Following her seriously dark first novel (The Mineral Palace, 2000), Julavits takes a real risk with this black comedy about an airplane hijacking, not exactly the subject to tickle most funny bones these days.
Having survived to become a student herself at the International Institute for Terrorist Studies, Alice recounts her hostage experience when Bruno, incongruously a blind man, and two inept cohorts take over the plane she and her sister Edith are passengers on, flying to Edith’s wedding in Morocco. The story is as much about sibling love and rivalry as about the ethical issues raised by terrorism—the women’s mutual devotion is balanced by their intense competitiveness for attention. As for the terrorists, it isn’t at all clear how dangerous they are, or whether the hijacking is some kind of elaborate hoax. The one hostage who’s shot—Edith thought the guns weren’t loaded—had already died of a heart attack. Although the other passengers seem frightened, Alice is never sure who’s real. She and Edith are genuinely scared even as they vie for Bruno’s attention. Edith uses sex. Alice, since she’s fluent in obscure languages, becomes the “the conduit” between Bruno and the hostage negotiator, who turns out to be Bruno’s brother. Apparently, these two siblings have followed different theories of fighting terrorism, and the outcome of the hijacking will determine who was right. Though ongoing banter between characters is meant to be both comic and profound, Julavits underlines her themes too heavily, especially the untrustworthiness of reality. The playing out of the hijacking itself is almost dull as hostages are released and the perpetrators disperse, allowing for no dramatic closure, so that the mystery of what really happened remains behind. In contrast to Ann Patchett’s humanistic view of the hostage experience in Bel Canto, Julavits’s brittle tone and edgy irony allow no reader empathy.
Julavits does everything she can to turn readers off. But that may be her point.