Nowhere Man

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.

Hemon explains the book’s title in the story “The Conductor,” where the narrator remembers his first hapless attempts at writing:

I can confess, now that I’ve long since stopped writing poetry, that I never really understood what I wrote. I didn’t know what my poems were about, but I believed in them. I liked their titles (“Peter Pan and the Lesbians,” “Love and Obstacles,” et cetera) and I felt that they attained a realm of human innocence and experience that was unknowable, even by me. I delayed showing them to anyone else; I was waiting for readers to evolve, I suppose, to the point where they could grasp the vast spaces of my ego.

This kind of exquisite adolescent embarrassment is the keynote of the first stories in the book. It may be a familiar kind of comedy—the grown-up writer looking back, wryly but tenderly, on his literary and romantic follies—but Hemon handles it brilliantly (that expertly timed “even by me”). The opening of the first story is especially clever, as Hemon plunges us into a derivative, overwritten African scene—”The most troubling was the ceaseless roll of the drums: the sonorous, ponderous thudding hovering around me. Whether it meant war, peace or prayer, I could not tell”—only to gradually reveal that this is Africa as seen through the eyes of a Conrad-loving 16-year-old. We know we are in a Hemon story when it turns out that, in fact, the drums are coming from the upstairs apartment, where an expatriate American named Spinelli is playing along to a Led Zeppelin record.

After several more stories unfold, however, it becomes clear that Hemon’s real theme, the source of both the love and the obstacles, is America itself. Spinelli is merely the first of the American incarnations that he has to try to puzzle out. Spinelli appears to be a drugged-out loser and fantastist, regaling the young writer (whom he christens “Blunderpuss”) with transparently made-up stories about his exploits as a spy (“sneaking into Angola to help out Savimbi’s freedom fighters; training the Ugandan special forces with the Israelis”). Yet to the bored narrator, who is stuck in Kinshasa because his father, a Yugoslav diplomat, was posted there, Spinelli represents the garish privileges of America and adulthood: sex, violence, rock ’n’ roll. Only later, when Spinelli turns up in official diplomatic settings and seems to be shadowing the narrator’s father, do we start to wonder if he was really such a fantasist after all. From the beginning, Hemon’s America presents a double face of adventure and threat.

It is when Hemon’s narrator arrives in America that Love and Obstacles exchanges the comedy of adolescence for the more complex and bittersweet emotions that are Hemon’s best subjects. He is at his very best in “The Conductor,” in which the narrator meets his old friend Dedo, a famous Bosnian poet who, unlike him, stayed in Sarajevo during the siege and wrote terrible, magnificent poetry about it. Now Dedo is married to an American woman and teaching in Madison, Wis., but there is no way for Americans to appreciate him. The two writers get drunk together, reminiscing about the past, and the narrator is in awe of Dedo’s grandeur and suffering. But when they stumble back to his house, his prim American wife sees only a couple of sentimental drunks. “Do you know me? Do you know who am I? I am biggest Bosnian poet alive,” shouts Dedo in broken English. To which his wife replies, “You’re a fucking midget is what you are!”

They are both right, of course, and the stories in Love and Obstacles are remarkable for being faithful to both points of view. Hemon shows us the nobility and the absurdity of immigrant life, the cruelty and the openness of American character. He knows both because he is both; and if this in-betweenness makes Hemon a “nowhere man,” his excellent work also suggests that in between may be the best place for a writer to live.