In interview with Mark Medley in September, Jonathan Safran Foer discusses his new book, Here I Am, in such a way that it’s clear it feels distinct from his other writing for him.

Hamish Hamilton - PRH, 2016

Hamish Hamilton – PRH, 2016

Many of the attendees are carrying copies of his earlier books, Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredily Close, but the ideas and the process behind those novels feel distant for him. In some ways, he feels that Here I Am is his first novel.

Here we have a family observed over the course of four weeks – husband, wife, and three boys, ages 13 and 10 and 6 – in a state of dissolution.

The earthquake in the novel is the backdrop to a marital and familial crisis.

This introduces the question of scale to the novel: what’s big and what’s small, what matters amongst all of that, and how do confusions about scale mess us up? (This is how summarizes it, in interview.)

This plays out in terms of the concrete and also the intangible. For instance: “They started to collect, when traveling, things whose insides had an aspect of being larger than their outsides: the ocean contained in a seashell, a used typewriter ribbon, the world in a mirror. Everthing seemed to move toward ritual….”

How far is it between a seashore and a synagogue: is it quite a leap? Not in Here I Am. “It was all for the occasion – the entire edifice of organized religion conceived of, built, and tended to simply for a brief ritual.”

Rituals play an important role in the story, beginning with talk of a bar mitzvah. Rites of passage are sprinkled throughout, on the personal and political scale. Readers can slip beneath the surface of family detail and note countless scenes in which thresholds are crossed.

Distance is a preoccupation of the novel and the characters (e.g. near/far and immediate/distant) and other extremes are also considered (e.g. unconditional/open and active/passive).

One of the most significant distances in the story is that between characters and the happiness that they imagined they had or the happiness they imagined they deserved. Around that gap, much dissatisfaction and pain revolve.

“You want to believe that your work should have the significance of a war, that a fifteen-year marriage should offer the same kind of happiness as a first date.”

Extremes and paradoxes abound. Inherent contradictions make the characters seem that much more believable. “She liked the feeling of enclosure with the suggestion of expansiveness.” But whether readers feel intimate with them, despite the number of pages spent in their company? That’s another matter.

Readers could go shopping for them effectively, so carefully are some details of their lives shared (for instance, the spouses’ personal hygiene habits). But do they know them? Really? Ultimately, readers are distanced from the characters; but no more than the characters are distanced from their own selves.

Anyhow, Jacob and Julia are no longer the selves they once were. “They loved each other’s company, and would always choose it over either aloneness or the company of anyone else, but the more comfort they found together, the more life they shared, the more estranged they became from their inner lives.”

They have undergone great change. “Too many small accumulations: wrong words, absences of words, imposed quiet, plausibly deniable attacks on known vulnerabilities, mentions of things that needn’t be mentioned, misunderstandings and accidents, moments of weakness, tiny acts of shittyretribution for tiny acts of shitty retribution for an original offense that no one could remember. All communication had become subterranean: shifting tectonics, felt on the surface, but not known.”

The children are on the periphery of these changes, but not isolated from them: their experience is simply different. “The older one gets, the harder it is to account for time. Children ask ‘Are we there yet?’ Adults: ‘How did we get here so quickly?’”

Where? Here. That’s where I am. Whoever I am, now. “So many days in their shared life. So many experiences. How had they managd to spend the previous sixteen years unlearning each other? How had all the presence summed to disappearance?”

Anyway, who cares. “It doesn’t mean anything. That was my mistake. I thought it had to mean something.”

But the daily struggle seems to demand a search for meaning and there is anger and frustration when it remains unclear.

When another man challenges Jacob, he is irate and impatient. He seems to demand clarification, even while insisting on its impossibility. Tamir tells Jacob that he already knows the answer.

“That if I moved to Isreal my marriage would improve?”
“That if you were capable of standing up and saying, ‘This is who I am,’ you’d at least be living your own life. Even if who you are is ugly to others. Even if who you are is ugly to you.”

But as prominent as the title is on the book’s cover, Jacob cannot utter these words, not even quietly to his own self. This makes for an uncomfortable reading experience but no more uncomfortable than the experience of living.

In interview, Foer explains that this book is bigger than his others, but it makes him feel smaller; it is larger (there is an argument on every page) but it makes him feel quieter.

Did Here I Am make your bookshelf seem smaller? Does the mere idea of reading it make you want to scream loudly?

What have you read recently which made you aware of questions of scale?