Jacob and Julia Bloch make a discovery that risks destroying their marriage. While domestic crises multiply in the foreground, a global disaster is looming on the horizon. Foer is the author of Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, both of which were adapted into films. Here I Am (Penguin, £8.99) is his third novel – the first in more than a decade – focuses on family, identity and modern life and confronts the enduring question of what it means to be human.
Here I Am comes after an 11-year absence, during which there has been some notable changes in your life. How intentional was it to return after so long with a seemingly autobiographical novel?
I don’t think of it as being any more autobiographical than my other books. There’s a sense of events in the book corresponding to events in my life: I did get divorced and there’s a divorce in the book. Beyond that, I don’t think there are many similarities. They’re certainly not intentional and even the divorce has no relationship to the one I experienced. That being said, I feel closer to this book than I do to my previous ones, maybe just because it’s the most contemporary. I probably felt that about my other books after I’d finished them but I think also because it’s in the third person. My first two novels relied on a heavily stylised voice whereas there’s a sensibility with the voice of this book which feels almost too much my own.
The book explores identity: what do the characters within the Bloch family learn about themselves?
It’s ambiguous. I imagine that different readers interpret at least Jacob’s growth in very different ways. At different times, I think of it in different ways myself. I go back and forth, but I do think of the book as being about identity and growth. It’s about being forced to come into new identities as one’s life and world – both domestic and global – change.
The book’s title is a biblical reference. How does this relate to the story?
The title refers to one of the most well-known passages of the Bible: the Binding of Isaac. That story holds the line: “And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham’ and he said, ‘Here am I.’” The most common and obvious interpretation of the text is the sacrifice, but there is some other way of looking at it, which is that the test is actually how does Abraham respond to being called. He doesn’t say: “Give me five minutes.” He doesn’t say: “What do you need?” He says “Here I am” in a kind of unconditional presence without reservations. Whatever it is that God is going to ask, the answer will be “yes”. Later in the story, Isaac begins to sense that something isn’t right. It’s a poignant moment where he realises the paradox: you can’t be unconditionally present for a God who wants you to kill your son or for a son who doesn’t want to die. I don’t imagine very many readers will have experienced something that’s dramatic in quite that way but I think most people are familiar with these paradoxes of identity. The book is about the challenge of being fully present for different identities: a working identity and a domestic identity, a parental identity and a spousal identity.
Does the modern age pressurise us to be different things to different people?
I think it allows and creates the illusion that we can do so, which wasn’t true before. The ability to drop someone an email can make you feel that you’re in touch with someone or feel that you’re maintaining a friendship. There’s the illusion of presence within absence which probably encourages us to think we can do more than we can. The human brain can’t actually multi-task – it can only think serially – so we’re never truly doing two things at once, but we have the illusion of being able to do so. Most of the time, this illusion is pretty convincing, but sometimes something happens that forces us to make a choice and say “here I am” at the expense of another identity.
The book blends several different events into the narrative – from the death of a family dog to a Middle Eastern war. In the context of family life, is it reasonable to be apathetic towards serious global events but devastated by events closer to home?
I feel like I’m constantly struggling to balance my citizenship in the world and my citizenship in the family: measuring the distances. Something that Irv and Jacob talk about at some length in the book is the question of how much ought we to care for people who are not us. It ought to be the case that I am as concerned about a refugee child in Syria as I am about my own child – it really ought to be that way – but it can’t be that way because of how we’re built. We’ve evolved to care more about those closer to us, but it’s not a binary thing, where we either care or don’t care. We expend as much care as we can and it’s interesting to exercise the limits of what is possible for us. Certainly, the larger the circle of our concerns, the better the citizen we are.
In the current political climate, do you believe there to be a greater division of viewpoints and internal tensions within families?
I’m not really exposed to that. It’s so politically segregated in America. It’s not really segregated within families – it’s segregated in geographic communities. I don’t know anybody – and I don’t know anybody who knows anybody – who voted for Donald Trump. I could walk out on my street in Brooklyn and feel verging on a 100 per cent certainty that nobody in my field of vision voted for him. It’s pretty extreme how divided it is, but I don’t think it’s divided on a level of families. I’m sure it is somewhere, but not in my experience.
Joyce Carol Oates said that you had the most important of all literary qualities: energy. How does such a quality translate onto the page?
It can be harder to find energy in the sense that the furnace isn’t quite as hot. On the other hand, you have to think about finitude. It’s something I definitely didn’t think about when I was writing my first book aged 22. I never thought about how limited my time was. I have kids, I teach, I give interviews – I have a lot of obligations that take time. If you can show me someone who’s turned 40 recently who hasn’t thought about death I’ll buy you a drink. People begin to think about it. Not excessively, but it can be a very productive kind of thinking. You can develop it. It can be sad, but it can also be productive, in the sense that having an awareness of finitude encourages you to spend your time in the best way that you can.