an alternate, provisional, manufactured “reality” — is mirrored in several ways. Sam is a devotee of Other Life, an online role-playing game; his avatar is a Latina girl, whose painstakingly accrued identity and powers the technologically inept Jacob accidentally deletes. Early in the novel, Sam stays with his mother at the Hilton for a Model U.N., which leads to a very funny interlude wherein Micronesia acquires nuclear capability.

But the primary superstructure of Here I Am — foretold in the first sentence, though it takes about 250 pages to kick in — gives rein to an anxiety less purely aesthetic. The novel posits a declaration of war against Israel, in which more than thirty countries unite to attempt to wipe it off the face of the earth. The conflict is set in motion not by anything political or ideological but by a massive earthquake. (The natural disaster is a symbolic expedience to which Foer has always been drawn.) Though crippled, Israel still has more resources and better medical care than the surrounding countries, and soon the mass migration of Arabs over the weakened border begins to seem less like a refugee crisis than an invasion. Egypt abrogates its treaties with Israel, claiming that the conditions under which they were ratified no longer exist. Saudi Arabia and Jordan temporarily unify into one nation called Transarabia. The Islamic State allies with Hezbollah. Cholera, dysentery, and typhoid claim more victims than either the earthquake or the war. The president of the European Union refers to Israel as “a failed experiment.” “O Muslims, the hour is here!” proclaims an ayatollah in Iran. “The war of God against the enemies of God will end in triumph!”

The Israeli response culminates, emotionally, with a televised address by the prime minister, who urges Jews the world over to fly home and defend their motherland, even if they have never seen it before:

As I speak to you, the Israeli Air Force, in collaboration with the other branches of the Israel Defense Forces, is commencing Operation Arms of Moses. Beginning in eight hours, El Al planes will be departing from major Jewish population centers around the world to bring Jewish men between the ages of sixteen and fifty-five to military stations in Israel. Those flights will be met by fighter jets, to ensure safe travel. . . . On the seventh day, the Diaspora will be home: one million Jewish men, fighting shoulder to shoulder with their Jewish brothers. And with these Aarons and Hurs, our arms will not only be raised in victory, we will be able to dictate the peace.

Thus is the moderately observant Jacob, already at a crossroads in his life, asked to decide — egged on by his firebrand father (who, earlier in the novel, heartily defends his proposition that “Arab hatred for Jews has transcended their love for their own children”) and by his Israeli cousins, who have come to Washington for Sam’s bar mitzvah and are trapped Stateside when war breaks out — just how Jewish he is, and how Jewish he is willing to be.

Surely there is a political critique to be made of this front-loaded paranoid fantasy, in which asking about the motivations of the millions of fictional characters bent on exterminating Jews is tantamount to asking about the motivations of the earthquake, but I will let someone else make it. To me, the surprising thing about Here I Am’s vision of apocalypse is how disproportionately small it seems in the scheme of the book, as if Foer, having called it into being with much fanfare, seems unsure what to do with it. The lion’s share of the plot developments listed above is outlined in one chapter, written in the style of a CNN news crawl. Gradually, the salient thing about this “humanitarian crisis of unprecedented proportions” becomes how it will or won’t alter the plans of the Blochs. Will Sam’s bar mitzvah take place as scheduled? Will his great-grandfather Isaac, recently deceased, be able to be buried in Israel, or will the family have to bury him here? The threat to the homeland is rather easily turned to account as a metaphor for the threatened dissolution of the Bloch family home. The United Nations estimates that the number of earthquake refugees exceeds 20 million, but:

“Hello?” Julia asked, shaking her hand in front of Jacob’s face.

“What?”

“You’ve been watching while we’ve been talking?”

“Out of the corner of my eye.”

“I realize the Middle East is collapsing, and that the entire world will buckle into the void, but this is actually more important right now.”

She got up and turned off the TV. Jacob thought he heard it sigh in relief.

Here I Am has that much in common with Extremely Loud, though, to be fair, at least this time around those 20 million refugees who provide a somber backdrop for the troubles of a privileged American family are hypothetical. The problem, in both cases, is not that the subject matter is sacrosanct. The problem is that by transferring that subject matter onto a character, and then putting that character through the paces of a sadder-but-wiser resolution, you have pinned a false, sentimental closure onto the subject matter itself. It’s the sort of engineered, affirmational neatness that the postmodern writers from whom Foer borrows were dedicated to undermining.

The novel that Here I Am most consistently calls to mind is not one of Foer’s but rather Christina Stead’s 1940 masterpiece The Man Who Loved Children. Both novels are set almost entirely inside an insular home presided over by battling parents; both use the limited perspective of children to blow those parental battles up to epic scale. Both are, despite what might conventionally be considered the modesty of their constrained, domestic plots, doorstop-size. Both even happen to take place in the environs of Washington, D.C. So what’s the difference? Why does the inside of the Pollit house seem so distinct from that of the Blochs?

Maybe it’s unfair to say that Stead has a darker, more complicated view of marriage than Foer does; maybe it’s simply that the Blochs happen to be a lot less dark and complicated than the Pollits. Jacob and Julia were once in love but now are less so; that erosion has weakened their marriage to the point where it may not survive the blow of Jacob’s infidelity. They are, to put it mildly, not the first spouses to whom this has happened. And they have a real choice: they have the means to split up, to live wherever and however they want. The Pollits, by contrast, are in a death struggle. They compete not only through their children but for them; the father loves his children in the way a cult leader loves his followers, which is to say, he will brook no defections. Theirs is not some argument over where the children will sleep on which days of the week but rather over which parent’s view of the other parent, and of life itself, will prevail and live on through them.

There is an element of shame in the Pollits’ insularity — the conflicts within the family mustn’t be exposed to the world outside. With the Blochs, you sometimes get the sense that the world outside doesn’t have all that much to offer them. Conversationally, materially, in every other way, they are sufficient unto themselves. The children are uncomplicatedly adored; their resentments of their parents are typical stuff. The epic treatment of problems such as whether and when to euthanize their ancient dog seems mostly an outgrowth of their own self-regard. Home is where they feel safest and best understood; conflict-wise, the call is never coming from inside the house. The Man Who Loved Children earns its epic treatment of similarly housebound material; the children’s home is their whole world because the passions it provokes are so large and so scary as to destroy their perspective. Their childhood leaves a mark, not simply because it is childhood but because the Pollits have flaws for which the other Pollits are repeatedly made to suffer.

In the end, though, it’s a matter of style as much as anything else. Stead’s is rife with a dark particularity in its treatment of character, visual detail, everything:

Henny had never lived in an apartment. She was an old-fashioned woman. She had the calm of frequentation; she belonged to this house and it to her. Though she was a prisoner in it, she possessed it. She and it were her marriage. She was indwelling in every board and stone of it: every fold in the curtains had a meaning (perhaps they were so folded to hide a darn or stain); every room was a phial of revelation to be poured out some feverish night in the secret laboratories of her decisions, full of living cancers of insult, leprosies of disillusion, abscesses of grudge, gangrene of nevermore, quintan fevers of divorce, and all the proliferating miseries, the running sores and thick scabs, for which (and not for its heavenly joys) the flesh of marriage is so heavily veiled and conventually interned.

Here I Am offers a different sort of specificity, a surface-level thoroughness that is itself a convention of realism, meant to demonstrate how fully and thoroughly imagined is the fictional world. Thus, when Max Bloch puts his hands in his pockets while speaking with his brother, we are told what’s in there (“a Jolly Rancher wrapper, a stubby pencil from a bowling alley, a receipt whose type had vanished”). And the Blochs’ bathroom is a “real” bathroom because Julia’s interiority is colonized in order to catalogue everything in it:

She searched the wicker basket full of toiletry odds and ends, the medicine cabinet: small and huge bottles of Advil, nail polish remover, organic tampons, Aquaphor, hydrogen peroxide, rubbing alcohol, Benadryl, Neosporin, Polysporin, children’s ibuprofen, Sudafed, Purell, Imodium, Colace, amoxicillin, aspirin, a ThermoScan noninvasive thermometer, triamcinolone acetonide cream, lidocaine cream, Dermoplast spray, Debrox drops, saline solution, Bactroban cream, floss, vitamin E lotion . . . all the things bodies might have a need for. When did bodies develop so many needs? For so many years she needed nothing.

Julia is actually searching urgently for something in that moment — a buzzing phone — but the narration, sensing a metaphor, is happy to suspend that urgency, and that buzzing, long enough for it to be made.

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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September 2016