Over the last few years, I’ve developed a certain pattern for whenever Jonathan Safran Foer or his writing come up in conversation. First, I admit that I’ve read all of his books and liked them. Second, I provide the caveat that I was a teenager when read them and haven’t looked at them since. Third, I say that I still stand by Eating Animals and find it to be an interesting piece of literary journalism, but that, of course, I no longer have a high opinion of his fiction. Much of the literary community seems to feel the same way, if they were ever on his side in the first place. Cursory research indicates that even at the beginning of his career he was a polarizing figure, winning awards and making end-of-the-years lists alongside middling reviews in The New Yorker and The New York Times. This time around, it seems a little more universal. Here I Am received negative reviews from The Boston Globe, The Atlantic, The New Republic, and many other prominent outlets. Is the book that much worse than his others? Or are we just different? My first encounter with Foer’s work was in an English class my junior year of high school. After reading many of the canonical American works -- Catcher in the Rye, Beloved, etc. -- we closed out the year with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. The book is about a nine-year-old boy, Oskar Schell, whose father passed away in the September 11th terrorist attacks. I was around that age in 2001 and had similar youthful difficulty making sense of what happened. Unlike much of the other work that I had read in English classes up to that point, I felt like I really understood what it was trying to do. The novel was also built on a series of formal techniques that I had not seen before. He dispersed letters from grandparents throughout the narrative and used photographs in contexts that seemed unconventional. These elements created the illusion of complexity, which dazzled me at the time. The summer after this class, I read Everything Is Illuminated. In it, a character named Jonathan Safran Foer sets out to Ukraine to learn about a woman who saved his grandfather’s life during the Holocaust. Just like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, it switches between two storylines, and just like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, it resonated with me deeply. I had never read anything else like it. In the years since this, I have come to think about these novels as sentimental and emotionally manipulative works. It does not take a particularly good writer to make the story of Oskar Schell an emotionally resonant one. The same goes for the story of (the fictional) Jonathan Safran Foer in his first novel. Centering books around flashpoints of international trauma is a quick way to the heart of a reader, and there is something about the way he does it that does not feel earned. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, for example, uses 9/11 as a prop to make its narrative heavier and more believable. His father could have died any other way, and he still could have found the envelope with the word “Black” on the front, and he still could have gone on his adventure. Perhaps, outside the specter of international trauma, it would be unbelievable that all these strangers are willing to speak with this child, but it is unbelievable within the specter of international trauma, anyway. In fact, the collective trauma has nothing to do with why people are so open to him, because in the end the reader learns that it was his mother pulling strings for him the whole time that made it possible. Similarly, Everything is Illuminated relies heavily on the fictionalized history of the real town of Trochenbord, an exclusively Jewish shtetl located in Poland before the Nazis and the Soviets invaded during World War II. Almost all of the residents were murdered before the Holocaust ended. But replacing the real history with an imagined one turns a town that experienced tragedy into a device that coerces sympathy from the reader. The book takes the name and weight but leaves the substance behind, repurposing real-world suffering into a gimmick. Still, I couldn’t deny that I found his books deeply moving, and if art is deeply moving, is it possible that it failed? If the impact is there, does it matter whether the writer “earned it” or not? They were gimmicks and tricks and manipulative, yes, but does it matter that they work? It has been six years since I read his fiction, and it has been 11 years since he has published any. I was curious to see how his writing has changed over the years, as my perception of his work also changed. To bridge the gap between perception and reality, I read his new book. Here I Am is a much more straightforward family novel than his prior two. The three central conflicts are also basically familial: Jacob and Julia, middle-aged parents of three, are spiraling toward divorce. Sam, their eldest, is 13 but does not want to have his bar mitzvah. Isaac, the great-grandfather, is deciding whether he wants to kill himself or be moved to a nursing home. These three conflicts are done well, or at least well enough. Foer’s dialogue is also strong, crackling with energy reminiscent of gatherings with my own Jewish family. He proves especially proficient in busy scenes with more than two speaking characters. However, there are long stretches of time when nobody is speaking, and interiority is not his strong suit by any means. Julia’s inner life is constructed particularly poorly. The writing is overwrought and leans on lists of superficial opinions to create the illusion of character depth, and sometimes it borders on unreadable. When he is willing to allow actions to characterize her, they are bizarre and unbelievable. Once, she asks Jacob to stare at her vagina in order to bring her to orgasm, which works. Another time, she masturbates with a doorknob she got from a hardware store. These moments are predictably unconvincing. As if to prove that his sexual misunderstanding is not sexist, he also devotes an enormous amount of page space to men thinking about their penises and talking about them with other men. These also fail to appear believably on the page. The major events of the book are similarly hard to believe. About 275 pages into the book, there is a major earthquake in the Middle East, causing devastation in Israel, Jordan, and other surrounding countries. This leads to a series of events that make sense if you squint and are maybe a little drunk, including a total and unconditional withdrawal of Israeli soldiers and citizens from occupied territories and the unification of Jordan and Saudi Arabia into Transarabia. All of this leads to pretty much every country in the region declaring war on Israel. The point of this, of almost starting World War III, is not to highlight the instability in the Middle East or the danger citizens of the region face or to even add to the conversation about Israel and its relationship with those around it. Instead, the point of this is to highlight the dissonance involved in being an American Jew, and specifically being Jacob, an American Jew who feels like a feckless wimp because he is a feckless wimp and struggling to bear the weight of how “manlier” men see him. And all of that is very bad. It feels wrong in the moment, and the more one thinks about it, the worse it gets. It is, in a lot of ways, exactly the issue I started to see in his work as I grew up a little and read a lot more. The tragedy that is supposed to give the book its power is a shortcut, a way of giving the book emotional muscle without doing any weightlifting. Still, I can’t avoid the way I felt at the end. Once the utter bullshit of the “war” falls away, once we are back with the family, the ending works. It is sad, and it made me feel sad. In spite of Foer’s issues, in spite of the flaws wounding Here I Am, in spite of the fact that it’s at least 100 pages longer than it needs to be, when I closed the book for the last time, I was genuinely moved. It ends quietly with a scene that is inevitable, but no less excruciating for it. Foer is the writer I thought he was. I have a hard time saying the book failed. Maybe Foer’s project is bad, or too sentimental. But if he was trying to get me to feel something, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t work.
I re-read some of my favorite books for a class I taught at Bennington in the spring: Sylvia by Leonard Michaels, The White Album by Joan Didion, and Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. Each was richer upon a second or third read and yielded particular pleasures -- Michaels’ tight language and genuine despair, Didion’s high quality of ideas and singular style, Nabokov’s remarkable and unlikely sensory details. Sharing books I love with students is a tremendous privilege. I gulped down a heap of non-fiction this year; standouts included E.O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, and Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa. Wilson bowls me over with his synthesis of ideas, the way he mashes up complex anthropology, biology, sociology and gives us not just ideas and explanations, but something prescriptive to hold onto (restraint). Foer wrote a brave book with Eating Animals; it was a hard book for me to read because I already share the core ideals, but it was a necessary book for me to consume. Finally, with Out of Africa, the reader gets the sense that Dinesen truly wrote a book no one else could. Her descriptions of colonial Africa, the natural landscape and complex socio-political climate are stunning, unsentimental, even sublime. Ultimately, my favorite non-fiction reads in 2012 got me thinking about the way we use nature, what we take, and how we justify it. More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
In Germany these days, freedom is everywhere. Or rather, Freiheit: the egg-bedecked cover of Jonathan Franzen's new novel dominated the front table of nearly every bookstore I visited on a recent, weeklong tour. Somewhere nearby, invariably, loomed stacks of Jonathan Safran Foer's Tiere Essen (Eating Animals), Paul Auster's Unsichtbar (Invisible), and Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Pray Love (Eat Pray Love). I'll admit that I found it comforting, in what was otherwise terra incognita, to encounter names without umlauts. Still, on the eve of the umpteenth annual Frankfurt Book Fair, it seemed to me striking evidence of a literary trade imbalance between the U.S. and Germany that so many of our books should be front-and-center in their buchhandlungs while so few of theirs are available in English at all. This situation is not unique to Germany, of course. The figure "three percent" has become notorious shorthand for the proportion of foreign-language books appearing in English each year. Nonetheless, in the wake of the Bolaño craze, there appears to have been an uptick in the rate of translation from the Spanish. And a steady current of French literature, from Duras to Houellebecq, has always lapped our shores. One would think, in light of Germany's 500-year history as the publishing capital of the world, that the literary luminaries of its language, too, would have a following on this side of the Atlantic, as they did in the epoch of Mann and Broch, Hesse and Musil, Canetti and Döblin. And certainly, Anglo-German literary relations recovered quickly enough from World War II. Such eminences grises as Günter Grass, Christa Wolf, and Martin Walser have long been available Stateside, as have the postwar heavyweights Heinrich Böll, Uwe Johnson, and Arno Schmidt (though only part of Johnson's magnum opus, Anniversaries, has been translated, and Schmidt's, Zettels Traum, is said to be untranslatable). A handful of writers who appeared later, notably Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke, and W.G. Sebald, are widely read in the U.S. But as the most esteemed German-language writers born after the war - the Thuringian Franzens and Foers, the Austrian Smileys and Gaitskills - remain largely untranslated or unknown, I made it an informal project, as I traveled from Munich to Hamburg to Berlin, to ask every critic and editor and bookseller and journalist I encountered to tell me whom I should be reading. Two of the names mentioned most frequently were Wolf Haas and Marcel Beyer. Haas, born in Austria in 1960, is the author of nine books. Nearly everyone I talked to said they couldn't imagine translating his voice-driven prose, but it turns out that Ariadne Press last year brought out an English edition of his 2006 novel The Weather Fifteen Years Ago. Scott Esposito reviewed the book favorably at Conversational Reading: "[It] is indeed a delight for people who enjoy play with metanarrative and conceptual games, but it also has quite a bit of what, for lack of a better name, I might call good old fashioned realism." Beyer, born in 1965, has been even more prolific than Haas. One critic told me that his early work is the best, and happily for American readers, his first novel, The Karnau Tapes, as well as Spies (2000), are available in translation. The recent Nobel Prize winners Elfride Jelinek (b. 1946) and Herta Müller (b. 1953) also came up often. Thanks to the concerted efforts of small American presses, even before the Nobel announcements, both have multiple books available in English. Hari Kunzru's "Year in Reading" entry on Jelinek's Wonderful Wonderful Times last year seems to comport with the findings of my informal poll: "I don’t want to live in her world, but suspect that in fact I do," Kunzru says. "This is what makes her a great writer." The Romanian-born Müller was spoken of even more highly - one Berliner waxed positively rapturous about her exploration of the brutal history of Central Europe in the era of World War II and the Iron Curtain. Another Berliner, a journalist, suggested I take a look at a novel that concerns more recent history: September, by Thomas Lehr (b. 1957), a finalist for the German Book Prize. It has not yet appeared in translation, but an excerpt is currently available at signandsight. Funeral for a Dog, by Thomas Pletzinger (b. 1975) winner of the Uwe Johnson Prize, also deals with the September 11 attacks, albeit more obliquely; a book scout I talked to seemed very excited about the novel, which is scheduled to appear next year in a translation by the excellent Ross Benjamin. Other younger writers I was encouraged to read were Andreas Neumeister (b. 1959) and Michael Lentz (b. 1964), neither of whose books have yet been translated into English. One of the most exciting developments in the Germany literary scene, according to a Bavarian sales representative, has been the appearance of narratives from the country's large immigrant population. Like Aleksandar Hemon in English, these non-native speakers have reinvigorated their adopted language by hearing it with new ears. The sales rep singled out the Russian expat Alina Bronsky (b. 1978) for particular praise...and lo and behold, Europa Editions brought out Broken Glass Park just this year. The German Book Prize-nominated How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, published by Grove Atlantic, fashions a similarly effervescent prose idiom to reimagine the coming-of-age of author Sasa Stanisic (b. 1978) during the Bosnian War. Finally, it may be worth mentioning a few writers who appeared in our "Prizewinners: International Edition" project a couple of years ago. Norbert Gstrein (b. 1961) has a new novel out this fall, though none of his work has appeared in English since 1995's Döblin Prize-winning The English Years (natch). Katja Lange-Müller (b. 1951), another Döblin Prize winner, has been featured at the PEN World Voices Festival, but her work remains available in translation only in anthologies such as Oxford U.P.'s Berlin Tales. One of the most frequently translated contemporary German writers is Ingo Schulze (b. 1962). A recent essay by the critic Marcel Inhoff complained about Schulze's style, comparing him to his antecedents, E.T.A. Hoffmann and Leo Perutz. Unlike me, Inhoff reads German, but his argument seems to elide a key point: since his debut, 33 Moments of Happiness: St. Petersburg Stories, Schulze has looked as much to the East as to the West. What may look like casual journalese to Inhoff strikes me as a Germanic spin on the venerable Russian tradition of skaz - especially in the recently translated One More Story. In its narrative surprises, this book struck me as the equal of either of this year's Bolaño collections. Even more affecting is Schulze's expansive reunification novel, New Lives, whose hapless antihero, Enrico "Heinrich" Türmer, has stayed with me since I read it. Whatever the merits of Inhoff's critique, it directs us to a few more contemporary writers of distinction: Hartmut Lange, Patrick Roth, Thomas Stangl, Reinhard Jurgl, and Clemens J. Stetz. Like the one above, this is a partial list (though doubtless more authoritative). But even my own fragmentary catalogue of German-language novelists seems superior to the offerings currently available in American bookstores, notwithstanding the efforts of Europa and Ariadne and other fine publishers (and The Literary Saloon, The Quarterly Conversation, and Three Percent). Here's hoping that such lists at least call attention to the imbalance, and light a fire under those who might remedy it.