The Lazarus Project creates a heavy, heartfelt wholeness
out of three different kinds of loss. First there is Vladimir Brik, a young
Bosnian-American whose only apparent difference from the author is his name (see
sidebar). He has lost his homeland, a loss made sharper by his guilt at having
escaped the ravages of war. In America, his new home, he feels forever tentative
and dissociated. "The one thing I remembered and missed from the before-the-war
Sarajevo," he says, "was a kind of unspoken belief that everyone could be
whatever they claimed they wereeach life, however imaginary, could be validated
by its rightful, sovereign owner, from the inside."
He becomes almost morbidly fascinated by the true story of Lazarus Averbach, a Jewish man who escaped the pogroms of Eastern Europe only to be shot dead by the Chief of Police, mistaken for an anarchist a mere seven months into his pursuit of the American dream. Hemon's narration moves backward into Averbach's short life and forward into his sister Olga's grieving as she moves through the crowded streets of Chicago's Jewish ghetto. "Every one of them is somebody's brother or sister or child; all of them are alive; they know the good ways of not dying."
Then there is Rora, another Bosnian immigrant who accompanies Brik on a journey from Ukraine to Moldova and Bosnia to research Averbach's life. Unlike Brik, Rora remained in Sarajevo during the war, surviving by hitching his fortune to a Bosnian warlord and a corrupt American photojournalist. Rora tells his war stories as they travel across the changed landscape. His life, so different from Brik's experience of relative comfort, has turned him into a hardened mercenary, yet Brik cannot help but admire his integrity: "I recognized him then; that is, I finally comprehended what I had known but had never been able to formulate: he had always been complete. He had finished the work of becoming himself, long before any of us could even imagine such a feat was possible." As Brik conducts his research, Rora takes picturesemphasis on the word "take"with ruthless intensity. Each chapter in The Lazarus Project begins with a photograph taken by Hemon's friend Velibor Bozovic or from the archives of the Chicago Historical Society.
Brik's alienation from American culture sensitizes him to a more generalized, existential strangeness under the surface of modern life, and it is in this shadowy yet instantly recognizable terrain that Hemon finds his true subject:
I spotted a can in the corner whose red label read SADNESS. Was there so much of it they could can it and sell it? A bolt of pain went through my intestines before I realized that it was not SADNESS but SARDINES. It was too late for recovery, for sadness was now the dark matter in the universe of still objects around me: the salt and pepper shakers; the honey jar; the bag of sun-dried tomatoes; the blunt knife; a desiccated loaf of bread; the two coffee cups, waiting. My country's main exports are stolen cars and sadness.
Hemon has done a most difficult thing: he has written a deeply felt, almost
painfully tender novel that is also a precisely designed metafiction. I first
became absorbed in the keenly rendered moral universe of Lazarus and his sister
Olga, as Olga strives to prove her brother's posthumous innocence, and in Brik and
his wife Mary, as Brik strives to comprehend and connect with Mary's American
innocence. Only gradually did I realize that Hemon crafted the two stories to
echo one another. Characters from 1908 recur in 2008; for instance, Miller, the
newspaper man who reported Lazarus's death with such cavalier bigotry, becomes
Miller, the photographer who endangers Rora's life during the war. I won't say
any more on this subject, because thinking through those reverberations provides
a good deal of the pleasure of this novel.
These two different literary registersrealism and metafiction*do not simply coexist within the novel; they feed one another in Hemon's larger project of describing America from without. American citizenship is, fundamentally, a self-referential condition. Brik writes, "Moving through the crowd at the bus station in Chernivtsi, I realized that my center had shiftedit used to be in my stomach, but now it was in my breast pocket, where I kept my American passport and a wad of cash. I pushed this bounty of American life through space; I was presently assembled around it now and needed to protect it from the people around me."
The resonance between Lazarus's historical story and Brik's present-day story becomes more pronounced as the novel proceeds, making the ending inevitable, predictable, and therefore satisfying in the way it completes the literary pattern. Yet Hemon also means for us to criticize this very predictability and to wonder if a sustained encounter with history might have altered itif literature with its flagrantly false patterning might be able to complete the meaning of all-too-messy history.
At the time I first wrote this review in April 2008 I wrote, "It is simple to predict the fate of The Lazarus Project: it will deservedly turn up on many 'best of 2008' lists." And indeed it did; in addition it was nominated for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Its characters have lingered in my mind, but what sets the novel apart is the language that Hemon has imagined into being for describing the reality just to the side of the one in plain view. To dive into a Hemon novel is to feel, at least for the duration of its pages, that we are all exiles from the country of the real.
*The term 'metafiction' was coined by William H Gass in a 1970 essay entitled "Philosophy and the Form of Fiction", in which he pointed out that a new term was needed to describe the emerging genre of fiction that broke with the then dominant conventions of novel writing by explicitly drawing attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality. Just as presentational theater never lets the audience forget they are viewing a play, metafiction continually reminds the reader that he or she is reading a fictional work.
This review was originally published in May 2008, and has been updated for the May 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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