Sexting and divorce. Jewish identity and Israel. Here I Am, Jonathan Safran Foer’s third novel, has plenty of potent themes: “If he were actually trying to detach his penis from his body, he couldn’t have squeezed or pulled it any harder, and it’s a miracle he never actually hurt himself.” One of America’s most prominent and praised novelists under 40, Foer here turns his focus to a disintegrating Jewish family in Washington, DC. “Love isn’t the absence of struggle. Love is struggle,” is one of Here I Am’s most striking lines, evoking the human need for connection in the age of technology, temptation and trial.
At only 24, Foer emerged with Everything is Illuminated, a touching, linguistically inventive story in which an American writer (named Jonathan Safran Foer) leaves home to research family Holocaust history across the Ukraine, hilariously guided by Ukrainian player Alex. Philip Roth highlighted Foer and his now ex-wife Nicole Krauss (The History of Love)—also known for eye-watering book advances—as “wonderfully talented.”
Foer’s second novel, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, tells of a boy traumatized after his father’s death on 9/11. In the 11 years since that book hit shelves, the 39 year-old writer has worn a number of hats, including that of fatherhood. Eating Animals, his case against carnivorism, is the urtext for a new wave of vegetarians and vegans—including Natalie Portman, one of the producers of an upcoming documentary adaptation. (An eye-catchingly photographed New York Times feature about Foer and Portman’s email exchanges, predictably led to gossip.)
Though sometimes evasive, Foer is a sharp and personable interviewee. I spoke to him during the build-up to Election Day via phone from the Brooklyn brownstone he shares with his partner, Michelle Williams. We discussed Natalie Portman, haters (his own, and Jonathan Franzen’s), fighting for love and the sex-creativity nexus.
“Books should be built of one’s tissue or not at all,” Larry Durrell wrote. A number of journalists have said Here I Am is semi-autobiographical.
It’s not. I don’t read much of what’s said. I wouldn’t care if it were or not. I don’t say that with any kind of judgment; I love books that are autobiographical. There are overlaps, clearly. You don’t have to know much about me to know that. They’re fairly superficial, and mostly in the interests of my being able to write in the way that I think that quote means, building the book out of one’s tissue. I am not closer to Jacob than I am to the heroes of my other books, or for that matter to other characters in this book. I do feel a personal closeness to this book that is unique to me as a writer. Here I Am is not about me, but it is made of me.
Can you discuss Natalie Portman’s creative influence?
Uh, none [laughs]. She’s just a friend.
But writers do have friends who are also creative influences.
I guess you could say Jonathan Franzen’s work is? In a funny way, influence is much easier and more trustworthy for critics to talk about than the person who made it.
You don’t get quite the volume of internet haters that Franzen does.
Oh no, I get every much bit of shit as he does—not that that’s a competition one would want to be in. I just think, who cares? He’s a great writer with a great career. He does great things with it. He writes personally, politically, plenty of material that’s avant-garde. He’s a good role model. I imagine that people who want to destroy him just want to be him. Who wouldn’t?
Do critics saying you are self-indulgent, sentimental or unconcerned about Palestinians bother you?
No, that’s silly. They can think whatever they want. It doesn’t mean anything to me.
“Love isn’t the absence of struggle. Love is struggle,” is a potent line in Here I Am.
Thank you. That’s the thesis of the book, the question that the characters are struggling with.
Visiting a luxury hardware store for work, Julia thinks: “It was elegant, and it was obnoxious, and in a world where the bodies of Syrian children washed up on beaches, it was unethical, or at least vulgar.”
I imagine many people feel versions of this—the questioning of one’s choices and one priorities in the face of so much suffering and need. We don’t have that much exposure to the suffering and need, which is part of why we’re so shocked when we do.
“The most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy,” Barack Obama said in his conversation with Marilynne Robinson. Do you agree good fiction can make us empathetic? You gave that lecture, “Imagination Is the Instrument of Compassion.”
I was just about to use that line on you. Reading literature, for sure. Reading books creates the opposite of estrangement and alienation. It creates the feeling of being known, and that you know. I very strongly agree. I think books are doing really well. Everybody always thinks books’ demise is imminent. Everybody thought e-books where going to run paper books out of town. None of that’s happened. There’s some really nice publishing going on. Independent booksellers are doing well. The literary world feels happy to me.
I get every much bit of shit as [Franzen] does—not that that’s a competition one would want to be in.
There’s a lot of sexual content in Here I Am. One arresting passage: “…but even an anus-crazed twelve-year-old appreciates the correlation between the mental work required and the magnitude of the nut, hence his ultimate fantasy of intercepting some Arab virgin on her way to get fucked by an actual martyr, tucking his head under her burka, and, in that deep-space, sensory-deprived blackness, licking orbits around Heranus.”
It was incredibly fun to write. At times it was intended to be fun, and funny. At times it was intended to be quite serious. I was trying to get at deep theories about the way people interact. Sex is used as much to express distance as closeness. It’s funny: Two people never have sex in the book. There’s only a hell of a lot of a writing around sex.
Is there a sex/creativity nexus?
Clearly there is a nexus. Would you believe or care about someone who didn’t agree with that statement? Sex is one of the most primitive human acts. It’s not a coincidence that it’s at the foundations of psychology. There’s nothing writing is more about than psychology. Sex/creativity is a hugely important nexus.
Do you have a formative Playboy memory?
I remember going to a friend’s basement in the middle of the night when were in fourth grade. His dad had every Playboy going back to 1820. We stole a whole bunch of them. That’s a special memory.
Philip Roth’s work, like the sex-charged Portnoy’s Complaint, is clearly an influence on Here I Am. Roth’s chestnut about American reality out-fictionalizing fiction has gone next level in 2016 with the likes of Anthony Weiner.
Yeah. Weiner is utterly two-dimensional and flat. If you were writing a book your editor would say, “At least do something to make this guy unpredictable.” Here I Am reflects a million strands and directions. Philip Roth is an influence. I take that as a compliment.
Your brother Franklin writes some impressive pieces about the election. What do you think?
Trump is a fucking catastrophe. I find Trump so utterly frustrating to talk about that I try not to.
Are you interested in writing political nonfiction again, like Eating Animals?
Yes. I was surprised to write Eating Animals, and proud of the result. With technology and screens in my life and my kids’ lives, I feel a discomfort very similar to what I felt about eating meat. I really don’t know anyone who doesn’t feel uncomfortable about their use of screens, about the omnipresence of the phone. It’s a problem, or at least a question.
Another writer under 40 you recommend?
Rivka Galchen is a great writer. She has an incredible imagination pared with a deep empathy. Not that many people have those two motors running in unison.
What do you hope Here I Am might accomplish?
Readers who find it means something. That it has an irrepressible quality: a muscle, inertia. One of the nicest things that’s been said: The New York Times said it “has more teeming life in it than several hundred well-meaning and well-reviewed books of midlist fiction put together.” Otherwise, it wouldn’t justify all the life that I give to it.