Now playing on the Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast, a conversation with Jonathan Safran Foer . His latest novel, Here I Am, is available now in trade paperback from Picador. It is the official June selection of The Nervous Breakdown Book Club.

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“[Here I Am is] an ambitious platter of intellection and emotion. Its observations are crisp; its intimations of doom resonate; its jokes are funny. Here I Am consistently lit up my pleasure centers . . . This is also Mr. Foer’s best and most caustic novel, filled with so much pain and regret that your heart sometimes struggles to hold it all . . . This book offers intensities on every page. Once put down it begs . . . to be picked back up . . . Here I Am has more teeming life in it than several hundred well-meaning and well-reviewed books of midlist fiction put together.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times

Instant New York Times Bestseller
A New York Times Notable Book of 2016
A Time Magazine Top 10 Novel of 2016
A Times Literary Supplement Best Book of 2016

“Dazzling . . . A profound novel about the claims of identity, history, family, and the burdens of a broken world.” —Maureen Corrigan, NPR’s “Fresh Air”

In the book of Genesis, when God calls out, “Abraham!” before ordering him to sacrifice his son, Isaac, Abraham responds, “Here I am.” Later, when Isaac calls out, “My father!” before asking him why there is no animal to slaughter, Abraham responds, “Here I am.”

How do we fulfill our conflicting duties as father, husband, and son; wife and mother; child and adult? Jew and American? How can we claim our own identities when our lives are linked so closely to others’? These are the questions at the heart of Jonathan Safran Foer’s first novel in eleven years—a work of extraordinary scope and heartbreaking intimacy.

Unfolding over four tumultuous weeks in present-day Washington, D.C., Here I Am is the story of a fracturing family in a moment of crisis. As Jacob and Julia Bloch and their three sons are forced to confront the distances between the lives they think they want and the lives they are living, a catastrophic earthquake sets in motion a quickly escalating conflict in the Middle East. At stake is the meaning of home—and the fundamental question of how much aliveness one can bear.

Showcasing the same high-energy inventiveness, hilarious irreverence, and emotional urgency that readers loved in his earlier work, Here I Am is Foer’s most searching, hard-hitting, and grandly entertaining novel yet. It not only confirms Foer’s stature as a dazzling literary talent but reveals a novelist who has fully come into his own as one of our most important writers.



This self- interview is answered by voices from the anthology Life is Short—Art is Shorter by David Shields and Elizabeth Cooperman.


How would you describe the brief selections in this book?

“ …ticks engorged like grapes” (Amy Hempel, “Weekend”)


What were you thinking about when you put this collection together?

“I was thinking about my body’s small, precise, limited, hungry movement forward…” (Wayne Koestenbaum, “My 1980s”)


You have said that Brevity personified came to you in a dream many years ago?

“His hands moved in spasms of mathematical complexity at invisible speed.” (Leonard Michaels, “In the Fifties”)

DH: This is the last of my three posts on Dinaw Mengestu’s new novel, How to Read the Air. It’s about the lying at the heart of the novel, in the creation of the character, Jonas Woldemariam. If this were a 19th century novel, a novel by Dickens, then Jonas Woldemariam , like David Copperfield, would be the best title for it. But Jonas is no hero.

Jonas’ fitful employment history starts out in a non-profit agency that helps illegal immigrants to stay stateside. DM’s very effective narrative strategy sets up these little scenes where the hapless applicants lay out their paltry documents, stories, photographs to justify their appeal for asylum. Jonas doctors them up. He uses his fiction skills to make the refugees seem more appealing to the authorities. Where an emigrant says he was threatened in his homeland, JW says their house was burned down. If they say they were threatened with imprisonment, then Jonas writes down that they were arrested three times and did prison time under torture.

Later, Jonas teaches at an upscale Manhattan private school, you know, like the Dalton School …a place that I’ve visited. It’s a plum job for a gifted English lit major fantasizing about getting a doctorate. His wife, Angela, pulls strings at her law firm to get him the job. One of her law partners is a trustee at the school.

His privileged students get treated to a long-winded tale about his father’s attempt to leave Sudan. The story is distorted family mythology. Jonas is a diffident David Copperfield…a Dickens’ impossibility. Jonas lies because he withdraws. He withdraws so he can be a writer in the most generic sense…so he can lie.

At home with Angela, he tells more lies to spin his life over. The scenario is that he is going to be promoted at his “academy” to a full time position. It’s as if David Copperfield said: “I’d like to say that this is what happened. I am imagining that it could have been this way.” But one way to view any novel is to say “this is what might have happened”.

Dickens’ conception of character is moral and reforming. But DM’s approach, through his lead character Jonas, is aesthetic and “fraudulent”. It’s lying. “How to Read the Air”, what does the title mean? My take is that it’s quixotic. It’s impossible. You can’t read the air. Reminds me of Kierkegaard…and Camus. The aesthetic approach to life as an evasion because the character can’t do the moral or religious. The lying “fiction” as a critique that uncovers. Because where the lying fails, there the truth can be glimpsed…if only for a second out of the corner of the reader’s eye. Perhaps that’s the best we can do.

But How to Read the Air is slipping away from me as I try to grab hold of it. Its complexity fights being analyzed. What a great book club selection it will make! And what a devious writer Dinaw Mengestu is! That’s why I love him. As Jonas crashes and burns lies into the fragile connections of his world, one is led to a wondering about his real sensitivities to his parents and himself that he is trying so hard to conceal from Angela. How can any relationship bear up if it is being asked to bear so much concealed emotional weight? Even the novel’s narrative style buckles and twists all over itself as events are related as they happened, or as they might well have happened, or as they expressly did not happen as the reader sees the lies that the audience in the novel believes. Massively well-constructed, How to Read the Air will be published by Riverhead in cloth