Once the book world’s precocious new talent, Jonathan Safran Foer attempts to show the world he has grown up with his first novel in a decade.
Ninja Sushi is not where you would expect to find Jonathan Safran Foer—or his children. Foer is, after all, a very public vegetarian whose last original book was a controversial attack on carnivores called Eating Animals. If he wasn’t, at that point, already an ur-Brooklyn novelist associated with all things artisanal and locavore and Park Slope, Eating Animals sealed the deal. Ninja Sushi, meanwhile, is mostly known for the infamous zero-star review it received from the New York Times: years before Pete Wells unloaded on Guy’s American Kitchen, Frank Bruni described Ninja Sushi as “Space Mountain under a hailstorm of run-of-the-mill or unappealing sushi.” Part-Medieval Times, part haunted house, the restaurant is located in a basement in Tribeca (not on Hudson Street, Foer notes, but under Hudson Street). Its main selling point? Patrons eat overpriced, second-rate sushi while being harassed by waiters dressed as ninjas. For Foer, the experience was “way too exciting”: “I mean literally you're in these little, like, in a traditional Japanese restaurant sort of like stalls and a waiter will just pass with some dishes and just, ‘Boo!’ Just like that [he’ll] fucking scare the shit out of you. And it puts you—or it put me—on such high alarm.” Also the place only has a B health rating.
It’s a good story, almost too good. Foer’s reputation for sanctimony has dogged him since he emerged more-or-less fully formed onto the literary scene at the age of 25—his first three books tackled the Holocaust, 9/11, and animal rights and many critics noted how youthful Foer’s moralizing was, which is to say that he often lashed out at the perceived moral failings of those who were older and had more power, but as he tells the Ninja Sushi story, he’s anything but preachy. He’s funny. In person, Foer is relaxed, amiable, and, as other profiles have noted, remarkably unassuming: He comes across as a regular guy in the neighborhood (that being Brooklyn’s slightly posh Boerum Hill neighborhood), talking about his day.
In an era when few authors—and even fewer novelists—receive media training, Foer is camera ready and, after a day of interviews, well-practiced in talking about Here I Am, his third novel in a decade. Ironically, the only tell that he is a celebrity novelist—one of only a handful in the country—is how charming and polite he is. When Chance the Rapper, or the artist Christopher Williams, or the BBC Radio 4 show In Our Time came up, he immediately asked me to explain who and what they were, and where to start with them.
Of course, any writer who wants a readership—who isn’t a bitter avant-gardist scribbling poems on buildings slated for demolition—is eager to please. But even now, in our era of tremendous literary desperation, when many writers spend hours politely responding to their half-literate Goodreads reviewers and submit to inane questions from book blogs you've never heard of, being eager to please seems suspect. The only way to make a career as a novelist today is to sell books, and selling books requires keeping a number of constituencies happy: publishers, critics, and, most of all, readers. Being a novelist is harder than ever. And yet when writers become shills—even though the entire literary ecosystem demands this of them—people turn away. We want our writers to be nice and cheerful and politically simpatico, but they shouldn't look like they work too hard.
Jonathan Safran Foer works hard.
That hard work has been a blessing and a curse for Foer’s career. When Foer published his first two novels, Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, some writers and critics grumbled that success had come too quickly, without enough struggle. Everything Is Illuminated was published after submitting the book as a senior thesis in Joyce Carol Oates's class at Princeton—the book has gone on to sell over half-a-million copies. A movie followed in 2005. Extremely Loud didn't necessarily mitigate the impression of a charmed wunderkid: Foer was only 28, and the book was big and wild and deliberately sentimental. Serious novelists don't like sentiment. Extremely Loud, too, was made into a movie and that movie, which starred Tom Hanks and was nominated for an Oscar. All-in-all, hard work made Foer a literary celebrity, the rare novelist whose 2014 divorce (from fellow novelist Nicole Krauss) made Page Six.
But the rap on Foer was wrong–or at least, only half-right. Though he was very young and very lucky, he was clearly very talented, and he embraced the role of the hard-working literary novelist: he toured the country and the world, never grumbled about media appearances, and even, in 2010, became somewhat of a public intellectual, with the publication of Eating Animals, an earnest nonfiction book about vegetarianism. All along, Foer was working pretty hard at being one of America's biggest novelists. So why did it take ten years for him to publish his third novel?
What stands out, a decade later, about Foer’s first two novels is that they reveal a young writer who seems enamored with his own abilities and frustrated by his chosen medium’s limitations, in the way of an ambitious student who hasn’t quite absorbed the history of the medium‚ or perhaps of a painter who doesn’t know that Velazquez got there first. Foer, the archetypal gifted young artist, was simply too full of energy to spend his time leafing through the history of the novel; he simply wanted to do what he wanted to do. The energy of his first two books comes from Foer being propelled by his own discoveries and his own experiments with language. This was frustrating to some critics, who dutifully pointed out that novelists have been fucking with typography since the 18th century (‘sup, Laurence Sterne), but many readers, like Foer himself, were also discovering these techniques for the first time, and responded in kind. (Interestingly, Foer does not seem to be much of a reader. When I asked him what he was reading, he stumbled for a bit, before landing on Rachel Cusk’s Outline—though he couldn’t quite remember the title, he said he loved the book. Foer may simply not have a gift for names, however. When asked about his work teaching at NYU, which he genuinely seems to relish, he struggled to remember his students’ names, though he has blurbed a few of their books.)
When Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close—and even Eating Animals—come up in conversation, Foer acts almost as if they were written by another person, or maybe as if they were things that happened to him, not things that he actually spent months (presumably) of his life working on. “My first book, like I think a lot of people's first book, it just kind of came out,” he reminisces. When he printed it out at a Yale computer lab, he remembers thinking, "What the fuck is this? Where did all these pages come from? I don't remember writing it." The same is true for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: “My second book was [written with] the momentum of the first experience pushing me through it.”
Here I Am has some thematic overlaps with the first two books (namely, the question of what it means to be an American Jew in the 21st-century). But despite that kinship and its occasional formal digressions—there’s a Second Life-y video game, transcripts of sexts, excerpts from a screenplay, oh, yeah, the imagined destruction of the state of Israel—it’s more of a self-consciously ambitious Franzen-esque Big Book.
Here I Am asks how one can reconcile the many different and conflicting identities—father, son, grandson, American, Jew—that are often rendered irreconcilable by outside events. Its title comes from the Old Testament: after bringing his son, Isaac, to be sacrificed, Abraham utters the fated words to God. But Here I Am—the 2016 one—is more Job than Genesis. The plot of this very long novel (560 pages) presents a series of tests for its central character, Jacob Bloch, a sensitive and needy middle-aged television writer.
Over the course of Here I Am, Bloch’s son gets caught having written a series of profane and hurtful words at school; his grandfather commits suicide; his wife discovers Jacob’s secret cell phone that’s full of dirty text message exchanges with a coworker, which leads to their separation and divorce; and an earthquake levels Israel, precipitating what could be described as a Third World War in the Holy Land.
Still, biblical apocalypse notwithstanding, Here I Am is a novel of relationships—the first of Foer’s novels that could be described as realist, though that’s still probably not the right word—and above all, a book about not only coming to terms with middle age, but becoming content with it. This, more than the absence of typographic gimmickry or quirky narrators, is the aspect of Foer’s third novel that’s most divergent from his early work. Asked to compare Here I Am to the first two books, he seems genuinely uncertain: “I think the book is … I'm trying to think of the right word. Less charming? I don't mean that in a good or bad way.”
Foer’s work has always had an autobiographical tinge to it—Everything is Illuminated’s protagonist was named “Jonathan Safran Foer”—and it’s tempting to read autobiography into the third novel as well. That’s in part because Foer himself went through a high-profile (for a novelist, at least) divorce with his wife Nicole Krauss in 2014. And, though he isn’t exactly one of Philip Roth’s grotesque self-portraits, it’s hard to read the character of Jacob and not think of Foer, if he was a sad-sack and not a peppy thirty-nine year old.
Foer insists that Here I Am is not autobiographical, however. “I come from a family of three boys and we are not like that at all. The marriage isn't anything like my marriage, and yet, some of the voices… feel more expressive and more personal to me than anything I've written before.”
Of his early career, Foer says that “being a novelist, didn't feel like a choice exactly. It really didn't.” But Here I Am, he insists, was written as a choice: “After [Extremely Loud] and having kids, [and] a little pause, I was a lot more reflective. I wasn't ready or able to just do something automatically.”
So Foer did other things. He got married and had kids and got divorced. In 2010, the same year Eating Animals was published, reflecting his growing interest in animal welfare, he wrote (or “wrote”) Tree of Codes, an experimental artwork/novel made from cutting up pages of Bruno Schultz’s Street of Crocodiles; he published a new translation of the Haggadah with the novelist Nathan Englander in 2012. And starting in 2011 he began working on an HBO show about a rabbi that was set to star Ben Stiller. Foer wrote seven episodes, but then, at the last minute, a week before the show was to start shooting, he got cold feet and decided he didn’t want to be a showrunner.
“Choosing not to do that was also choosing to be a novelist again,” he said. “It's certainly the first time I ever made that choice exclusively. Sometimes a choice requires choosing against something to give it meaning. It's like, you don't choose to stay in a relationship—most of the time you're just in it. But something can happen and you meet somebody else, like in Here I Am.”
In this, and a few other instances in our conversation, Foer seems to simultaneously be talking about his novel and his own life. But whenever he’s pressed on the subject, he quickly pulls back—perhaps unsurprisingly, after ten years, he wants to talk about his book. When I allude to the Internet rumors that have swirled around his relationship with Natalie Portman, who has been his pen pal for over a decade, Foer is visibly frustrated. His and Portman’s relationship has been gossiped about since the now-defunct blog The Ratter posted a rumor (written by its editor, AJ Daulerio, who recently had his life ruined by Hulk Hogan) that Foer and Krauss’s marriage ended after he decided to take a swing at Portman, who was (and is still) married, without consenting her. But it recently reemerged when T Magazine published a series of emails between the two of them, in which the pair discuss everything from a made-up game that Foer and his kids play called “The Wonder Line,” to sad girl chic to watching their children look at horses. Many pointed out their vanity and general pointlessness of these emails-as-profile of Portman, presented in honor of her directorial debut.
When I asked Foer about what I saw as possibly a parallel in Here I Am, between the explicit text messages sent between Jacob and his co-worker and the intimate emails sent between Portman and himself, he pushed back forcefully.
“No, not at all, [Natalie is] friends with Nicole, my wife. Or, ex-wife. No. I'm friends with her husband. When the thing came out, people were saying these things. And I was like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ And she was like, ‘This is what the Internet is. Don't worry about it, it'll go away in, like, 30 minutes.’ But no. We’re, like, cousins or siblings or something, but there's no intimacy whatsoever. Never was.”
Foer was irritated at the mocking response to the emails, and blames T Magazine for framing them—they were accompanied with shots of Portman in her underwear—as more risque than they were. ”I don't know if it would have seemed that way if she hadn't been in her underwear,” he said, laughing. “The whole thing just got a little bit twisted. We were just going to do a traditional profile because we couldn't be in the same place, so they're like, ‘Okay, here's a way to do it.’ And then they framed it in a certain way and it makes it appear more intimate than … the whole thing was a construct. We wrote emails for the Times.”
What was most notable about the emails wasn't their autobiographical significance (or lack thereof): they were notable because the Foer they revealed was different from the one who has written a book about families and relationships. In the emails, a self-consciously youthful Foer talks at length about wonder and cuteness. And while there's a precocious child in Here I Am, he’s mostly there for comic-relief. Foer spends the majority of his book dissecting the problems the Blochs have connecting with one another.
The divorce in Here I Am is unsparing to Jacob, who is run through a gamut of midlife humiliations on purpose. “I really wanted to go into the shit of it. You know?” Foer told me with relish, when I asked him about his juxtaposition of “first-world problems” (Jacob’s very upper middle-class worries) with more serious ones. “In the book whether it is ‘first-world problems’ or whether it's Jacob and his secret suppository in the bathroom, or his half-erections, or the texts themselves—I like how these could be spared details because they're embarrassing. Embarrassing to the reader, not just to the characters. I wanted the book to be kind of smelly and loud and true.”
Foer tells me that Here I Am was almost titled The Destruction of Israel, but we both seem to be in agreement that his publisher made the right choice. In many ways, it is the one aspect of Here I Am that has the most in common with his first two books: A catastrophic event involving the deaths of thousands becomes a backdrop for something more quotidian: the self-actualization (or not) of a member of the American upper-middle-class. But Foer doesn’t think that way. While some critics have signalled out this kind of juxtaposition as maudlin, he sees it as realistic. “I think people feel those things on a scale,” he tells me. “I don't mean readers, I mean in one's life the domestic feels more important than the global. A nuclear bomb could be dropped on Paris tomorrow and your girlfriend might break up with you. You feel them differently but you would feel each strongly.” I wish I had asked what kind of person would break up with someone on the day a nuclear bomb fell on Paris.
In the book, he destruction of Israel is largely presented as a test for Jacob bloch. Jacob doesn’t pass the test—yet another way in which he comes across as a cautionary tale. “Jacob spends his life unprepared to make definitive choices about his life. And then suffers the consequences,” Foer tells me. “[Julia] is able to make choices. She is the one who ends the marriage. And she is the one who seeks and finds happiness.”
Foer presents life as a series of tests: It’s one reason he keeps coming back to the question of “choice” in our conversation. Here I Am is no different. Jacob fails the test of his marriage and the test of his divorce: Unlike Abraham, he is not able to self-actualize, not able to stand up and express his needs, or hold on to the things he wants to keep . Foer is adamant that he has passed the test of self-actualization, that his divorce was as healthy as divorces can be, that Here I Am is the product of who he is at this exact moment, that he does not think back on the precocious wizard who wrote two widely-read books that made him a literary superstar.
Here I Am is a different test. His entire career has been built on his precociousness;on two books that succeeded in pleasing an enormous number of people. Here I Am is an attempt at literary seriousness. It is both a grand statement about the state of the American nuclear family and the American man, and an attempt to win over Foer’s detractors. He’s eager to showcase his maturity, while keeping the readers who loved his first two books happy.
Foer is working harder than ever. He’s even working hard with me, talking to me at a restaurant at 11 P.M. on a Friday night in Boerum Hill. But no novelist has ever succeeded at pleasing everyone, and the risk of such an approach has never been higher. Readers of literary fiction constitute a set of smaller and more mutually antagonistic groups than ever, and if book sales are any indication (they are), fewer and fewer readers are looking for the great, one-size-fits-all novel. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, Foer put in a lot of work to claim the mantle of "writer of his generation." Now, ten years later, when even book editors tweet that they're sick of the words "the way we live now," it's not at all clear that there's still a generational mantle for Foer claim.