The disintegration of a Jewish family launches a Talmudic outpouring of analysis and debate over all things large and small.
Family and what it means to be Jewish, subjects of infinite complexity, are novelist Foer’s preoccupation and inspiration. In his first novel in 11 years—a far longer, edgier, and more caustically funny tale than Everything Is Illuminated (2002) and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005)—he choreographs the disintegration of the once blissfully close marriage of architect Julia and TV writer Jacob, exploring how their changing relationship affects their three sons (so cannily portrayed), especially the eldest, Sam, who escapes whenever possible into a virtual alternative world, Other Life.
Foer has enhanced his mastery of rapidly volleying dialogue and churning inner monologues and raised them to torrential proportions as the Blochs of Washington, D.C., relentlessly analyze and argue about every feeling, thought, occurrence, and action with Talmudic exactitude. By mining elements of his life to construct the many-chambered domestic tale, Foer achieves the ringing clarity of authenticity. But for all his focus on familial intricacy (including attachment to an aging dog), intellectual musings, rogue eroticism, and various neuroses, Foer is also grappling with the larger forces of anti-Semitism and war.
The novel’s provocative title is taken from Genesis. When God thunders, “Abraham!” Abraham declares, “Here I am.” He is present and obedient; he will even sacrifice his son. This total commitment is anathema to Foer’s argumentative, fiercely inquisitive American characters, recalcitrance amplified when Jacob’s Israeli cousins, Tamir and his younger son, Barak, come to visit, catalyzing a running comparison between cushy American Jewish lives and the rigors of battle-ready Israelis. This contrast is further intensified when a major earthquake strikes the Jewish state, emboldening its enemies to attack. What are Jacob and Julia’s duties to the Jewish homeland? To their family and to themselves? As Sam contemplates Abraham’s predicament in preparation for his bar mitzvah, he thinks, “it is primarily about who we are wholly there for, and how that, more than anything else, defines our identity.” Foer’s voluminous (verging on overblown), polyphonic, and boldly comedic tale of one family’s quandaries astutely and forthrightly confronts humankind’s capacity for the ludicrous and the profound, cruelty and love.
This review first appeared in the July 2016, issue of Booklist.