In January 2012 there was a Flurry of articles on 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. 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 be a showrunner. That’s not how I want to live my life. Which begs the question, How do I want to live my life? 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.
Foer grew up in D.C. 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,” Foer says. “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 2005. I didn’t think it would be 11 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 stubble, Foer looks only slightly less boyish at 39 than he did at 28. 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 the opera Seven Attempted Escapes From Silence, which premiered in Berlin in 2005]. I wrote Eating Animals [a nonfiction book about eating meat, 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 [an art book referencing Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles].” And then there was All Talk.
He was keeping busy, but he also felt like he was 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 years he’s been dating the actor 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 semitheoretical clarification of the thing he just said, is also typical of Foer’s conversation. It’s the kind of thing that sometimes gets him tagged as pretentious–there’s a certain segment of New York’s literary world that loves to hate Foer: for his charmed life, his Wunderkindheit, his real estate (his Park Slope row house was briefly on the market for $14 million in 2014), his fraternizing with celebrities, his self-seriousness. In July an email exchange between him and Natalie Portman, published in the New York Times’ T magazine, 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 says 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 torpedoing all talk, Foer got in touch with Eric Chinski, who had edited his first novel, 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 … 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 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 D.C. 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. He does this through rapid-fire, many-sided dialogue:
“Dad?” Benjy said, entering the kitchen yet again, his grandmother in tow. He always said Dad with a question mark, as if asking where his father was.
“When you made dinner last night, my broccoli was touching my chicken.”
“And you were just thinking about that?”
“No. All day.”
“It all mixes in your stomach, anyway,” Max said from the threshold.
“Where’d you come from?” Jacob asked.
“Mom’s vagina hole,” Benjy said.
“And you’re going to die, anyway,” Max continued, “so who cares what touches the chicken, which is dead, anyway.”
Benjy turned to Jacob: “Is that true, Dad?”
“I’m going to die?”
“Why, Max? In what way was this necessary?”
“I’m going to die!”
Yet beneath the homey surface, massive unspoken fears and desires are surging. With his bar mitzvah barreling down the pike, 12-year-old Sam has started acting out at school, and at home he retreats into a Minecraft-esque online otherworld. 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. They’ve let their most important selves become separate and secret, submerged beneath safe, convenient, high-functioning facades:
Julia’s unwavering composure with the children had grown to resemble omnipatience, while her capacity to express urgency to her husband had shrunk to texted Poems of the Day. Jacob’s magic trick of removing Julia’s bra without his hands was replaced by the depressingly impressive ability to assemble a Pack ‘n’ Play as he carried it up the stairs. Julia could clip newborn fingernails with her teeth, and breastfeed while making a lasagna, and remove splinters without tweezers or pain, and have the kids begging for the lice comb, and compel sleep with a forehead massage–but she had forgotten how to touch her husband. Jacob taught the kids the difference between farther and further, but no longer knew how to talk to his wife.
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.
The book will surely be read as autobiographical–it is, after all, a painfully authentic story of a divorce written by somebody who just went through one–but Foer isn’t particularly eager to connect those dots. “My divorce didn’t affect the plot of the book at all,” he says. “But I’m sure it informed emotions that are being expressed.”
Here I Am is one of those books, like Middlemarch, or for that matter Gone Girl, that 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. “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.”
THE PIGEON TUNNEL
By John le Carré
The renowned spy novelist shares his own story, reflecting on how his experience in British intelligence and travels around the world inspired characters and plotlines in classics like The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and The Constant Gardener.
By Ann Patchett
Two families’ trajectories are forever changed by an encounter at a girl’s christening. As a grown woman, that girl shares her family’s story with a novelist who turns it into a successful book, further shaking the roots.
By Ian McEwan
The author of Atonement is back with a Hamlet-inspired novel about a pregnant woman’s plot to murder her husband–as told by the unborn child in her womb. (Yes, the narrator is a fetus.)
THE WANGS VS. THE WORLD
By Jade Chang
A disaffected Chinese-American businessman, penniless after the financial crisis, decides to make a fresh start back in China, but no one in his family wants to cooperate.
By Margaret Atwood
The Handmaid’s Tale author retells Shakespeare’s The Tempest, starring a resentful failed theater director who plots his ultimate vengeance through a performance at a local prison.
By Brit Bennett
This highly anticipated debut novel follows a black community in Southern California as it deals with the years-long fallout over a clandestine teen pregnancy.
By Zadie Smith
In the new novel from the author of White Teeth, two brown girls growing up in 1980s London dream of becoming professional dancers–but only one has the necessary physical skills.
By Paulo Coelho
The author of The Alchemist fictionalizes the life of Mata Hari, one of the world’s most famous courtesans, who was executed for espionage in 1917.
This appears in the September 12, 2016 issue of TIME.