Friday September 09, 2016

Should I read it? Becky Toyne reviews Jonathan Safran Foer's "Here I Am"

(Hamish Hamilton)

Listen 8:04

After a hiatus of more than ten years, Jonathan Safran Foer is back with his much-anticipated and appropriately titled new novel Here I Am. It's one of the most talked about books of the fall but does it get our thumbs up? Day 6 books columnist Becky Toyne says...no.

Here I Am is a novel about home and the idea of home," Toyne tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury. "It's also about family and Jewish-American identity", she says.


About the book


The book predominantly follows Jacob, a Jewish-American grandson of a holocaust survivor and the father of three boys. He's about forty years old, his marriage is falling apart and he's plagued by the feeling that his life has become inauthentic.

"For the first 200 or so pages, I was in love with this book," says Toyne. "At that stage it really is about Jacob, his family and the breakdown of his marriage with his wife Julia."
 


The title is a references the Bible passage in which God commands Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac



Toyne says she liked how Here I Am brings the reader into the pleasure and pain of Jacob and Julia's romance. We relive their memories of when they were young, frivolous and kid-free just as we ride with them through the last few kilometres of their marriage.

But Toyne says the book turned when the intimacy of Safran Foer's writing and the telling of this family's story is interrupted by a seismic event in Israel.

"Stuck in the middle of the novel, while Jacob is having all these personal, internal crises, there is a huge earthquake that decimates the country and starts a war in the middle east," she says.


But should I read it?
 

Toyne says the change in tone from the pre-earthquake Here I Am to post-earthquake Here I Am that drags it down.

"What had been quite zippy and funny observations and dialogue gave way to lots of position statements on behalf of Jacob and his first cousin from Israel, essentially defending their life decisions," says Toyne, who blames these statement on the slower read.

But that wasn't what she disliked the most. Toyne says the book's biggest flaw is that it's so very male.

She says the book is about Jacob and his relationship with his sons, with his father, with his cousin and his uncle — essentially all men.

"The women in the novel aren't well drawn with the exception, possibly, of Julia but even she is just a caricature. She's become this nagging wife trying to everything together and crying all the time," says Toyne.

Divided on Safran Foer


Here I Am is Safran Foer's third novel after 2002's Everything is Illuminated and 2005's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. In the 14 years since his debut, he's built a significant literary profile, grown a large fan base but also attracted his fair-share of detractors.

Toyne says it was his writing style, the same one that won him praise and fans, that pushed critics away in 2005.

"Some critics found that a lot of the things that seemed ambitious and brave in the first novel were just a bit too twee, a bit too fancy and a bit too precious."

Toyne says it's not just his novels that have opened Safran Foer to criticism, and in some cases mockery.

"He wrote a book of nonfiction about the benefits of veganism and another project where he wrote stories for Chipotle cups in case you get bored while eating your fast food."

Another project, 2010's Tree of Codes, got the same treatment. For that book, Foer took Bruno Schulz's book The Street of Crocodiles and cut out the majority of the words. His publisher, Visual Editions, describes it as a "sculptural object."

Day 6 has two copies of  Jonathan Safran Foer's new novel to give away. To enter our random draw, send an e-mail to day6@cbc.ca with Here I Am in the subject line. Be sure to include your mailing address. We'll pick two winners at random before next week's show.