I mostly don't write about books I dislike. Jonathan Safran Foer's new novel, Here I Am, will be an exception, for reasons which actually have to do with some of the themes of this (mostly dormant) blog.
The late Jacques Barzun taught me, in his magisterial From Dawn to Decadence, that the task of literature is to enlighten us about the complex lives of people. Well, Foer's book didn't do it for me. None of the protagonists were appealing to me as people, nor, even at the end of almost 600 pages, were any of them particularly familiar. Though I don't read much literature, so maybe the fault is mine.
I wonder whether the book will age well. Portions of it take place in an online game called Other Life, which may have millions of players, and may be forgotten in ten years. There is a section written as a text-exchange - a form of communication which may gone by the end of the decade for all anyone knows. A pivotal event hinges upon breaking the code of a cell-phone, which may seem a quaint curiosity five years from now, when we all use DNA-related wave-length to secure our phones, assuming phones don't go the way of the fax machine. Great literature takes the particular and demonstrates its universality; I'm not certain particular technology does that.
The book is overtly Jewish - in an American way. It's extremely verbal. Its Jews are talkative, virtuoso and compulsive players of sophisticated word-games; it's exhausting. Not long ago I read John William's Stoner - a short, taciturn novel that hits Barzun's target fully - which couldn't remotely be about Jews. Foer's Jews aren't taciturn. But what are they? Part of the story is that none of the children see any sense in Judaism; I didn't find much in the stories of their elders to change their mind. Thus begging the question: what's Jewish?
And then there's the Israel Thing. May I please request of American Jewish writers that they desist from describing Israel with stuff about Moshe Dayan, Golda Meir and Jerusalem of Gold? How credible would it be to describe early 21st century America by mentioning President Hoover, General Marshall or square dancing? If Foer's American characters were shallow and unconvincing, his portrayal of Israelis is beyond silly; it's offensive.
But that's not the worst of it. The book presents itself as the story of an American Jewish father whose family is disintegrating until a cataclysm in Israel forces him to find himself (Here I am) in relation to something larger. The title of the cataclysm is "the destruction of Israel". Now I'm not one to say that Israel is indestructible, but if you're going to use that as the conceptual framework for a 600-page novel, common courtesy to the real Israeli's would be to flesh out some remotely plausible scenario, one that somehow addresses Israel's real flaws or vulnerabilities. Foer can't be bothered enough even to flesh out any sort of scenario at all. The destruction of Israel is mentioned, from time to time, as a minor distraction on the TV screens that flicker in the background of the more important events at the front of the stage.
Unless I missed the true point of the book, which is that for American Jewish parents who can't think of any compelling reason their children should care about being Jewish (the best they come up with is "this is what we do"), the destruction of Israel is no more interesting than the real-life destruction of Syria has been these past six years: not at all.