He is a very old man, who has finally reached that place in his life where all he wants to do is reflect back on the good things and the not-so-good things. He has a young son, and all the wealth that a wandering Bedouin could ever want: tents, and flocks, gold—and servants to move them through the mountains and the valleys, past the woodlands and oases, across streams and down long, dangerous winding roads, where the traders guided their camels and bandits lay in wait. He has a wife whom he loves more than anything in the world and he has a hope in his heart that one day he will no longer have to wander, that one day his son will settle for good in one of the green places, lush with cedar and cool, afternoon breezes. Or perhaps near the sea, where one could look at the blue Mediterranean and see eternity. This is all he wants, all he has ever wanted, since he packed up his stuff in the Babylonian city of Ur and set out along the Great Euphrates, for Canaan, the land by the sea.
Then comes the Voice, quiet and insistent: “Abraham.” To which he answers: “Here I am.”
So begins one of the most famous and horrible stories in the Biblical canon. Granted, there are lots of horrible stories in the Bible, some of them which make you want to throw up and then throw the book across the room or throw the book across the room and then throw up. The Bible is not a book of good people doing wonderful things for humanity. It’s a book of war, of murder, of jealousy, of hubris so stunning that even Donald Trump looks harmless compared to some of its heroes. But this story—this story shames them all. Because in this story, in Genesis chapter 22, Yahweh screws with the man who has left everything because he thinks that Yahweh is going to give him an heir, which he, as a Chaldean man in the second millennium before Christ, thinks is just about the most important thing in all the world.
As important as it is to Abraham, good old faithful soul that he is (well, if you leave out his lying, cheating, scheming and war-making…), one would think that the invisible God he talks with regularly would view it that way too. Because when Abraham finally gets his son—the one Yahweh promised him—then Yahweh tells him:
“Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”
WHAT THE HELL???????
[Spoiler alert. You really should go read this story for yourself.]
In the end, Yahweh sends an angel to stop the old man from murdering his son, with a sniff: “Now I know that you fear God, because you were willing to kill your kid for me.” Really? Yahweh is omniscient, according to the rest of the Bible. He was just kidding around all along. Yukkety, yuk. Nudge, nudge. Pretty funny, huh?
Seems God’s a practical joker, who loves to pull a fast one.
But maybe, just maybe, there’s something actually good in this mess of a myth. At least that’s what Jonathan Safran Foer thinks in his new book Here I Am. It’s Foer’s fourth novel and his fifth book. (His fourth, Eating Animals, explores how we both love animals, maybe more than we love others of our own species, and are indifferent to the suffering of those we simultaneously choose to eat.) If you’re a Foer fan, you know the schtick: lots of references to the Hebrew Bible, Judaism, contemporary culture, morality or the lack thereof, and enough literary tricks to anoint him heir to Phillip Roth’s legacy as the great Jewish comedic social critic of our time.
Here I Am explores the unraveling of a family which seems from the outside to be pretty perfect: Jacob Bloch, the father and husband is a writer for HBO on a Game of Thrones-like series; Julia, his wife and the mother of their children, is an architect who has never actually designed a house for anyone; their three boys, Sam, who is about to have his bar-mitzvah, Max, who is passionately attached to the aging family dog, and Benjy, the youngest, is often the wisest.
The Bloch’s are falling apart: Jacob is having an almost-affair at work, Julia spends all her spare time designing glorious homes that no one will ever see, Sam is about to be kicked out of his Jewish school for writing a long list of hateful and racist words on his desk and takes refuge in an online game called Other Life, while Max and Benjy are mostly there to provide comic relief. Meantime, the Middle East is engulfed in a war that could end the world, or at least the Jewish state as we know it, Julia finds a cellphone with Jacob’s sexting to his almost-lover, Sam’s bar-mitzvah looks increasingly unlikely and his online avatar, a Latina named Samanta, is accidently killed by his father (Yahweh fails to intervene there, even in the person of a Customer Service Rep who offers to turn back the virtual clock for an exorbitant fee), Max’s dog’s health is rapidly deteriorating, and Benjy is, well, what most little kids are when their families are falling apart: mostly oblivious.
The story of Abraham’s almost-murder of Isaac forms the backdrop to all of this, or more exactly, Abraham’s response to Yahweh’s request: his quiet, “Here I am.” Because this novel is really about how relationships die when we are not present to each other. Jacob and Julia love each other and their children, but not enough to be present for each other, to really say “Here I am for you.” Sam is not present all, except in a world he creates in which no one is really present, where everyone is someone or something else.
Foer describes the vacuum of the Bloch’s marriage: “Touch had always saved them in the past. No matter the anger or hurt, no matter the depth of the aloneness, a touch, even a light and passing touch, reminded them of their long togetherness.” But now they don’t touch, even lying in the same bed at night.
They have been together for 16 years, but being together is not the same thing as being present together: “The movement toward estrangement—from each other, and from themselves—took place in far smaller, subtler steps. They were always becoming closer in the realm of doing—coordinating the ever-expanding routines, talking and texting more (and more efficiently), cleaning together the mess made by the children they made—and farther in feeling.” If that sounds like your marriage, be warned: things are falling apart and you will, as Jacob muses, “begin unlearning each other.”
The character development is rich and Foer genuinely loves all his creation, as a God should. He’s funny and sad, poignant and piquant. All in all, it’s a magnificent work, even better than his first, the God-haunted Everything is Illuminated. He mostly avoids the difficulties of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, his second, gimmicky post 9-11 novel. His third book, Tree of Codes, is hardly a book at all, but an artwork, created, not by writing, but by removing words using a block cutter from Foer’s favorite book The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz. The critics loved it and it went out of print pretty quickly. That is not likely to happen to Here I Am.