Here I Am: A Novel
Jonathan Safran Foer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016
592 pp., 28.00
Well, scads of novelists before Foer have known how, quietly and cleverly, to betray their characters' "subterranean" communiqués: how to signal curbed desire, seemly alarm, furtive grief, and so on. Foer, however, goes further. He transcribes the unsaid words that thicken the couple's silences and cheapen their banter. That is, between the actual pieces of Jacob and Julia's dialogue, Foer writes them an otherwise.
The characters themselves apprehend no more of this otherwise than a few of their own would have said's. The book hints, though, that if had they known more, the Blochs would have been braver. Or have had less need of courage. "They'd [have] said what they were thinking." But between the pieces of their story as they know it lies all that "occlude[s …] such bravery":
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 shitty retribution for tiny acts of shitty retribution for tiny acts of shitty retribution for an original offense no one could remember.
Foer, then, recounts the story of a marriage folding, a plot with a not unfamiliar shape. At the same time, though, he writes another, not-to-be-realized version of the couple's story, a version of their story that both of them remain too staid or scared to imagine, and he lays it in spitting distance of the version that will be realized. Moreover, he names all the crud that accrues even when people love one another—enough of it to wed a couple to the not-quite-inevitable denouement of their marriage.
Nor does this novel stop at flagging the otherwise in which Jacob and Julia could have "said what they were thinking." Instead, it signposts the moment where Jacob does not dodge his Israeli cousin's unapologetic cross-questioning. For, just as this cousin, Tamir, pushes Jacob to reckon with his competing loyalties and competing betrayals—and to order the many selves he shuffles around behind the pronoun "I"—Foer writes:
Jacob almost said, Now you've lost me.
He almost said, I'm heading up.
He almost said, I don't agree with anything you've said, but I understand you.
But instead, Jacob asked, "You want another beer?"
All told, Here I Am is about what happens and about what could have happened. It is about the otherwise, and it is about the "but instead." This is what makes the book unusual, to put it mildly. There are few novels about the otherwise and the "but instead"—and fewer still that avoid devolving into experimentalist noodling, on the one hand, or wistful schlock, on the other.
Indeed, here's one reason novelists rarely hazard books that, at once, tell a story and incarnate its alternates: to write a book like that is to strain even narrative omniscience. It's one thing, and a common thing, for an author to let a narrator in on his or her characters' inner lives. But Foer goes much further than that. He lets his narrator in on his characters' other lives. He gives his narrator access not just to his characters' secrets and self-justifications but also to the hypothetical plot in which they could have "sa[id] the hardest thing." In other words, he tasks his narrator with knowing his characters at the depth that God would know them.
The hazards of reaching for such omniscience are—predictably—significant. (As far as I know, the best outcome of hubris is being branded as a poser, and the lightest penalty for making readers claustrophobic is having to enjoy literary acclaim from the afterlife.) That said, on the off-chance that the risk pays off—that one can summon not only enough omniscience to realize a plot but also to pursue the not-to-be-realized stories ghosting it—the profit would speak for itself.
When it comes to Here I Am, Foer's profit does speak for itself. This book takes a handful of sympathetic characters and makes them forgivable. And maybe it will even take a crowd of sympathetic readers and make them quicker to have mercy. Or to ask for it.
Jane Zwart teaches literature and writing at Calvin College and, with co-director Jennifer Holberg, leads the newly launched Calvin Center for Faith and Writing.
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