Love and Obstacles by Aleksandar Hemon
Institutions, not individuals, are the concern of fiction, or ought to be. This is the simplified version of the argument put forth by Walter Benn Michaels in a recent issue of Bookforum, in which he savaged the current state of American literature. Novels ought to represent the world as it is; in Benn Michaels’s dream bookstore, the shelves would be full of tales about the punishing consequences of the free market, and the social stratifications that have, in the last decades, hardened and widened to an unprecedented degree. Today, you would need an ocean liner to cross the gulf between the rich and poor. Of course, only the wealthy could build such a ship -- and why would they want to?
According to Benn Michaels, this selfish reluctance to address the painful realities of our economy explains the success of historical fiction: “the more unjust and unequal American society has become, the more we have heard about how bad, say, the Holocaust was.” Historical fiction is in fact fiction about the present: to denigrate the past, and to congratulate ourselves for being less racist than we were, is to avert our eyes from the injustices and catastrophes that are perpetrated today by the free-market economy. In its silence about the present, Benn Michaels argues, the historical novel speaks volumes about how thoroughly we have been converted to the gospel of capitalism, and how determinedly -- because many of us enjoy its comforts, and very badly want to believe we are the best people doing the best we can for others -- we blind ourselves to its effects. Across America, book clubs gather in living rooms, and readers curl up on couches, a glass of wine in one hand and a copy of A Mercy in the other. The historical novel tells us we are innocent, and drunk on Chardonnay, we believe it.
But Toni Morrison is not the only criminal in American publishing today. To Benn Michaels’s chagrin, we have managed to convince ourselves that the solipsist -- we call him the memoirist -- is generous, and his products valuable offerings to, and about society, at large, and thus collaborating with historical fiction to render “the reality of our social arrangements invisible” are memoirs. Like a curtain drawn tight across a window, the memoir obscures our view of the world and directs our gaze inward: the only life with which are concerned is the life of the solitary individual and, at times, his family. Most contemporary novels are similarly hermetically sealed, concerned only with the domestic scene, and even those that appear broader in scope are not: “ethnic identity,” Benn Michaels insists, “is just the family writ large.”
For Benn Michaels, the successful novel is not the novel that tells us what the world looked like a hundred years ago, or what it might look like in some imagined future, and it is not the one that, purporting to represent society through the experience of one individual, elides it entirely. The successful novel is the novel that speaks about current social and economic realities, and the consequences of, and our responsibility for, these conditions, and these are the subjects with which American fiction should concern itself. For too long, Benn Michaels rages, has the one tyrannized the many. Time, now, to pull back the curtains, open the windows, tear the house down completely. Big things are going on outside, and it is these big things that are the proper subject of fiction. The age of the individual is over!
The Lazarus Project, Aleksandar Hemon’s 2008 novel, violates all these injunctions. The novel, which moves between two narratives -- one, set in 1908, is the story of Lazarus Averbuch, a Jewish immigrant murdered by the Chicago chief of police, and the other tells of the writer who, in 2004, researches Averbuch’s life and death -- can be classified as both ethnic fiction and historical fiction, with a dash of self-referential biography for good measure. Nevertheless, both The Lazarus Project and Love and Obstacles, Hemon’s latest collection, satisfy Benn Michaels’s requirements in other ways, even as Hemon himself challenges the validity of those requirements.
In The Lazarus Project -- which Hemon has called “an Abu Ghraib novel” -- the past does not console present readers but convicts them. Still those in power deceive the people over whom they have power, and still, out of laziness, fear, and the selfish desire to maintain the world we know, for fear the one we don’t will be worse, we permit those deceptions. Or we celebrate them: in the photographs of American soldiers torturing prisoners, Hemon’s narrator sees “young Americans expressing their unlimited joy of the unlimited power over someone else’s life and death. They loved being alive and righteous by virtue of having good American intentions; indeed, it turned them on; they liked looking at the pictures of themselves sticking a baton up some Arab ass.”
The stories in Love and Obstacles -- which he wrote much of while working on The Lazarus Project, and whose narrator was, like the narrator of that novel and Hemon himself, a Sarajevan stranded in America when war broke out in Bosnia -- are not quite as overtly, and angrily, political. Still, they document contemporary American life, and the collective fantasies and hypocrisies around which nations organize themselves: here are the wealthy, “quaintly smothered by the serenity of wealth”; here are the millions of people who “endure life with the anesthetic help of television and magazines” and whose cars are “stickered with someone else’s thought.” Benn Michaels would be pleased: this is America, as it is now; this is the world created by neoliberalism.
In The Lazarus Project, Hemon’s narrator compares the storytelling style of his two countries. Unlike Sarajevans, who happily and completely suspend disbelief while listening to a story, Americans are addicted to authenticity: “the incessant perpetuation of collective fantasies makes people crave the truth and nothing but the truth -- reality is the fastest American commodity.” In America, the best fiction is the most factual. Their leaders lie to them, and their journalists accept and perpetuate these lies, so Americans turn to their novelists for swift, brutal injections of truth -- or that which, because it is painful, resembles the truth.
A character who dispenses such invigorating “facts” appears in “The Noble Truths of Suffering,” the final story of Love and Obstacles. The narrator, a young writer whose short story “Love and Obstacles” has just appeared in the New Yorker, is invited to a party in honor of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Macalister. Critics, the narrator tells us, celebrate Macalister for his “honest brutality,” manifest in novels about Vietnam veterans who remind us that there was a war there, and that it was gruesome, and memoirs that document his own “wife-abusing, extended drinking binges, and spectacular breakdowns.” For the Macalisters and Macalister fans of the world, fiction functions like shock treatment: the novel is of interest only insofar as it is useful. Like the chair in which the patient sits, or the electrodes taped to his skin, the novel is only an instrument, the means by which that reality-restoring jolt is delivered.
Although the content of Macalister’s work, with its focus on the individual and his romantic suffering, is precisely that which Benn Michaels disdains, their two theories of what the novel is, and should be, are fundamentally the same. Their dispute over the proper subject for fiction demonstrates that, to both parties, what matters above all is the subject. The novel is no more than what it is “about,” or the claim it makes about the world. That this claim is delivered through language is, ultimately, irrelevant. (When Benn Michaels praises American Psycho’s litany of brand names, one gets the sense that what matters is not how Bret Easton Ellis described these objects, but simply that he thought to include them at all. The distinction between a novel and a catalogue is, apparently, a fine one.) For Macalister and Benn Michaels, the purpose of narrative is to expose readers to a particular argument -- is the world unpleasant in this way, or that way? -- that might be paraphrased with nothing sacrificed. Every novel can be reduced to a bumper sticker.
But something would be lost. This much we know instinctively. To read Hemon is to remember what that something is, and to recognize the deficiencies in the definitions of fiction put forth by Macalister and Benn Michaels. The stories of Love and Obstacles cannot be paraphrased, or reduced to neat ideological nuggets. Their plots can, and their characters, and their themes, insofar as those things can be said -- which is, not easily -- to exist independently from the words that bring them into existence. Impossible to summarize are Hemon’s many exquisite sentences: adolescence is the refusal to inhale “the fetid breath of other people’s existence”; sleep comes in “a deep sigh, as when dusk falls” that “settled in his body.” For Hemon, words are not in the story but are the story. Caliginous and abseiling number among his favorites, appearing again and again in his novels and stories; other uncommon delights, which he offers to the reader like a child sharing beloved treasures with a new friend, include piceous, welkin, and edentate. Even familiar words feel fresh and strange, as when a hungry man “proceeded to exterminate his food,” or “spring parachuted into Chicago.”
Hemon’s stories are not simply “about” foreignness but are themselves foreign things. The radiant, alien perfection of his prose -- the absolute precision, the knowledge that no word could be replaced by another -- renders America foreign even to Americans. His smooth words roughen the world: those old things, those things we had seen so many times we no longer saw them at all, become new again. “The earth appeared unearthly,” says the young narrator of “Stairway to Heaven” upon seeing the lunar lava fields and smoking volcanoes of the Congo for the first time, and this transformation -- this making unknown the place we thought we know -- occurs in every one of Hemon’s stories.
The novelist, however, is more than a translator who has undertaken the endless project of selecting the word that, with absolute precision, identifies the thing itself. His power is much greater. In “The Bees, Part I,” Hemon’s narrator says that, for his father, “a perfect world consisted of objects you could hold in your hand.” Reading his stories, one realizes that, for Hemon, words themselves are objects, and the tremendous beauty and power of his writing derives from his devotion to these objects, each with a shape and weight of its own. (Examples of Hemon’s sensitivity to the way words sound, and look, include “charitable Cheryl,” who generously sleeps with the narrator, and the sister who, when “startled, started whimpering.”) The meaning of words matters, but so do the parts that, like the father’s objects, we apprehend with our senses.
Devoted to objects, the father in “The Bees, Part I” is “deeply and personally offended by anything he deemed unreal. And nothing insulted him more than literature; the whole concept was a scam. Not only that words -- whose reality is precarious at best -- were what it was all made from, but those words were used to render what never happened.” He decides, therefore, to write “a real book,” to “stick to what really happened, hold onto its unquestionable firmness.” But what really happened wriggles away from him: seen through the honey-colored lens of memory, his childhood becomes a flawless, golden place, and various facts (the presence of a Japanese tailor in his hometown, for instance) are, the narrator finds, wholly unverifiable.
And that, in the end, is the power of stories, whether those told to us by others or those we tells ourselves, and of words themselves. Rather than distort our experiences, or soften formerly hard, indisputable facts, they are as real as what we call the real world. That which did not happen -- whether the events of a novel, or the memory that sours or sweetens the lived experience -- tells us as much about the world as what did. For if we remember being loved, were we not loved?
Love and Obstacles by Aleksander Hemon