The secret of Aleksandar Hemon's brilliant satire.
Near the beginning of Aleksandar Hemon's novel The Lazarus Project, which came out last year to wide acclaim, the book's narrator, Vladimir Brik, is seated next to a woman named Susie at a dinner party. Though Susie is in her 70s, Hemon writes, she has "the voracious curiosity of a college junior," and she plies Brik—who, like Hemon himself, is a native of Bosnia but moved to the United States in 1992, just before the siege of Sarajevo—with a series of intrusive questions. What gives the scene its bleak, Hemon-esque comedy is the way we never hear what Susie asks, only Brik's answers, which follow one another in a series of flat, polite declarations:
I am applying for grants so I can work on my book.
No, I am not Jewish. … Nor am I Muslim, Serb, or Croat.
I am complicated. …
Bosnian is not an ethnicity, it's a citizenship.
It's a long story. … Yes, it is hard to understand all that history.
We don't need to hear the questions, Hemon makes clear, because Brik himself barely hears them, having been asked the same things so many times before. He is endlessly tolerant of American ignorance; he accepts the immigrant's burden of having to explain himself to people who know nothing about the world—about history, displacement, and suffering.
It is enough to turn any writer into a satirist, and in his first book, The Question of Bruno (2000), Hemon wrote about America and Americans with a familiar kind of disdain. When Josef Pronek—Hemon's alter ego in that book and its successor, Nowhere Man (2002)—touches down at a U.S. airport, he is immediately assailed by stereotypes. There is an obese customs agent ("had someone opened the door of his booth, his flesh would have oozed out slowly, Pronek thought, like runny dough"); a chatty waitress offering the pointless plenty of capitalism ("What kinda beer? This is not Russia, hun, we got all kindsa beer. We got Michelob, Milleh, Milleh Lite, Milleh Genuine Draft. …"); an elderly couple reading the Bible together and weeping. When a fellow passenger greets him by saying, "What do you think of America? Isn't it the greatest country on earth?" it is clear that Hemon means us to hear it as a punch line.
But a funny thing happened to the satirist: Instead of taking offense, his target enveloped him in a big, American-style hug. Hemon, who came to America at age 28 not knowing English, has been recognized as a brilliant English stylist. His portraits of immigrant dislocation have made him one of the most celebrated members of a talented cohort that includes writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, Gary Shteyngart, and Junot Díaz. And this development is faithfully reported in Hemon's fiction: Susie, the relentless dinner guest in The Lazarus Project, rewards Brik's ironic politeness with a huge grant from her foundation—just as, in real life, Hemon has received a MacArthur grant. Hemon's willingness to acknowledge his good fortune and growing fame, without allowing them to dull his edge or mute his self-exposure, is reminiscent of Saul Bellow—who, in Humboldt's Gift, had his alter ego joke about the "Pullet Surprise."
Now, in Love and Obstacles, his fourth book and second collection of stories, Hemon offers another report on his always-evolving, always-mixed feelings about his generous, oblivious adopted country. The unnamed narrator who appears in each of these eight stories is clearly another version of Hemon, and readers of his earlier books will recognize his progress from feckless Bosnian teenager to bewildered new immigrant to tentative celebrity writer.
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at the New Republic.