On Being At Home

A few months ago, I wrote down a note to myself: Home is where you can be a failure. That thought is haunting me a lot recently because I have been “unsuccessful” in various ways — I was laid off twice last year, and I have been seriously disappointed in general at my ability to understand and participate in most human interactions, including but certainly not limited to, my relationship with my girlfriend. While in this mood, I thought about what it means to always have to be employed while in the United States, and how that necessitated being emotionally and mentally alert, stable and competent. It is as if the immigration laws of this country were written to only let normal and stable people work here; those who cannot be the “best and brightest” have to pay the penalty for their lackadaisicalness and indolence by returning to their home country. Over there, presumably, I can let myself go as much as I want, and no one can really do anything except hope that I will either shake myself out of it or be forced to work out of indigence, shame, a sense of filial, matrimonial or parental duty or some combination of the above.

I just read a book that was written by another immigrant to the United States, a man named Aleksandar Hemon. He came here from Bosnia, or Serbia, or one of those war-torn countries where for a while, the ethnic strife became a global theater of blood-engorged horror. He had it easy in coming here — he pointed to Bosnia (or Serbia) and said, my home is no more, and they believed him. He wasn’t a famous, New Yorker-published writer then, so they didn’t keep him because he was known to be industrious and capable of having a normal, mainstream life. In fact, seeing as how his brethren back at home were ripping each other’s throats out, or pumping sniper bullets into each other’s hearts and lungs, at that very moment, the immigration officials could well have been excused for turning Mister Hemon back under grounds of being a potential vector of homicidal lunacy.

As it happens, they let him stay on, so that he could, after a suitable series of circumstances, involving the inculcation of enough English to allow his natural talents as a writer to emerge in his adopted tongue, produce a not-inconsiderable body of work in a language he wasn’t born to speak. Having read, and been entranced by, a short story of his in the New Yorker, I picked up his latest book, The Lazarus Project.

The book’s basic structure is that the narrator, Vladimir Brik, is working on a research project involving one Lazarus Averbuch, an Eastern European Jewish immigrant who escaped pogrom back home (for him, home was where you could be buried alive or simply bludgeoned to death for being born into a certain religion) to arrive on the shores of the United States and thence to the ghettos of Chicago. In parallel, Hemon weaves the story of Brik himself who, upon fortuitously receiving some foundation grant money to pursue this project, decides that the best way to spend it would be to travel himself to the city in Moldova where the eponymous Lazarus was from and learn more about the circumstances that caused Lazarus to flee. Of course, it makes sense that this journey becomes a sort of homecoming for Brik too — he is, after all, from a part of the world that isn’t that far away from the scene of this turn-of-the-century iniquity. During the journey, we learn gradually more about the narrator’s own ambiguous relationship with his foster-motherland, a relationship reflected in all-too-real terms in his marriage to a woman from a mid-Western family, representing in her general attitude of self-exceptionalism, the vaunted purity of American idealism. She “suffers,” Brik keeps telling us, “from a surfeit of good intentions,” as does her father, though his moralizing turns him into a stern and unyielding father who the children naturally come to hate, in that peculiar way that Americans have of almost reflexively turning against the values of the previous generation, almost every generation, creating a cycle of liberalism and conservatism that works with the same sense of deadly clockwork as does the country’s business world.

Meanwhile, Brik’s research subject has crossed paths him, in a literary sense, by coming to America from the place Brik is headed to. He has landed unwittingly in a time and place that is going to be very dangerous for him, because the ghettos are under fire from virulent anti-immigrant sentiment. In fact, the novel itself opens with a spectacular shoot-out in which an unarmed and plainly very innocent Lazarus has just been butchered to death by Chicago’s Chief of Police. Brik’s utter disdain for and cynicism about authority in its many forms spews out of the pages almost from page one, both in his descriptions of the conditions under which the murder has taken place, as well as in his assessment of social mores in more modern America. The parallels between the spectre of anarchism then and the bugaboo of terrorism now are plain.

Of course, things are no less dangerous in other parts of the world, where terrorism is, if not exactly a predictable and regular event like the neighborhood farmer’s market, at least something more real than a political sound bite for talk shows and State of the Union addresses. Brik is on a perilous trip and Hemon reminds us constantly that the erstwhile republics of the Soviet Union are a capricious place, perhaps partly to contrast with the humdrum orderliness of ordinary life in the United States, and perhaps also because this is his strongest sense of what it was like to live in the satellite worlds of Soviet power. He and his traveling companion, a sometimes laconic, sometimes irrepressible man named Rora, are always surrounded by hulking men, who seem to be perpetually on the verge of committing a crime, of running away from one or at the very least, having just planned one. These are the people who are “all now,” Brik muses, whereas he is himself, being a writer researching a dead history, much more in the past.

At some point, because this is a post-modern novel of sorts, the two story lines collide in even more of a literary sense than the one I’ve already mentioned. Hemon glides effortlessly from dialogues between his “real life” characters to thoes between the “fictionalized historical” ones. The fears of one set of travelers who are outsiders looking into a fearful world where they were once insiders and would still be mistaken for it were it not for their shields of invincibility — their American passports — meld with those of the set who are desperate to be inside a world that both fears and welcomes them for being outsiders.

Though the characters I’ve described here might seem like caricatures who will pall after a few pages, the book is anything but boring or cliched. The Adventures of Brik And Rora, which might have well been a working title, engulf you all the way through to the end in their madcapness, even after you have fully imbibed Brik’s, and Hemon’s, point that around where they are wandering, the distinctions between nations are largely administrative — as far as the people and their attitudes go, it might well be one vast stretch of Fuck-Youistan. Yet, Hemon creates just enough space in the interstices of the borders he crosses and fills it with just the right mix of sardonic humor, violent anger, mordant self-deprecation and philosophical brilliance, all emanating mostly from Brik but also from Rora who acts as his foil, that you never feel like skipping past the boring bits about the museums and parks, for a cursory glance at the last part of the travelogue, where you can find listed the cheap places to eat and pick up a whore at. And it is hardly a spoiler here to say that in the end, everything is resolved, in some sense, not because characters are necessarily transformed, or are transported through their personal epiphanies but because they make a grand choice, a choice between life and death, in a manner that only the characters of really good novels can.

In an interview many years ago, David Foster Wallace said that writing used to be about “taking people to foreign lands and exotic cultures and giving … access to worlds they didn’t have access to.” Now, he said, (and his “now” was about fifteen years ago, in this interview,) things had turned around a 180 degrees, because everybody was familiar with every place, so writing had to exoticize and distance everything. What Hemon does is to perform both tasks — his lands are both familiar and strange; his characters both improbable and eminently believable.

Perhaps one place Hemon fails to perform this sort of magical melding is in his thoughts of the country that he, and the obviously semi-autobiographical Brik, now call home. Brik reminds us on multiple occasions of the perniciousness of idealism — the idealism of religion, personified by the life and decisions of “Mister Christ,” as he refers to the Christian messiah; and of course, the idealism of the United States, which transmogrifies frequently into naked and ugly power, uglier when more naked. It is an idealism into the fold of which his father-in-law and wife are portrayed as relentless in bringing him. Brik’s bile shows the most when he ruminates on the world he has (temporarily) left behind on his trip — but slapping into senselessness the subtleties of the American point of view into such doesn’t do his case any good. It is a show of demagoguery that would sound more natural from a disgruntled jihadi or an unreformed Communist — is Brik merely harboring an intense resentment of the United States for having been against his side of the war in the former Yugoslavian nation; or it is just the pressure of a failing, perhaps ill-advised, marriage merely “acting out”? It’s never clear, nor does Hemon clarify this situation for us, leaving America a rather trumped-up villain straight out of a Punch magazine sketch.

The Lazarus Project is worth reading because it represents a good example of what happens when someone with cross-cultural sensibilities puts his consciousness into literary creation. The questions in the Project are still existential but they are keenly aware of the real history of immigration and globalization — for most of us, home is merely an accident, a skin thrown over us in the haste of our creation, and it’s an accident that we come to terms with and to celebrate. For others, finding a home is one of the ends of life itself, rather than the means of living it. For every one who has been on that journey, Hemon’s Project is a voice in support.

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