Friday, August 15, 2008

Nowhere Man, by Aleksandar Hemon

Oh, what a book.

Ignore for the moment the mythical status of Hemon's assimilative mastery of the English language (he came to the US speaking "capable tourist" English and, according to legend, "could finish a New York Times crossword puzzle within a week of unpacking his suitcases in Chicago") and just concentrate on the novel. Paced and plotted in a way that shames superlatives, Nowhere Man moves with minute coordination, grace, and intensity. Its characters' obscurities are intriguingly mobile, their transparencies authentic yet incomplete, as if you're always arriving a moment too late to hear the most important part of a visceral confession. And the language—thrilling chains of words alive at their roots.

Hemon deploys his talents carefully in this novel, seemingly one at a time, allowing the reader just enough time to take one for granted before tilting her gaspingly into the next. First the prose engulfs you—ingenious, electric prose that somehow never seems to stretch out or contort itself for its startling effects. This is artistry without the anxiety of ostentation. Then the characters win you completely, a charming immigrant narrative firing on all cylinders—the good-natured, low-impact culture clashes; the carefully crafted linguistic playfulness etched across the faultlines of a guilelessly fractured English; the ever-shifting weights of heritage and homeland causing our hero to stumble a bit as he learns how best to bear them.

And then the plot accelerates, and the bottom of the novel falls out.

We say this sometimes ("the bottom falls out") when we mean something unexpected happens and things take an acute turn in a highly improbable direction. A Murakami narrator, for instance, is cooking spaghetti, and then he decides to climb into a well, or the phone rings and it is an invariably sexy voice saying invariably inscrutable things which will also sound (invariably) portentous.

But an acute turn in a highly improbable direction is not really what happens in this novel. When I say the bottom falls out, I mean that the novel falls with it; it doesn't turn, however sharply, and continue on, your cumbersome confusion swinging widely like a semi trailer taking a corner at a silly speed. No, for awhile Nowhere Man rolls downward like a loose elevator unsure if its cables are cut or frayed, but then the brakes snap, and if you're lucky, you can snatch at your memories of a few jagged pieces that poked out of the novel's fabric on your first pass through, and you can try to assemble them while you're in the air.

I don't think I did. Good luck.

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