From Michel Houellebecq’s Islamicised France in Submission to Lionel Shriver’s vision of an autarkic United States in The Mandibles, the political disaster novel is in vogue and one only has to pick up a newspaper to see why. By confronting us with our worst nightmares, such fictions offer a space to explore and interrogate our anxieties – and in these uncertain times, we could all use a little therapy. Jonathan Safran Foer’s fourth novel, Here I Am, adds to the ranks of these dystopias of the present, in intent if not quite in execution. A massive earthquake knocks out Israel’s infrastructure and all but negates its military capability, rendering it exceptionally vulnerable to attack. A coalition of Arab and Middle Eastern nations duly launches an assault. The premise is dubious, but that is beside the point: the catastrophe forms the backdrop to the real action, which is the breakdown of the protagonist’s marriage. Jacob and Julia, an affluent Jewish American couple in their early forties, have been together a long time and have three children. Jacob is rumbled sexting another woman and everything unravels – at excruciating length – from there.
In deploying the spectre of a second Holocaust as a plot device to parade a series of reflections on masculinity and responsible parenting, Foer might have delivered a devastating satire on the complacent self-absorption of a certain type of contemporary American novel – namely, the Jonathan Franzen-style state-of-the-nation-cum-psychic-tour-de-force