Aleksandar Hemon's new novel, The Lazarus Project, has been racking up glowing reviews, and it's easy to see why. It features all the things lit critics are going gaga for lately: a personal search through the historical past, culturally dislocated immigrants, inventive use of language, stories within stories, and, best of all, a self-conscious main character who greatly resembles the author himself. These kinds of pyrotechnics can become clichéd and tiresome when attempted by someone of less than stellar talent -- and readers and critics can debate the relative value of a straightforward narrative versus a more postmodern, patched-together approach -- but the happy truth is that Hemon is really as good as his press coverage. His mixed approach to storytelling not only works, it also draws readers into life's ongoing battles among memory, truth and history, between self-discovery and self-delusion.
The core of The Lazarus Project is a tragic, true story: On March 2, 1908, a 19-year-old Eastern European Jewish immigrant named Lazarus Averbuch was killed by George Shippy, the Chicago chief of police, in Shippy's home. The police chief claimed Lazarus was an anarchist. Lazarus' story grips the imagination of a writer named Brik who, like author Aleksandar Hemon, is a Bosnian immigrant who came to the United States to visit and was stranded here when war broke out in his homeland in 1992. Brik wins a grant to research Lazarus' story and takes off for Eastern Europe along with Rora, a photographer he knew in Sarajevo who also wound up in Chicago.
In alternating chapters, the book presents the story Brik is writing about Lazarus' killing, and the surreal trip taken by Brik and Rora through the post-apocalyptic landscapes and ever-changing frontiers of modern Eastern Europe. Hemon's sensual prose brings to life a multitude of characters, including a coterie of macho gangsters at a Bosnian McDonald's, a Moldovan pimp with "onionesque armpits," and grimy communist era tenements. After Lazarus' death, his sister Olga's point of view takes over his part of the narrative and elicits wrenching scenes of immigrant helplessness, anger and clever ways of subverting "official" Chicago's version of reality. Meanwhile, Brik fights his own constant inner battles over his marriage, his own motives, and his painful relations with both Bosnia and the United States.
Hemon throws reality for a loop when, as the novel moves forward, characters from Brik's life begin to appear in Lazarus' story, and Lazarus and Olga begin showing up in Brik's journey. It all fits in with Hemon's view of history and art as forms of resurrection. At one point, he sourly notes 1908 newspaper stories that complained about foreign parasites breeding "on the American body politic. The war against anarchism was much like the current war on terror -- funny how old habits never die."
Brik is torn between the nations of Eastern Europe -- shattered, mean, and newly incomprehensible -- and the United States, which he sees as a place in which "belief and delusion are incestuous siblings," where "the incessant perpetuation of collective fantasies makes people crave the truth." Whether the people of either place will ever find the truth -- about their nations and their own lives -- becomes the real center of Hemon's amazing novel. The Lazarus Project is a startling literary quest, written with a masterful hand by a conflicted immigrant to the U.S. We're lucky he found himself stranded here.
• There's good news for local writers who want to get serious about their work. The North Carolina Writers Network is moving its Summer Residency program to Queens University. The residency, to take place July 25-27, will feature intensive workshops for writers of poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction, in addition to faculty and student readings, a publishing forum and more. During residencies, most registrants stay on-campus. However, local writers who want to commute to Queens during the 3-day program can do so, at a sharply reduced rate. Teachers for the residency will be Julie Funderburk of Queens (poetry workshop), Aaron Gwyn of UNC-Charlotte (fiction), and Davidson's Cynthia Lewis (creative nonfiction).
NCWN executive director Ed Southern said the residencies are often the favorite of all the programs offered by the organization. This is the first time the residency has been held outside the Triangle area, a move Southern said was made in order to give a greater number of writers a chance to participate. For more information on the NCWN Summer Residency at Queens, go to www.ncwriters.org.
• Congratulations to author Ron Chepesiuk of Rock Hill, who recently won two literary awards, both of which were announced at the 2008 BookExpo America in Los Angeles. Chepesiuk's book Black Gangsters of Chicago won the Silver Medal in the IPPY (Independent Book Publishers Award) competition for 2007 True Crime Book of the Year. The book tied for the Silver with The Case Against Lucky Luciano by Ellen Poulsen. Another book by Chepesiuk, Gangsters of Harlem, won honorable mention in the True Crime category of ForeWord Magazine's annual competition.