Jonathan Safran Foer’s third novel, “Here I Am,” launches with an opening phrase as audacious and attention-getting as the ones about the firing squad in “One Hundred Years of Solitude” or the clocks striking 13 in “1984”: “When the destruction of Israel commenced. . . .” It’s a promise that Foer will deal seriously in calamity and death and another grim rewrite of a millennia-old Jewish story.
He delivers on that promise. In a way. Sort of. First, though, the upper-middle-class D.C. family at the novel’s core has some relatively humdrum problems to navigate. Jacob Bloch, the book’s nebbishy hero, is caught sexting with a director on the TV show he writes for. His heartbroken wife, Julia, contemplates a revenge affair. But hang on — there’s a Model UN event she needs to chaperone. The eldest of their three sons, Sam, is accused of using ethnic slurs at his school and retreats into a Second Life-style virtual site. Relatives are visiting from Israel. Jacob’s dad wishes he’d revive his literary career. The dog is incontinent.
I could go on. Foer is determined to. The first half of this nearly 600-page novel is almost entirely given to the push and pull of a household under serious but not especially heart-stopping tension: the “nudges and corrections” and “infinite tiny increments” of family life. The Blochs are witty and whip-smart and engagingly dour in ways that sometimes evokes J.D. Salinger’s Glass family. (“If I were you, I’d tone down the intelligence,” Julia cautions one of her sons after a bit of sass.) And their bantering and hand-wringing can be witty and evocative, especially as it exposes Jacob as the kind milquetoast who retreats to the bathroom to listen to science podcasts at the least crisis. But Foer’s microscopic attention to a couple of days in the life of the Blochs pushes off the novel’s dramatic geopolitical crisis for hundreds of pages.
Once he gets to it — the details would qualify as a spoiler, so suffice it to say it’s not good for the Jews — Foer’s rationale for all this delay comes into clearer view. He means to draw a tighter connection between real life and the words and images we use to describe it. Is sexting the same thing as an affair? Is knocking down a virtual-reality synagogue as terrible as committing the real crime? How much power does rhetoric — from politicians, from ayatollahs, from boys at bar mitzvahs — have to shape the world we live in?
Were these questions left to Jacob alone to contemplate, “Here I Am” would entirely collapse in a heap of pointillistic personal detail. (A full page is given to Jacob and Julia’s bedtime ablutions, three to Sam’s masturbation history.) But Jacob — and the novel — gets a proxy backbone in the form of his Israeli cousin Tamir. He gets some of Foer’s best seriocomic portraiture: “He was towering, cut from Jerusalem stone and generously garnished with fur — the kind of pecs you could bounce pocket change off, if there hadn’t been a forest of thrice-curled hair so dense that all that entered it was deposited for good.” But he’s also the novel’s wellspring of candor, challenging Jacob to put his talk into action. When Jacob praises his father, a firebrand pundit of the hard-line pro-Israel variety, Tamir slaps the idea away. “Op-eds? My father commanded a tank unit.”
“Here I Am” turns on whether Jacob will step up to the sense of duty represented by Tamir’s physical presence, not to mention age-old Jewish doctrine: The title refers to Abraham’s no-nonsense response to God’s demand for attention. Revealing Jacob’s ultimate decision would be another spoiler, but suffice it to say that . . . did I mention he retreats to the bathroom to listen to podcasts? “Why couldn’t Jacob be more like Tamir?” Foer writes. “If they could meet halfway, they’d form a reasonable Jew.”
This wobbliness is Jacob’s struggle as a character. But it’s also Foer’s as a novelist. His debut novel, “Everything Is Illuminated” (2002), overly sweetened its tale of the destruction of a Ukrainian shtetl with rhetorical somersaulting; his next, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” (2005), did much the same for 9/11. Foer’s ambition in “Here I Am” has more to do with scope than with language, but once he’s put in the position to write about serious consequences, he again retreats into precocity and tiny domestic tussles. His vision of suffering is remote and televised, as in the pat image of a mourning woman on TV, “of unknown ethnicity or nationality, pulling at her hair as she wailed, pulling with enough force to yank her head left and right.” Or, worse, it’s softened by appearances by the Bloch’s youngest son, who routinely arrives to make groan-worthy half-poignant utterances at climactic moments. (When the Wailing Wall collapses, he says, “Now it’s just the Wailing.”)
Novelists need to believe in the power of words. Why would they be novelists if they didn’t? Foer can be a powerful writer: He conjures up scenes throughout “Here I Am,” like a family patriarch’s funeral or Jacob and Julia’s tormented parrying over their split. But Foer’s contemplation of word vs. deed is ultimately restrained by its wordiness. The destruction of Israel is a momentous and terrible theme. It awaits a novel that can rise to it.
Mark Athitakis is a writer in Phoenix. “The New Midwest,” a book of his criticism, will be published in February.
By Jonathan Safran Foer
Farrar Straus Giroux. 571 pp. $28