Lev Grossman is TIME's book critic and lead technology writer
In January 2012 there was a flurry of articles about a new comedy in development at HBO called All Talk. The show was about a Jewish family in Washington, D.C., and the tone would be, according to a quote in Deadline Hollywood, “politically, religiously, culturally, intellectually and sexually irreverent.” Ben Stiller would star and direct; Scott Rudin would produce; Alan Alda was in talks to join. All Talk was written and created by Jonathan Safran Foer.
It might’ve been a great show, but we’ll never know, because at the last possible minute Foer killed it. “Two years writing it, and it got greenlit, and we were just a month or two from shooting, it was cast, it was ready to go,” Foer tells me over coffee in Brooklyn recently. “And I had a kind of nervous breakdown, almost. I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to be a showrunner. I don’t want to be a TV writer. That’s not how I want to live my life. Which begs the question, How do I want to live my life?”
Killing the show at that late stage was messy—Foer compares it to pulling out the bottom block in Jenga—but he did it and walked away, and in the process he answered that last question. “In a way it was my return to writing,” he says. “It was after that that I really went into high gear on this book.” By “this book” he means his new novel Here I Am, which will be published in September.
Foer grew up in DC and started writing in college at Princeton, where he took a class with Joyce Carol Oates. “It was almost accidental,” he says. “It was one class among a pretty eclectic selection of classes—that semester I think I took intro to metaphysics and epistemology, intro to astrophysics, abnormal psychology and creative writing. I didn’t think I was going to become any of those things.” One day Oates took him aside before class and told him she liked his writing. “It was this incredible revelation. I thought I just gave in these submissions every other week and they were discussed for 15 minutes and then recycled and that was it.”
But that wasn’t it. Oates became his mentor, and Foer’s senior thesis at Princeton became Everything Is Illuminated, a novel published in 2002, when he was 25. His second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, followed three years later. The books racked up a slew of honors and prizes, and both were made into movies. Foer got a lot of media attention, including from Time—I interviewed him for a profile in this magazine in 2005. I didn’t think it would be eleven years before I interviewed him again, but that’s how long it has taken him to publish his third novel.
Though he’s sporting a lot of scruffy stubble, Foer looks only slightly less boyish at 39 than he did at 28—he may just be one of those people who’s fated to die at an advanced age while still looking boyish. It’s not that he hasn’t been doing anything all these years—he just hasn’t been doing what everybody expected him to do.
“Over the last decade or so I worked on a lot of projects,” he says. “I wrote a libretto [for an opera called “Seven Attempted Escapes From Silence” that premiered in Berlin in 2005]. I wrote Eating Animals [a non-fiction book about eating meat, published in 2009]. I edited a haggadah [the New American Haggadah, a collaboration with the writer Nathan Englander]. I did this like weird crossover art book called Tree of Codes [a weird crossover art book Foer made by snipping some of the words out of Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles].” And then there was All Talk.
He was keeping busy, but he was slightly spinning his wheels. “I was proud of them but they also were sort of—” Foer stops and starts the sentence over, something he does a lot. “I was blowing air into a deflating balloon, trying to keep the shape of being a writer, even though I was feeling less and less like a writer as time passed.”
Some of this had to do with his feeling more and more like a dad. He’s been raising his kids—his first son was born the year Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close appeared, his second three years later, both with the writer Nicole Krauss, from whom he is now divorced. (For the past couple of years he’s been dating the actress Michelle Williams.) And that was the other part of the spinning—divorce is time-consuming. “Part of it was probably that I was afraid that I wasn’t working on something that befit this finite amount of time on earth,” he says. “I mean, why am I doing this? I don’t know if this matters! Even if I could recognize something as being good by some sort of external system of valuation—like, there are things in the world where you say, yeah, I recognize that that’s good, but it’s not for me…”
This move, the semi-theoretical clarification of the thing he just said, is also typical of Foer’s conversation—he likes to circle back and review and annotate his declarative statements, just to make sure they really mean what he meant them to mean, before proceeding further. It’s the kind of thing that sometimes gets him tagged as pretentious—there’s a certain segment of New York’s intensely self-fascinated literary world that loves to hate Foer: for his charmed life (cf. Princeton, Oates, etc.), his Wunderkindheit, his boyish looks, his real estate (his Park Slope rowhouse was briefly on the market for $14 million in 2014), his fraternizing-with-celebrities, his self-seriousness. In July an earnest e-mail exchange between him and Natalie Portman, published in the New York Times’ T Magazine, along with photos of a scantily clad Portman, provoked a lot of media trash talk and a full-blown parody in The Forward.
In person Foer is affable and funny, dotes on his kids, asks you a lot of questions and actually listens to the answers, and doesn’t turn a hair if you show up half an hour late to an interview date (long story). But it’s also true that he doesn’t go in for a ton of self-deprecating humor. His jokes are rarely at his own expense. He seems to have a very stable sense of his place in the universe—he was unperturbed by the gossipy blowback to the Portman kerfuffle, for example: “Didn’t make anything of it. That’s not a cold or evasive answer, I just didn’t.” Draw your own conclusions.
After All Talk went away Foer got in touch with Eric Chinski—who had edited his first novel but since then had changed publishing houses to Farrar, Straus and Giroux—and arranged to start working with him on a new book.
Like most novels Here I Am has multiple origin stories. Foer borrowed several plot elements from All Talk, but another piece of the puzzle came from a family trip he took to Israel. “I ended up paying a visit to the earthquake preparedness center,” Foer says. “Every once in a while I get a little itch; like, I’d sure like to see that. Like I spent a day with the obituary editor at the Times once. Just some little thing becomes compelling, you don’t know why, but I think part of being a writer is assuming there might be some future value to that itch.” In this case there was: in the middle of Here I Am Israel gets hit with a massive earthquake, magnitude 7.6, that severely damages the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Wailing Wall and destabilizes the entire region politically.
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. For the first 250-or-so pages Here I Am is the story of the family Bloch. Like Foer’s family-of-origin the Blochs are Jewish, live in Washington, DC., and consist of two parents, Jacob and Julia, and three sons, Sam, Max and Benjy. Jacob is a mildly thwarted novelist turned TV-writer. Julia is an architect.
One of the things that Foer does extremely well is to evoke the idiosyncratic verbal hothouse that virtually all families develop, in one form or another. He does this through rapid-fire many-sided dialogue, teetering stacks of quotes with their own oddball rhythm of riffs and jokes and non-sequiturs:
And so on. In most ways the Bloch household is a not unpleasant place to be, but everybody’s so quick and verbal that at first you don’t notice that happiness is eluding them.
Beneath the placid, homey surface massive unspoken fears and desires are surging. With his bar mitzvah barreling down the pike, twelve-year-old Sam has started acting out at school, and at home he retreats into a Minecraft-esque online otherworld. (A bravura passage detailing Sam’s adventures in masturbation, featuring rice pudding and rubber bands, reaches Portnoy levels of hilarity.) Julia is flirting with a handsome client. Jacob has acquired a secret phone that he uses to sext with a colleague. The lights are flickering—you can watch Jacob and Julia fall in and out of love with each other in real time on the page.
The problem is nothing sinister, it’s just that bit by bit over the years Jacob and Julia have allowed their life together to become calcified and inauthentic. They’ve lost the courage of their emotional convictions, and let their most important selves become separate and secret, submerged beneath safe, convenient, high-functioning facades:
It’s a process almost imperceptible to those caught up in it, consisting as it does of thousands of infinitesimal acts of cowardice, failures of nerve, tiny and massless as neutrinos. To observe them you need an instrument as sensitive as a bubble chamber—or a novel. “The structure of Here I Am reminds me more than anything of a fugue,” says Sarah McNally, owner of the iconic Manhattan bookstore McNally Jackson. “I read it with mounting awe at his narrative control.” What Jacob and Julia lose the ability to do, in a sense, is to say the title of the book: “Here I am.” It’s a reference to the Old Testament: when God calls out to Abraham to ask him to sacrifice his son Isaac, that’s how Abraham responds. It’s his way of saying that he’s there for God, completely and unhesitatingly present, without qualification, in a way that Jacob and Julia have forgotten how to be for each other.
Then halfway through the book—the event is telegraphed in the book’s flap copy, so I think it’s fair game—the earthquake hits Israel, where the Blochs have cousins. In the chaotic aftermath war breaks out between Israel and a coalition of Arab states. It’s a surprise geopolitical twist in what up till then has been a domestic dramedy—it’s as if the subconscious tension within the Blochs’ house has escaped and written itself large as a Middle Eastern crisis. Israel calls on American Jews to go over and fight, and Jacob has to decide whether he should. The two catastrophes, domestic and international, invoke the same complex of issues: What is a home? What would you risk and what would you sacrifice in order to save it? If one day your wife and your homeland called upon you, how would you answer?
Here I Am is a new kind of book for Foer—given the time elapsed it would be surprising if it weren’t. Foer’s earlier novels were successful, critically and commercially, and had and have passionate admirers, but they were also somewhat divisive. Michiko Kakutani, no mincer of words, described Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close in the New York Times as “admirably purposeful but ultimately mannered and irritating.” But when Chinski saw the first pages from Here I Am they felt different. “I wouldn’t have mistaken any of those sentences for anyone else’s,” he says, “but at the same time I just felt like so much stuff has burned away. With Jonathan, for all of the power in his writing, all of the imagination, the risk is always that it can become a little too sweet, or a little too clever, and a little too acrobatic. And I thought he had arrived at a place in his writing where it had kind of settled down and become a lot tougher.”
Here I Am will inevitably be read as political—no book with an alt-history Middle Eastern war in it can completely escape controversy—but while it contains a lot of political argumentation, it is not itself a political argument. “Somebody is going to come up to me at a reading and say, how could you betray the Jews?” Foer says. “And somebody is going to come up to me at a reading and say: good for the Jews!” It will also be read as autobiographical—it is, after all, a painfully authentic book about a divorce written by somebody who just went through a divorce—but Foer isn’t particularly eager to connect those dots. “That was mostly material I borrowed from the show, which pre-dated my divorce,” he says, a tiny bit stiffly (I did ask the same question twice). “My divorce didn’t affect the plot of the book at all. But I’m sure it informed emotions that are being expressed.” Not that it particularly matters, but those interested in Foer’s self-assured public persona will note its contrast with the characters he creates, whose interiors are baroque cathedrals of self-interrogation and self-doubt. On the evidence, harsh introspection is something he knows a lot about. Somewhere along the way, however he comes off in his emails with Natalie Portman, Foer has paid his psychic dues.
More to the point, Here I Am is one of those books, like Middlemarch, or for that matter Gone Girl, which lays bare the interior of a marriage with such intelligence and deep feeling and pitiless clarity, it’s impossible to read it and not re-examine your own family, and your place in it. “It’s very hard in the context of a domestic everyday life relationship to ask questions like, who have I become, or who have you become?” Foer says. “Or, why do we love the children more than we love each other? …The whole point of what’s tragic about domestic life is that people don’t talk that way. It’s not that they have those conversations and reach tragic truths, it’s that they never have those conversations.”