Jun. 9, 2009

“The Lazarus Project” by Aleksandar Hemon

An older friend of mine went to high school in Newark with Philip Roth, Weequahic High School class of 1950. For obvious reasons, I grill my friend about Roth whenever the opportunity presents itself, and in one of these interrogations I learned that Swede Levov, the “steep-jawed insentient Viking” who is the hero of Roth’s American Pastoral, was based on a real classmate at Weequahic.

I should not have been surprised. Roth has been playing peekaboo with his readers for years, inserting himself to varying degrees into his fictions. It has become an ongoing theme: like the silhouette of Hitchcock in old movies, we seem to recognize Roth — or aspects of Roth — in all his books, particularly in the flawed writers, Peter Tarnopol, Nathan Zuckerman, even a character named “Philip Roth.” They are all plainly Roth, the reader understands, and they are all invented too. The point of all this line-blurring is to get beyond fictional realism and closer to reality, to the actual lived human experience. Roth’s novels have a vivid, confessional quality not just because Roth is an extraordinary writer (though obviously he is), but because his books pretend to be more than fictions — they sometimes are more than fictions.

A similar fission occurs whenever a writer’s face seems to hover behind the pages. Conrad, Melville and Hemingway all are recognizable in their stories. Even in a fantasy like The Great Gatsby, the reader’s experience is influenced by the knowledge that Nick Carraway shares much of his creator’s biography: Midwestern boyhood, Ivy League education, witness to “riotous” Jazz Age parties. Nick is the thinnest mask for Fitzgerald. When we read Gatsby, we understand that the voice and the sensibility are Fitzgerald’s own. In Sophie’s Choice, William Styron goes a step further, all but stepping onstage himself, undisguised, inside the story.

These are not simply first-person narrators. They are metafictions that draw on the audience’s awareness of certain details about the author. The device relies on the audience knowing a few facts outside the book — that Hemingway lived in Paris, say. The reader must know enough to say, “Aha! I’ve spotted him! I get it!” At that moment, an implicit promise is made: the author’s recognizable presence inside the narrative is a guarantee of authenticity. The author winks and says, “This really happened to me, give or take a few details.” That the promise is sure to be broken, that it is just another writer’s trick, is beside the point. In storytelling as in con games, winning your mark’s confidence is everything.

Aleksandar Hemon is up to something similar in his wonderful The Lazarus Project. Hemon’s alter ego in the book is Vladimir Brik. Like Hemon, Brik is a Bosnian who came to the United States in 1992, settled in Chicago, taught English as a second language, wrote a column about his immigrant experiences. Like Hemon, he is not quite a proper Bosnian because his grandfather emigrated from Ukraine and because Brik, trapped in Chicago, missed the war, a searing, unifying experience for Bosnians. If you were not aware of Hemon’s biography, no worries. The book cover helpfully sketches in the high points.

In the novel, Brik wins a small grant in 2004 to travel to eastern Europe to research a book he is working on. The money is not a “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation, as the real Hemon won in 2004 (again, according to the book cover). It is just a small stipend that Brik finagles in a comical way. But then, it would not do to outfit a maladjusted hero like Vladimir Brik with such an auspicious prize.

The book Brik intends to write is the true story of a Jewish immigrant to Chicago named Lazarus Averbuch. For reasons lost to history, Averbuch appeared at the home of the Chicago chief of police on March 2, 1908. He knocked on the door, there was a scuffle, and Averbuch was shot dead. The police claimed he was a foreign-born anarchist bent on violence, but there is no evidence to support the claim.

Brik recruits a childhood friend from Sarajevo, a photographer now living in Chicago, to accompany him on a trip through eastern Europe retracing Averbuch’s emigration journey a hundred years before. Of course during this trip Brik also explores his own identity as a displaced emigre. The journey ends in Sarajevo, where Brik “feels like a ghost,” no longer at home.

If all this feels a little symmetrical and programmatic, well, it is. The two eastern European immigrants are neatly separated by a century. The novel cuts rather mechanically between the parallel stories of Averbuch in 1908 and Brik in 2004. Characters from one story are mirrored in the other. Hemon plays with the notion of the biblical Lazarus without ever quite pinning down what its significance is for either story. (Hope for resurrection of the victims of violence? Symbol of displaced immigrants who, like Lazarus, “wander for eternity”?)

But the book has many rewards. Hemon is often mentioned with Nabokov, another immigrant who wrote in English as a non-native speaker. (Incredibly, according to his publisher, Hemon arrived in 1992 with only a rudimentary command of English and only three years later was publishing stories in his new language.) There are echoes of Nabokov in Hemon’s writing, especially in the surprising and slightly askew use of exotic words, irredentate (toothless), incalescent (growing hotter), kempt (why do we hear only unkempt?), caliginous (dark, misty, gloomy). Reading this sort of language, I think of Nabokov and his “pentapod monster.” Other reviewers have commented on Hemon’s prose at length, and I won’t add anything here except to say that everything you’ve heard is true: the writing is extraordinary. And the portrayals of eastern Europe today and Chicago a century ago are unforgettable.

But the book’s main strength is also its weakness: the Roth-like presence of Hemon himself inside the story.

The Lazarus Project is an angry book. In a much commented-upon passage, Brik and his wife fight over the meaning of the Abu Ghraib pictures. “I told her,” Brik says, “I hated the normal people and the land of the fucking free and the home of the asshole brave … I told her that to be American you have to know nothing and understand even less, and that I did not want to be American.” There are many similar passages.

In an interview I heard recently, Hemon commented, “Well, I have had my anger. It never quite reached that point. And, you know, Brik is very, very angry with the whole notion of America. So I could write him, and I could write him because during the Bush years I had a hard time being an American.”

Fine. Lord knows, there is plenty to be angry about. I am angry, too.

The trouble is, Brik’s anger mars the book. I had the sense that Hemon was not entirely able to control his own outrage, to deploy it in service of his novelistic goals. Hemon wants to scourge us, and when he does, vitriol swamps the story, and The Lazarus Project stops dead.

These passages have a didactic, moralizing feel. Easy analogies are drawn between the present day and a terrifying anti-Semitic pogrom in 1903 in what is now Moldova. The Bosnian war of the 1990s is conflated with 9/11, as when Brik describes his agitated dreams: “Usually, they [his dreams] had something to do with the war: Milosevic, Mladic, Karadzic, and, lately, Bush, Rumsfeld, and Rambo [a murderous Bosnian general] figured in them.” We may despise Milosevic and Bush both, still it is sloppy to lump them together.

But the real problem is not factual precision. A storyteller is entitled to be imprecise. Rather, the problem is dramatic effectiveness. Angry, Brik ceases to function as a character. The reader’s sympathies are disengaged as the likable, believable protagonist of the first act increasingly disappears in the later stages of the book. We follow the story because it is interesting, because we are curious, because we have come this far. But we no longer root for Brik as ardently. We no longer feel what it is like to be Vladimir Brik. We no longer quite believe Brik is real at all. A novel about a man becomes a novel about issues, a lesson novel.

And yet, and yet…

In passages like these we feel Hemon’s presence. We feel an understandable human emotion, the frustrated rage of a man disgusted with both his countries, Bosnia and America, an alien in both Chicago and Sarajevo. Anyway, maybe a little anger is appropriate in a book that asks, “What are we to do with all the death? Who is going to remember all the dead?”

I will give the last word to Hemon himself:

The complete panel interview is here.

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