It’s 10 years since Jonathan Safran Foer’s last novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. In that time, he has won awards, taken up teaching, written a TV show for HBO, shelved a TV show for HBO, and started several books he didn’t finish. “I just didn’t have anything I wanted to write,“ he says. “Not badly enough or honestly enough to sustain a project over the amount of time it would take.” Here I Am is the book that made it through. It reads like an emotional audit, a postmortem on a divorce. Mostly it reads like a man looking inward.
Foer is standing in a hotel bar looking tired, trying to find a place to put his novel down where it won’t be in the way. “It’s probably my least autobiographical book,” he says, though he went through his own divorce two years ago. “There’s nothing I’m trying to work out in my writing. Well, that’s not true, I’m probably trying to work everything out. But you can do that in therapy. Writing feels more generative – not recuperative or redemptive, but generative. Like making something new.”
He says writing this book exhausted him in a way the others didn’t. But after searching for a word to describe its completion, he settles on “satisfied”. “This is the first time when finishing a book I’ve had the feeling like I don’t really want to write anything else. It’s my most personal. I feel like I expressed the self that I am right now. I guess I’ll change and the world will change and I’ll have more things I want to express, but right now I feel sort of depleted.”
Over the past decade, the air around Foer has changed, but he can’t feel it. Despite spending hours obsessing over things on the web – if you open his laptop right now there will be “like, 12 YouTube tabs of Civil War re-enactments”, because that’s what he’s into right now, he says, before asking if I can hook him up with any Civil War re-enactors – he never googles himself. If the internet is a city, Foer lives in a nuclear bunker on its fringes: He has no idea about the state of the place outside the door. He doesn’t know the air has become toxic.
In the echo chamber of social media, Foer is an effigy of the white male writers a woke contingent is trying to move away from. (“Well, a movement away from white guys is not the worst thing in the world,“ he shrugs.) Regardless of the work he’s producing, being a preternaturally successful white male author who lives in Brooklyn like every other preternaturally successful white male author has had a ripple effect through his career that has built to a wave of internet ire. Though they might not have read his books, met him in person, or know anything about his life beyond the rumour that he left his wife for Natalie Portman without running it by Natalie Portman first, the internet has formed a consensus on Foer: He is a symbol for the meek and needy, the twee and overemotional, shorthand for a man you were vaguely nice to once who completely got the wrong idea. On top of being a bestselling author, he has an unpaid career as a meme.
But none of this has any real attachment to anything he’s written or said. His only crime is a blinking naivety, because Foer has no idea about any of this. And in that sense, he is exactly like what Twitter thinks he’s like.
When I ask him about it, he asks what I’m talking about. And nothing makes Twitter sound less like something that matters than reading it aloud. He says, rolling his eyes, that he did know there was a rumour that he left his wife for Natalie Portman without telling Natalie Portman first, but only found out this year when the New York Times Magazine published his profile of Portman, a close friend of his since the early 2000s. Instead of the standard thousands of words of profile prose, he and Portman fabricated a scenario where they just opened up their inboxes to the NYT and let it print their most recent email exchange. It was torn apart, published out of context, and spoofed far and wide while people searched for the desperate lovelorn Foer between the lines. Prior to seeing the response, he had no idea about the rumour. Also, it never happened. “I wrote to Natalie afterwards, like, 'What the fuck is this?' She’s like, ‘This is the internet.’”
Where do you go when the internet has decided you’re embarrassing?
“Everything you’re asking about is something I don’t know,” he says, eating crisps, blasé. “That’s not to say it’s not interesting – you’re just asking the wrong person. I don’t know what the culture values, I’m not part of that conversation. I don’t read much of anything online, I don’t subscribe to any magazines. I assume I’m probably happier that way.”
It’s not that he’s not looking around him, and it’s not that he’s aloof: Foer just has a single-minded curiosity in things that interest him, and a superhuman ability to blinker anything that doesn’t.
But social media is not the world. In the physical sense, Foer hasn’t bricked himself away, and by teaching fiction at NYU he must be getting some sense of how the idea of him is existing in the world, in the shifting ideologies of a call-out generation. The people who know enough about Foer to treat him as a joke tend to overlap with the people campaigning for trigger warnings in colleges. From his vantage in the middle of that Venn diagram as an artist and a teacher, does he have a view on their effect on how we experience art and life, our basic human need to be able to exist in a world without wrapping ourselves in bubblewrap? He asks what a trigger warning is.
I’m trying to carve out the man from the internet joke he’s embedded in, but he doesn’t know it surrounds him, and he doesn’t really care. He’s a photograph on a dartboard hung on a wall in bar: To him, the darts don’t even exist, let alone hurt. He shrugs: None of this matters. What matters stays with you. Everything else just falls away.
“You can’t put a tweet on a shelf,” he says. “Things stick around for a reason.”
In his new novel Foer is trying to figure out what matters enough to stick around. He used to think it was big gestures, big ideas, and big images: global, political, and loud. Now they are smaller: the interior thoughts of a standard human catastrophe. “I still like things that are really loud or argumentative or irrepressible,” he says. “But that can happen in the form of a conversation in bed, or in a kitchen.” There’s a natural disaster in Here I Am, but when measured against the collapse of a dead marriage it barely registers on the emotional scale. In this book it’s nothing but a plot device, a symbol, another knife with which to take everything apart.
I suggest that the book is about happiness, the most repeated word throughout it. He says it isn’t: It’s about finding a home, maybe. “Finding a comfort, a place of integration, finding a place where you’re not different people at different times. It’s about finding a place where you can say ‘here I am’ and actually mean it.”
The rest is just noise.