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'Here I Am' Grapples With Weighty Matters ... And Weighty Paragraphs

Jonathan Safran Foer's doorstop of a third novel takes its title from Abraham's response when God tested him by commanding him to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mount Moriah. Here I Am — much of which is about fathers and sons — interprets these three words as indicative of "who we are wholly there for, and how that, more than anything else, defines our identity."

But they can also be read as Foer's announcement that he's back — 11 years after his frequently sophomoric sophomore novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, about a precocious boy searching for traces of his father, killed on 9/11. Here I Am has none of that book's visual gimmicks, like the controversial reverse flip book with which it ended, depicting a falling man soaring back up to one of the Twin Towers.

Another apt title for Foer's latest might be Things Fall Apart. Among other things, it is a requiem for a marriage and a detailed anatomy of the breakup of the 16-year union between Julia and Jacob Bloch, an architect and a television writer living with their three sons, all under 13, and all incredibly precocious — does Foer do any other kind? — in Washington, D.C. (Foer's 10-year marriage to novelist Nicole Krauss ended in 2014, leading to what has been reported as an amicable co-parenting arrangement for their two children in Brooklyn, New York, similar to the one in this book.)

At the novel's start, the fate of Julia and Jacob's marriage hangs in the balance, as does that of their incontinent dog, and of Jacob's grandfather, Isaac — a Holocaust survivor who is debating between moving into a nursing home and committing suicide. When Israel and the Middle East are hit by a massive earthquake followed by devastating chaos, cholera, and war, the fate of Israel also looms uncertain. Against the backdrop of the Blochs' oldest son's approaching Bar Mitzvah, Here I Am also explores the ambivalent relationship of many American Jews with Israel.

Foer's novel doesn't fall apart — it ultimately comes together in moving ways. But his prose, hailed as energetic when he bounced onto the literary scene at age 24 with Everything Is Illuminated, is by turns clever and indulgently verbose. Along with endless discussions about Israel, righteousness, Jewish identity, and an online game community called Other World, the novel is thick with puns (including a tub full of wordplay about butter) and far too many details about furnishing Dad's new home. You don't need to climb a mount to see that sacrificing 200 or more pages would have made it a better book.

But there's plenty of rich stuff, too, including sharp observations about "Jewish Americans, who will go to any length, short of practicing Judaism, to instill a sense of Jewish identity in their children." Foer out-Portnoys Philip Roth with his riff on 12-year-old Sam's experimentation with various lubricants (honey, shampoo, rice pudding) for his obsessive masturbating.

And during a heated exchange, Jacob deflects his father's criticism of having wasted his talent on mere entertainment with a series of Sound of Music puns, culminating in "Shut your Von Trapp, already." Fast-forward 25 years, when Jacob calls his ex to report a medical worry and quips about God and the NSA eavesdropping; Julia asks yet again, "Is this the person you want to be? Always just joking? Always concealing, distracting, hiding? Never fully yourself?"

Here I Am repeatedly grapples with the questions of what is home, and what constitutes happiness. The rabbi preparing Sam for his Bar Mitzvah quotes a Hasidic proverb that hits Jacob too close for comfort: "While we pursue happiness, we flee from contentment." There are flickers of Dostoyevsky's great morality tale about a father and his three sons, The Brothers Karamazov, particularly in the long, marijuana-fueled conversation between Jacob and his Israeli cousin Tamir about identity, alienation, and commitment. In a nutshell, Tamir thinks that Jacob's problem is that he doesn't have enough real problems and should join the "Reverse Diaspora" to save Israel and himself. "You won't die for anything ... you don't believe in anything," Tamir accuses.

But Tamir is wrong: There's nothing equivocal about Jacob's love for his sons. "Does it make you sad that we love the kids more than we love each other?" Julia asks him during their split. Amidst all his doubts about God and home and the rest of his life, Jacob remains steadfast to his children — and to his ailing dog. Love, according to Foer, is about being present and knowing when to let go. We just wish he'd let go of more of his pet paragraphs.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.