Whatever happened to editors? I once read a biography of Max Perkins, editor to Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe, among others. The deal back then seemed to be that a manuscript arriving at the offices was 70% done. Perkins then gave his 10% and the final 20% was a collaboration of author and editor. Nowadays it often seems editors do little more than hunt out typos. If Foer had had a Max Perkins – essentially to curb his excesses, something Perkins did very well with Tom Wolfe – this could have been a truly fabulous book. Instead I found it a novel of dazzling vignettes but flawed sustained artistry. Essentially there are two storylines going on here – the breakup of a marriage and the call of the motherland in crisis. So we get a personal identity crisis and a religious/national identity crisis. I was never convinced these two narratives organically coalesced. The fictitious war in the Middle East and subsequent investigations into religious/national identity always felt like a separate block of marble. It’s called upon to give more breadth to all the deft litigation of the microcosmic family world of the first part of the book but for me felt stuck on with adhesive tape. The fictitious war can easily be seen as a somewhat forced attempt to give largesse to what’s essentially a family melodrama.
It was difficult not to read this novel in part as a dramatization of the end of his marriage with Nicole Krauss. And as such I’d say Foer has grown up quite a lot. Jacob is a television screenwriter, a sort of Hamlet without the poetry, mired in mediocrity and ennui; Julia, his wife, is an architect who has never built any of her designs. “Dad can be such a pussy,” says Sam, the oldest son. “But Mum can be such a dick.” The children are virtually always wiser (and funnier) than the adults in this novel. Foer has always been good at doing children and the children here are the stars of the show. The problem I had with him before was that the worlds he created for his children were themselves a bit childish, sentimentalised, favouring charm over depth. Jacob, the lead male character, shares many characteristics of Foer the novelist, not least of all a tendency to shirk or ironicise deep feeling. At one point in the novel Jacob accuses himself of “turning half his marriage into stupid puns and ironic observations”. That, for me, is a pretty good critique of Foer’s first two novels – brilliant in part but always marred by a juvenile stand-up comedian within who can’t shut up. This novel though provides the children with a very grown up world without much sentimentality.
The first half of this novel is given over to the breakup of the marriage, the aftermath of the moment you realise that you love your children more than you love your spouse, and provides a wealth of brilliant insights into the mounting resentment of an estranged couple, the fall into self-righteous pettiness which often heralds a period in which the children become wiser than the adults. The children are wiser and far more worthy of respect than the adults throughout this novel. The first two hundred pages are fabulous – Foer’s best achievement to date. Then the war arrives. It arrives awkwardly. At first appearing more like something happening in Other Life, the virtual world where the oldest son spends much of his time. The question it throws up isn’t very interesting to me. E.M Forster answered it in one sentence. Granted there are added nuances asking an American Jew to sacrifice his home life to help prevent the annihilation of the state of Israel. But it’s still one of those worst case scenario what if questions, like Sophie’s choice. Extreme case scenarios rarely lead to interesting debates.
The war and the ultimatum it provokes seems like the wish fulfilment of Jacob’s father’s fantasy world. He’s a right wing blogger who belligerently identifies himself first and foremost as Jewish. He would disagree with Forster. He’s also the weakest character in the novel, the closest to caricature, and so when he takes over the novel’s central discourse you fear the worst.
The last fifty pages are devoted to Jacob, the second weakest character in the novel, and felt very sketchy. When the children left the novel, the novel slowly fizzled out. 3.5 stars.