Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Here I Am: Jonathan Safran Foer Does It Again.

 I read so many different kinds of books that it's only natural that my reaction varies form one to the next. Sometimes I breeze through one and hardly remember it a year later. Some books challenge me to become that kind of writer; sometimes I even think, "I could have done that." Sometimes an author is so heavy-handed, so present that I can almost imagine the fingers clicking on the keyboard--and it bothers me.  I love to lose myself in the world of a book, to imagine the plot is unfolding and I'm present as a witness.

Some authors work a kind of magic, a balancing act that defies my imagination. Love it or not (I did), Kate Atkinson's Life after Life was a feat I can't even imagine undertaking. Since that whole story moved back and forth between alternate possibilities, she must have kept a huge chart on the wall over her desk to keep all the threads of her story straight.

Jonathan Safran Foer's novels leave me reeling. Although I have to look up the title every time I mention it, trying to keep the adverbs and adjectives in the right order, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, with its young narrator and broad scope of family history, was a novel I not only enjoyed but admired.

I have just finished his latest novel, Here I Am, which began as what might have been an ordinary story of a relatively secular Jewish family, preparing for their son Sam's bar mitzvah, Sam's great grandfather's last wish. Jacob Bloch and his wife Julia are raising their three sons, wrestling with their marriage, dealing with their parents, neighbors, and visiting relatives from Israel.

Technology takes a central role in the story. Sam is immersed in an alternative world video game in which he has created Samanta, his female avatar. His father Jacob has acquired a second cell phone he uses to communicate with a female co-worker. (The explicit texts appear in the book before readers realize what they are reading.) Sam finds the phone and leaves it where Julia discovers it, pushing their uncertain marriage into further crisis.

Somehow, though, Foer's characters' conversations and especially their thoughts take the themes of the story to a level not achieved in a typical airplane or beach read. The eulogy delivered at Jacob's grandfather's memorial service surprised me as much as it did Jacob, who didn't think the rabbi actually knew his grandfather. That passage itself is one I'll go back and read again.

About halfway through the novel, though, a natural disaster occurs in the Middle East that affects the entire world. Jacob's cousin Tamir visiting from Israel is unable to get home. Their late night conversations about Israel and Jewish identity, about marriage and family, keep replaying in my head.

I read sometimes for escape, but I love to read a book that makes me think and that puts me into the lives of people who are and are not like me. Even though some of the characters' words and thoughts felt so familiar and personal, I cannot imagine how Foer assembled this novel as he did.

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