Reviews — From the September 2016 issue

The Man Who Loved Metaphors

Jonathan Safran Foer’s authorial intrusions

Download Pdf
Read Online
( 3 of 3 )

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.

Previous Page Next Page
3 of 3

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $23.99/year.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf
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.

More from Jonathan Dee:

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada


April 2019

Works of Mercy

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


You’ve read your free article from Harper’s Magazine this month.

*Click “Unsubscribe” in the Weekly Review to stop receiving emails from Harper’s Magazine.