A master of modern literary gamesmanship returns with a short-story collection that just might be a novel, with elements that closely parallel the author’s career.
National Book Award–nominated author Hemon (The Lazarus Project, 2008, etc.), a Bosnian now based in Chicago who has had several stories published in the New Yorker, offers a series of interconnected, first-person narratives about a Bosnian writer who moves to Chicago and has a story called “Love and Obstacles” published in the New Yorker. Yet the author has something more profound than guessing games and literary puzzles in mind. These eight stories, chronologically sequenced, follow the unnamed narrator from his formative years as an aspiring boy poet (he quotes some lines from a poem titled, naturally, “Love and Obstacles”) through his relocation to Chicago just before the siege of Sarajevo and on to his achievement of some literary accomplishment. The protagonist testifies to the inspiration of Conrad and Rimbaud (he calls The Drunken Boat “my bible”), making more contemporary references to Led Zeppelin and Sonic Youth as well. Throughout, he deals with the challenges of art, the essence of identity and the “merciless passing of time.” He contrasts the loftiness of literature with his experiences as a door-to-door magazine salesman: His blue-collar customers “did not waste their time contemplating the purpose of human life; their years were spent as a tale is told: slowly, steadily, approaching the inexorable end.” Though each is self-contained, the stories benefit from echoes and resonances, recurring themes and characters (particularly the narrator’s parents). Complicated relationships with other artists—an established poet, a documentary filmmaker, a Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist—underscore the twists of truth and fiction, the slippery slopes of memory and identity.
Not as ambitious as The Lazarus Project, but no work by Hemon is a minor effort.