Foer’s (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, 2005, etc.) first novel in 11 years aspires to be a contemporary Jewish epic.
The book is not unlike a Jonathan Franzen novel crossed with one by Philip Roth. Like Franzen, Foer details the disintegration of an American family against the backdrop of a larger social breakdown—a 7.6 earthquake, epicentered beneath the Dead Sea, that devastates both Israel and the Middle East. Like Roth, he investigates a basic question: what does it mean to be a Jew? That all of this is more complicated than it appears is the point of the sprawling novel, which showcases Foer’s emotional dexterity even as it takes place across a wider canvas than his previous books. Beginning just before the bar mitzvah of Sam Bloch, a precocious if disconnected 13-year-old, Foer traces a well of family trouble (dying elders, dying pets, the relentless testing of all boundaries), culminating in the separation of Sam’s parents, Jacob and Julia. Jacob is a TV writer and Julia is an architect, and their relationship has withered beneath the onslaught of their responsibilities. “She needed a day off,” Foer writes of Julia. “She would have loved the feeling of not knowing how to fill the time, of wandering without a destination in Rock Creek Park, of actually savoring a meal of the kind of food that her kids would never tolerate.” This is great stuff, written with the insight of someone who has navigated the crucible of family, who understands how small slights lead to crises, the irreconcilability of love. Where the novel runs into trouble, however, is in widening its lens to the geopolitical after the earthquake, as the Arab states unite against Israel and the Israeli prime minister calls on all Jewish men to come home. It’s not that the conflict isn’t potent or that Foer doesn’t understand its awful ironies; “There was absolutely nothing,” he observes about the Iranian ayatollah, “to distinguish his face from that of a Jew.” Still the tension is diffused by two concluding sections that take place well after the main part of the action, undermining the sense of impending apocalypse on which the novel relies. In the end, we are left to wonder what the stakes are—or more accurately, where the real connections reside. “What would it sound like to cry in Jewish?” asks the rabbi at Jacob’s grandfather’s funeral. The answer—“Maybe like laughing”—is both fulfilling and unfulfilling, much like this ambitious, if not entirely satisfying, book.
Sharply observed but perhaps a bit too sprawling, Foer's novel bites off more than it can chew.