One of America’s finest authors of somber novels about alienation brings a newbie’s enthusiasm to a comic novel—about alienation, of course.
Since the war in his native Bosnia left him exiled in Chicago in 1992, Hemon (The Lazarus Project, 2008; Love and Obstacles, 2009, etc.) has used his fiction to ruminate on the expat experience in ways that, though not humorless, emphasize distance and disconnection. (His 2013 essay collection, The Book of My Lives, closes with a devastating essay on the death of his infant daughter.) This madcap detour centers on Joshua, a Chicago wannabe screenwriter who has a laptop stuffed with bad movie ideas, an ill-advised crush on Ana, a married Bosnian immigrant in the ESL class he teaches, and an ex-Marine landlord who’s overeager for swordplay. Hemon has a knack, it turns out, for raucous, Shteyngart-ian lines that highlight his hero’s absurdist despair. (“Oh Lord, don’t chasten me and make me a disposable character in your spec script!” he thinks.) Joshua’s ill-advised fling with Ana gets him tossed out of his girlfriend’s apartment, threatened by Ana’s husband, and generally despairing for his well-being, a feeling he sublimates into his script about post-apocalyptic zombie hordes. Hemon has arranged all the right pieces for a laugh-out-loud novel—chatty Jewish relatives, impossibly nerdy writers, immigrants with old-school and illegal notions about preserving loyalty. And zombies are a great theme for Hemon; what better symbol is there for an uncertain life than the undead? The novel lags on the level of characterization, though: Joshua is persistently passive and self-effacing, lost in his lame movie ideas. This is partly by design: “[N]either his will or his talent was ever strong enough,” as Hemon writes. But it reduces the thrust of the novel, whose great lines need a plot to match.
Fun, though, for Hemon fans who want to see him work in a different mode.