“Maybe It Was the Distance” 
by Jonathan Safran Foer
Originally published in the June 6 & 13, 2016 issue of The New Yorker.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker website.

June 6 & 13, 2016Not being the biggest Jonathan Safran Foer fan, I’m not looking forward to this particular story in this year’s Fiction Issue (nor was I looking forward to the story he had in last year’s fiction issue — sheesh). It’s not even as short as his have been in year’s past. Nevertheless, I’m committed to reading all four stories in the magazine, so!

I look forward to your thoughts, as always!

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By |2016-06-03T15:00:56-04:00May 30th, 2016|Categories: Jonathan Safran Foer, New Yorker Fiction|8 Comments


  1. Patricia June 1, 2016 at 6:11 pm

    I haven’t read anything of Foer’s previously, although I enjoyed most of this story. I thought the craft was exquisite in some sections, particularly the back and forth between Irv and Jacob and between Jacob and Tamir. As is usual with short stories, I felt the ending a bit lacking. I don’t need a Hollywood finale to wrap everything up, but… It made the piece seem more like an excerpt or a sketch for a larger work than a true short story to me. Is there enough arc here? I don’t know–what does everyone else think? I’d read more of Foer, though, just to sample more of his writing style. I loved his metaphors and word choices here.

  2. Trevor Berrett June 3, 2016 at 2:54 pm

    I may not get to this one, actually. I’m not a fan of Foer and this is . . . an excerpt! I’ve enjoyed many excerpts — Foer’s wife Nicole Krauss had an excellent one a few years ago that led me to read the lesser The Great House — but I’m against them on principle. I do feel like I should read it, though, since Patricia has good things to say . . .

  3. Patricia June 3, 2016 at 3:37 pm

    Yikes! That’s a relief–about the excerpt, I mean. I must have missed something. My Internet was cutting out a lot when I was trying to load the story (I live in Mexico, which means the web isn’t always as world wide as it’s supposed to be!).

    Okay, then as an excerpt, this piece works better for me. Having been a member of a Jewish family until my divorce, I would say a lot of Foer’s writing about Jews in America and Israel relates to my experience. In fact, this piece was rather eerily close to a lot of stuff in my life, including my ex having peed next to Al Gore and describing his… er, style (Gore was writing a speech–with both hands–while doing his thing).

    As an aside, though, why is TNY excerpting so much? To me, it’s like Hollywood only making films from franchises, comic books, and television shows. Is there nothing in the actual short story format worth publishing? (Rhetorical question–it’s probably related to money.) I’ve been reading a lot of the old guard in short stories–John Cheever and James Thurber–and it’s sad that I have often resorted to rereading these authors because the modern fare is so sparse or unappealing. “This is an Alert” alone sent me away from the magazine for a good three months.

  4. Ken June 9, 2016 at 1:21 am

    I’m also down on excerpts and this story, albeit fairly decent, is so obviously an excerpt that it doesn’t satisfy on its own. There’s some funny writing and the characters’ voices are well modulated. Doesn’t he, though, trade in stereotypes when creating his characters–precocious kid, deracinated intellectual American jew, vulgar Israeli etc?

  5. Patricia June 9, 2016 at 5:21 pm

    I found, Ken, that for me the piece walked a very fine line between lifelike portrayals of East Coast American Jews and stereotypes, with some significant overlap. It was very Woody Allen-esque, for want of a better word. But there were times I would sit with my ex-husband’s family, and think, “Am I in a Woody Allen film?” I don’t know what to think when the very group being stereotyped perpetuates the stereotype. Is it only stereotyping if an outsider is the perpetrator–would this work be blasphemous coming from a non-Jewish author (the “Anti-dentite Clause”)?

    Is Foer playing in stereotypes, or is he merely accurately depicting what he has experienced? Are stereotypes okay in this instance, and are they even stereotypes? As Capote said, “You can’t blame a writer for what the characters say.” Is it the writer’s duty to instruct or to take the moral high ground at the expense of accuracy and story? I don’t have any answers here on this very slippery slope, but I certainly admired the craft in the story. I think I’d like to read ELAIC now and perhaps the rest of this.

  6. William Check June 10, 2016 at 9:36 pm

    One of the nice things about being part of a reading group is that sometimes you get your weird reactions substantiated. Like this thread on dislike of excerpts. I have imagined that the publisher of the upcoming book gives an excerpt free for promotional value, so that the NYer fills its fiction space free. OTOH, we pay the same amount for the issue. I have often thought that when they publish an excerpt they should also publish a genuine piece of original short fiction. Might it be worthwhile transmitting our dissatisfaction as a group to the magazine?

    Patricia, it was valuable to have your insights as a former insider in a Jewish family about the genuineness of the characters’ behaviors. It’s always tough to talk about behaviors in a story that seem generalized to a specific demographic group to which one doesn’t belong. BTW, one can write about ethnic groups without stereotyping; I’m thinking for instance of Stuart Dybek’s story, “Chopin in Winter”.

    About the story itself, I thought it started well. Jews from Israel are different from Jews in the U.S., he seems to be saying, and that could lead to some interesting exchanges. Where I thought the stereotype crippled the story was the American Jewish man being self-involved and wimpy and insecure and paranoid (“Why would I pretend?”; “Because it’s your bizarre Israeli way of diminishing the achievements of America Jews.”) while the Israeli Jewish man is strong and confident, ebullient and aggressive — even their sons reflected their characters. Still, that’s what Foer wanted to write about, so I was willing to give him the leeway to develop this theme. However, as soon as Spielberg was introduced, it moved from an intimate family drama to shtick. That whole section should have been excised, in my opinion.

    I agree that the ending was soft and inconclusive — he tried for poetic and deep, and got fuzzy.

    I much prefer Nathan Englander’s story a few years ago on a similar theme, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank”.

  7. Patricia June 12, 2016 at 6:51 pm

    I’ll have to read Englander’s story now for comparison–thanks for the suggestion.

    While the Spielberg element did come off as schtick in Foer’s excerpt, I think his inclusion represented the essential question, “What makes a Jew?” Is it birth, country of residence, attitude, belief, political opinion, circumcision, or the making of a film like “Schindler’s List?” Spielberg to me served as the embodiment of the characters’ confusion about that, especially Jacob.

  8. William June 12, 2016 at 7:59 pm

    Patricia —

    I agree that Spielberg stood for that question. However, Foer then carried on in his mind a detailed discussion of the several aspects of that issue. It was like a round table discussion with only one person at the table. I just had occasion to re-read Frank O’Connor’s great story, “Guests of the Nation”. It reminded me that there was a time when writers truly told a story, rather than engaging in abstractions. Characters in Flannery O’Connor’s stories, too, never sit around philosophizing, they are too busy acting crazy. And that is a much more powerful method of writing fiction.

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