Monday, July 5, 2010

Themed Reading: The Lazarus Project

It's no surprise that this book begins with an epigraph from the Bible, telling the story of how Jesus called Lazarus from the tomb, wrapped in burial cloths, and returned him to the living world with the words, "Loose him and let him go." This book tells a similar tale of releasing a lost immigrant, all but forgotten in the larger story of America.

In 1908, the Lazarus of this novel went to the home of Chicago's police chief, uninvited and unexpected. As an Eastern European Jewish immigrant with only limited English, venturing into the seat of Caucasian social power on a mysterious errand, he was probably doomed from the start, given the prevailing attitudes of the times.

Lazarus's story is told in layers, beginning with the first chapter, in which Lazarus's doom is sealed. Lazarus's sister, who survives him, provides the window through which we learn more about Lazarus. The next layer is laid on by the contemporary voice of the narrator, Brik, a Chicago writer of Eastern European descent who is researching Lazarus's background. In alternating chapters, we follow Lazarus and Brik on their joint journey, years apart.

It's a gritty exploration, one that I can't say I especially enjoyed. Hemon's writing is quite good, but the use of present tense and shifting point of view seemed a little undisciplined at times. Frequently switching from one era to the other also put me off, and some of the details and politics of Sarajevo were difficult to follow (though this may reflect my own limitations). The novel is punctuated with photographs that also figure into the narrative. Hemon uses structure deftly, but with a little too much of a flourish. His techniques make me suspect the emphasis on form masks a certain thinness of substance.

Whatever the reason, I found this book neither a waste of time nor one that I would heartily recommend. Perhaps the strongest thing I can say about it is that it provides the epigraph for Let the Great World Spin, a book that I absolutely adored. For that reason alone, it was worth a look.

Excerpt:

The young man descends the stairs, opens the gate (which also creaks ominously). He puts his hands in his pockets, but then pulls his pants up--they are still too big for him; he looks to the right, looks to the left, as though making a decision. Lincoln Place is a different world; these houses are like castles, the windows tall and wide; there are no peddlers on the streets; indeed, there is nobody on the street. The ice-sheathed trees twinkle in the morning drabness; a branch broken under the weight of ice touches the pavement, rattling its frozen tips. Someone peeks from behind a curtain of the house across the street, the face ashen against the dark space behind. It is a young woman: he smiles at her and she quickly draws the curtain. All the lives I could live, all the people I will never know, never will be, they are everywhere. That is all that the world is.

3 comments:

  1. The writing in the excerpt is lovely, but I am not the world's biggest fan of present tense when the book's in third person. When it's in first person, I can see how it works, but third person makes me start wondering who's narrating and how, and then goodbye suspension of disbelief. :p

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  2. Especially since at the end of this paragraph we are suddenly in first person (the thoughts of a guy who's dead at the time of the story, except, oh yeah, we're in present tense still . . .). I agree--it's jarring.

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  3. I so wish I had the time to read these days...right now, I'm knee deep in grandkids.

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