Love and Obstacles, Aleksandar Hemon. Riverhead. 224pp, $25.95.
The narrators in Aleksandar Hemon’s fourth book, Love and Obstacles, a collection of short stories, slide along a continuum between poetry and prose. These Siamese-sibling narrators begin as adolescents; they are sturm und drang–drenched poets lost to, from, and in a hazy reality–backdrop that Hemon switches out from act to act, moving from Kinshasa, Zaire, to Sarajevo, Murska Sobota, Slovenia, Chicago, and to a snowy Wisconsin college town. Like bad poets everywhere, these would-be bards experience proto-egocentric sufferings, obscuring both language and reality.
Common enough. And the portraits are by turns full of pathos and hilarity. But, uncommonly (for most), Hemon’s narrators grow beyond the haze of their early poetic longings. They’ve all become quite brilliant prose craftsmen whose stories focus through a clear present upon various degrees of ribald opacity in their (oft-poetic) pasts.
Thus the stories of Love and Obstacles leave us with brilliantly poetic narratives in which lives, in various rings of orbits, circle the drain-void of their shared origins and, we figure, destinies. Hemon succeeds again and again, both at realizing the gifts of poetry and prose and at refusing the limitations that often plague contemporary versions of each.
Overlapping images link the worlds of these stories. For instance, I’d never before seen the defensive, fetal position described as “shrimp[ing] up,” but the image is perfect, and memorable when it reappears 40 pages later, trailing a thread between the otherwise unrelated settings and characters of the second (“Everything”) and the fifth (“Szmura’s Room”) of these eight stories. Other such image-threads include: a mercurial, malachite ashtray with apparent origins in Zaire; multiple adolescent males who bemoan their sisters’ unassailable sacred fetish, neat handwriting; figures alternatively longing for and relishing the soft consonants that lace the pronunciation of words by certain, elect persons in the Bosnian diaspora. Characters reappear too: Azra, the boyhood girlfriend and co-bibliophile of narrator in the book’s first story (“Stairway to Heaven”) is seen again as a faux-auburn haired literary groupie who attaches herself briefly to the American writer Dick Macalister in the last story, “The Noble Truths of Suffering.” Upon discovering Azra’s name, our narrator (who is himself author of a recent story in The New Yorker, “Love and Obstacles”) doesn’t appear to remember but the reader catches the thread. The effect radiates backward through the 190-odd pages so that the young poet survived Zaire and America and grew up to visit Sarajevo, bedevil a celebrated American writer, and reencounter his young love whom he doesn’t appear to remember. Or maybe it’s not him and it’s another Azra? Either way, like dew on a web, beads of light gather on these image-threads linking the stories. The effect is a kind of glow akin to the way strings of lights cast their spell on a courtyard cafe or restaurant.
In “The Conductor,” Hemon echoes James Baldwin’s sentiments that “the finest principles may have to be modified, or may even be pulverized by the demands of life” when he notes that “living displaces false sentiments,” which seems close to the role he’s assigned his prose in this book. Though the work dissolves the romance of adolescent poetics into the irony of adult prose, it simultaneously summons and tangos, torero-style, with clusters of worldly facts-of-life that come into ever-sharpening view. Still, things appear according to constantly shifting angles of entry and trajectories of departure. Certainties and stabilities are displaced until we can feel the complex turbulence of real life. Shrimp figure no. 1 in “Everything” curls up to fend off a material, verifiable (if benignly paternal) attack from a Slovenian hotelier who has had it past here with our narrator’s delusional (if self-consciously Rimbaudian) mischief. Peel-and-eat no. 2, a recent immigrant-arrival to Chicago, pill bugs himself against an immaterial, aggregate unknown : “the transitory nature of life—or more specifically the life of the subject, shrimped up in the corner against a bare, mispainted wall.” Hemon’s ever-sharp prose produces lucid, surprising, poetic sentences that refuse to isolate (and thereby falsify) the ingredients of pain and pleasure, fear and longing.
The beautiful chaos, clarity, and immediacy of Hemon’s portraits usher thingness to the vanishing point. In that way they resemble one of Alberto Giacometti’s most celebrated sculptures, his 1934 surrealistic piece called “Hands Holding a Void (Invisible Object).” As with Giacometti’s work, Hemon’s stories here come to feel like Giacometti’s achievements in bronze, which were merely a frame for the ultimate object, the vanishing point of origin, and the similarly vanishing destination in art (as in life).
Love and Obstacles offers many examples of such a vanishing point. Spinelli, the American foil in the post-Conradian “Stairway to Heaven” leads our teenage would-be poet through a market where appears “a dried monkey, whose hands grasped nothingness with unappetizing despair.” It’s close. So, why not? Our larval Rimbaudian in “Everything” stalks a Slovenian backwater town in search of experience and a “high density of youth”; he also searches for the right person to bestow upon the “single contraceptive pill” that he clutches in his sweaty palm. That doesn’t exactly happen, but our youth does stare into a store window at “stiffened mannequins, their arms opened in an obscure gesture of welcome.” Finally, if dried monkeys and sculptures strewn from Zaire to Slovenia weren’t enough, Macalister, the American author-hero of “The Noble Truths of Suffering” delivers a clichéd Beckettian lecture qua writer-comme-drageur’s pickup line: “writers knew nothing, really; most of them were just faking it. He knew nothing. There was nothing to know, nothing on the other side. There was no walker, no path, just walking.” Thus does Hemon in Love and Obstacles enjoin his figures in the task of playing chicken with a truckload (sans the truck, of course) of nothing coming at them on the wrong side of the road. No small feat, and he does it where the devil lives.
As for details, Love and Obstacles provides enough to fill a highlight reel. The grown-up in “Everything” describes his youthful self on the train to Zagreb while sitting next to a man “invested in a crossword puzzle; he frowned and refrowned, fellating his pen. . . [then] as though I were his assistant taking notes: ‘The biggest city in the world?’ ‘Paris,’ I said, and he returned to his puzzle.” In “The Conductor” our writer is grown-up enough to read his work on the stage with an elderly, celebrated Bosnian poet. Drunk with loads of booze and with elder-accompaniment from the lost world of pre-siege Sarajevo, our man erupts
with all the suppressed misery of living in America. . . how many times had I wished to death whole college football teams. It was impossible to meet a friend without arranging a fucking appointment weeks in advance. . . I was sick of being asked where I was from, and I hated Bush and his Jesus freaks. With every particle of my being I hated the word ‘carbs’ and the systematic extermination of joy in American life, et cetera.
(Incidentally, Hemon’s is possibly the best post-Stendhal use of “et cetera” as his plots follow upward spirals of sublime-leaning inebriation toward what might be called anti-epiphanies.) Carnival-riding his way up one such spiral, accosted by an American Professor of Slavic Languages who has made an orderly profession out of our character’s own (to him) largely inchoate culture and history, our narrator reports that “He had also spent some years, just for the hell of it, in Guatemala, Honduras, and Marrakech. The man had been everywhere, had done everything, and the drunker I got, the greater he was and the more of nothing I had to say.” The evening in Madison gyres on up a little higher until the inevitable, “In the cab, it was only a matter of time before someone vomited.” Hemon pauses his portrait of paternal eccentricity in “The Bees, Part I” to render a perfectly calibrated, comically terrifying image of a sixty-six page fax announcing the psychological dissolution of Nada, an immigrant daughter of a family friend. Just when we think we’ve caught him naming a character after the invisible object itself, he wipes away the trail: “At the peril of being maudlin, or appearing malicious, let me note that her name translates as ‘hope.’” Earlier in “The Bees” our narrator phones his parents (exiled by the siege to Ontario) from Chicago:
“So what are you doing,” I’d ask.
“Waiting,” he’d say.
“Waiting to die.”
“Let me talk to mom.”
Finally, Hemon builds a brilliantly-difficult-to-pigeonhole portrait of Dick Macalister, a semi-celebrated American writer who visits Sarajevo, suffers our narrator’s passive aggressive company and accepts a drunken invitation to come to the narrator’s parent’s apartment for lunch. For such heroism, Hemon dredges up the following capstone of praise: “Macalister did not object, or try to stop [the somewhat misplaced culinary favors of the narrator's mother]—he succumbed to us, to who we were.” And, the hits keep coming.
It’s no secret that Hemon can write. Throughout his career he has bent prose into a thingified poetics of nothingness, draping images across his variously twisted characters until the effect resembles that of painting watercolors on too-thin stock. The page itself (if not the hand that holds it) seems to saturate, bend and even ache. Love and Obstacles is most certainly written by that same author.
Even as it sidesteps Hemon’s fascinating approaches to book length narratives in The Question of Bruno, Nowhere Man, and The Lazarus Project, Love and Obstacles partakes in the structural collision scripted in Hemon’s work to date. His figures are trapped between a world they can’t go back to (pre-siege Sarajevo) and a world they can’t find a way into (so far—contemporary United States). If the world his characters long for ever existed, it’s gone. And, the optimistic, Disneyland image of the United States makes for a good Michael Moore skit; but, no matter the talent, railing against it won’t support many more good novel-length books. Moreover, Hemon’s characters’ estrangement from their worlds (past and present) finds disturbing echoes in their inability to find much of each other. The male-centered, adolescent-level sex (“he was burning to fuck her,” “Szmura had permanently and irreversibly dumped the apple of her eye shortly after banging her”) in Love and Obstacles often borders upon semi-consensual rape. After 1,000 pages of crisp prose, I’m not sure if we’ve had one page’s worth of seriously considered, eye-to-eye intimacy. After four books, Chicago remains an all-white (or proto-white) city.
In his translator’s preface to Nine Alexandrias by exiled Bosnian poet Semezdin Mehmedinović, Ammiel Alcalay frames the struggle facing writers exiled in the United States. Alcalay writes: “So many who disembark on this continent never find out how to navigate this space, how to descend into our underground and mine the rich but deeply hidden vaults of the North American word.” Interestingly, that book contains a poem where Mehmedinović arrives in Chicago with an Amtrak layover. In the poem he mentions being picked up by “Alexander”; a hunch suggested that it was (even though the translated spelling is off) Hemon, and, in fact, Alcalay confirms that it is. As with Mehmedinović so with the fellow exile who awaited him in the America that they would navigate together. Such a descent into America’s blistering fissures beckons Hemon’s brilliant gifts, indeed. So far, the wait has been quite a ride.
Ed Pavlić’s most recent book is Winners Have Yet to Be Announced, an epic poem centered in the life and music of soul singer Donny Hathaway. He directs the MFA/Ph.D Program in Creative Writing at the University of Georgia.
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