Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A disorganized mind

So, it's all Hemon all the time here, lately. I know what you're thinking and this is different than most weeks. Most weeks I just kind of talk about how great a writer he is and sometimes I lament (if not on this blog) how I will never write like him (though, truth be told, few people ever will). But this week, I actually have to produce some ideas of consequence about him.

One of my former writing instructors organizes a book fair in Scranton, PA, each October (have I written about this in the past? I can't remember because: Please re-read title of this post.). This year, the festival managed to snag Hemon and I volunteered to write a few essays for the blog. And by "volunteered" I mean I told Bill that I would be writing some essays. I think I might have used phrases, in the course of our conversation, like "incur my wrath" "won't leave you alone until you say yes"--that kind of thing. Happily, though, he agreed and asked (diligently) for a personal essay and a "critical but accessible" one.  The personal one is pretty easy. I can pretty much just cut and paste a bunch of these post and--viola--done and done.

The critical one is a bit trickier. I've already decided that I would focus on Hemon's second publication Nowhere Man, for a few reasons: 1) In terms of favorites, it's second only to The Question of Bruno, which will most likely never be unseated as My Favorite Book.Ever. 2) It gets overlooked. Sandwiched between a stunning debut /MFB.E and the Lazarus Project, which nabbed him a National Book Award nomination (he was robbed), Nowhere Man gets short shrift. 3) there's a crap-ton of stuff going on in the book, so it's full of possibilities to examine.

And that's where I'm getting into trouble. I can't focus on what I want to talk about. I can't go all fangirl on it (my first impulse), but everything I manage to scribble down just slides right down into overly-effusive, starry-eyed goo.

But why? I mean, the story isn't flawless. In fact, I'd thought about discussing exactly what about the narrative wouldn't get past a typical workshop. I mean, there are at least three different narrators who tell the story of Jozef Pronek, as he meanders from a childhood in Bosnia to adulthood stranded in Chicago, which isn't unusual, but at least two of them are so undeveloped as to be nearly non-entities. And one defies logic completely. Is it a mouse? A spirit?  A god? How is this narrator in Pronek's head, yet speaks in first person? What? It works, though. Somehow, Hemon pulls it off.

There is the language itself, which could take up considerable essay space. Laura Miller, in a piece for Salon says "...and then there's the way he wrenches English words into previously unknown yet alarmingly fitting configurations" and uses his description of a "throng" of "wizened" carnations as an example. The NYT Book Review claimed that Hemon "can't write a boring sentence" and boy, is that true. In the bathroom, Pronek sees "the toilet bowl agape, with a dissolving piece of toilet paper in it throbbing like a jellyfish."  I'd be perfectly happy spending the next few hours simply going through the text and showing you examples.

Of course, when examining Hemon, one can't discount the way the writer deposits himself within the story. Pronek's bio mimics Hemon's almost exactly. Both are of Ukrainian decent but grew up in Sarajevo, in Tito's Yugoslavia, both came to America in 1992, intending to stay only briefly, both were stranded in Chicago when war broke out, both survived with a passing understanding of English and took menial jobs to pay the rent. Is that the angle I want to take? Or is that low-hanging fruit? Too easy?

Then, there are the themes of loneliness, isolation, of a stranger in a strange land, of guilt of separation that inform nearly everything he writes. The non-linear narrative, the weird narration--it's all pieces of the collage that create the character of Pronek. Another rich topic.

Of course they're all related. The quasi-biography/alter-ego, the isolation/separation, the off-kilter yet gorgeously appropriate language, the fractured and unconventional narrative. They all go together to create a novel that is at once cohesive and mysterious.

Argh. If this post sounds a lot like someone who's just throwing out random ideas, that's exactly what it is. Sorry it couldn't be more elegant. Grace will come another night. I hope.

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