Jonathan Safran Foer to talk latest novel, emotional maturity at Rackham

Monday, October 31, 2016 - 3:06pm

When God called out to Abraham, Abraham responded simply, “Here I am,” a response that brings equal parts clarity and confusion. It’s so simple and yet provokes questions like, “Who is he?” and “Where is here?” and “Why is he there?”

Those words, and the mess they bear, serve as the title of Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest book. It’s the first novel in over a decade from Foer, who will be at Rackham Auditorium on Friday for a reading and conversation with the director of the Helen Zell Writers Program, Douglas Trevor.

“Here I Am” follows the Bloch family — most closely, its boys, men and almost-men — as the family navigates death, divorce and bar mitzvahs. “Here I Am” is all about the placement of things. Physical place, emotional place and historical place mix and mess with each other.

“There’s a funny way in which a book can be an expression of one’s emotional place but it can also place you emotionally. It works in both directions,” Foer said in a phone interview. This emotional placement, he continued, is something he strives for in all his work.

“I wouldn’t say they’re autobiographical or cathartic or therapeutic, but that they’re expressive,” he said in reference to his novels.

“Here I Am” is a departure from Foer’s earlier work. 11 years later, he’s much closer to being the second-coming of Philip Roth his critics always said he should be.

“When I was younger I was more into magical realism and big visuals and big voices and now there’s something about a certain kind of precision … and dialogue that I like more,” Foer said.

His first two novels, “Everything is Illuminated” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” have a whimsical and winding style. “Here I Am” has its feet more solidly on the earth; it’s grounded and sharply real.

Foer painstakingly paints the lives of the Blochs, from their “Miele vacuum, Vitamix blender, Misono knives” to their consumption of “Freudian amounts of sushi.” He creates, through these meticulous details, a world that is so closely related to the present world. A world where the bodies of Syrian children wash up on beaches and Rihanna lyrics can be a personal ethos.

“I don’t know that I’m any better at life than I was before I knew anything. Sometimes knowing things makes it harder,” Foer said in regards to the former image. The book grapples with the reconciliation of mundane tragedies — divorce, getting in trouble in Hebrew school, the death of an internet avatar — against the tragedies of the rest of the world. As the main character’s marriage unravels stateside, the Middle East unravels following devastating earthquakes hitting Israel and the West Bank.

With “Here I Am,” Foer creates quite the tangle of character and storylines, of ideas and questions. But it is not his intention to untie the knot their lives and issues create.

“I think for me a book is not like coming upon a jigsaw puzzle in the forest and saying, ‘Oh, let’s see if I can put this thing together,’” he said. “It’s more like coming upon … a leaf or a feather in a forest and saying, ‘What is this? Where did it come from?’”

The success of the novel, for Foer, lies not in its ability to answer big questions or solve big problems, but in its ability to capture him emotionally.

“I don’t really have any definition of good that I care about or even aim myself toward other than the book being a kind of expression of where I am in that period of time emotionally.”

Thus, the answer to the questions raised by the book’s title easily could be both Foer’s dining room in Brooklyn and the book itself.