books · fellowship

How are the mighty fallen

Back in the dark ages of medical school, I spent a summer interning at a health policy/advocacy group in DC. The office was down the street from a Barnes and Noble, so at lunch, I would often run over and read. That B&N was my private library that summer, where I discovered Jonathan Safran Foer, a (then) young author with a brilliant debut novel, Everything Is Illuminated.

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Some of the images in that book, particularly of the shtetl, have stuck with me for years. This was a time I was also reading Michael Chabon (Kavalier and Clay) and Zadie Smith (White Teeth), so the two protagonists theme was big in my literary life.

Fast forward to a decade later, JSF’s newest novel, Here I Am, arrives in my mailbox from Powell’s Indiespensable book subscription club. Yay! I think. I remember this author. I like him. So I settle down to read.

Ugh. This book. I just finished it, and it was out of a sense of duty more than interest. The story is ostensibly about a failing marriage against the backdrop of a massive earthquake in Israel, humanitarian disaster, war, etc. I usually eat that stuff up, the juxtaposition of the domestic with the epic.

Not this time. I couldn’t stand either of the partners here. Jacob is a spineless neurotic Woody Allen stereotype, and Julia is your stereotypical ice queen. No sense of why these two people got married in the first place. No sense of how they drifted apart. No sense of why they are bothering to get divorced, no sense of any pain it causes either of them, or joy at being free. They neither of them seem to have any emotions.

The Israel At War stuff was bizarre, heavy-handed, and had no bearing on the divorce plot. It was like a totally separate story that had somehow wandered into the domestic family drama and tried to take it over. Similarly, there was a random section written in the first person where everything else was written in third omniscient. WHY?

Also, dear god the philosophizing. Pro-tip, six year old children do not speak in fully articulate sentences about the nature of death. Also, the endless flashback digressions which interrupt conversations only serve to set up/explain a one-liner joke in that conversation…. ugh.

I’m really glad that book is over and done with, because my next step is to sell it on eBay. Anyone in the market for a signed first edition of JSF’s latest novel?

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