As many of you know, I am prone to motion sickness in situations involving a lot of motion, like transatlantic flight, or a little motion, like sitting on a swing; it is made far worse by attempting to read. I am also often captive to long subway rides out of my home borough of Queens and recently lent out my iPod, making my commutes miserable affairs. These facts, when taken together, explain why it took me a hundred years to read The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon. I carried it with me in my purse all summer to read while waiting for the train, would pack it up, get bored during the actual train ride and against my better judgement pull it out again, read for a few pages, feel horribly ill, pack it up again. There were no advantages to this scenario–I constantly felt sick, had to re-read a lot of chapters when I regained my faculties and was constantly flipping back and forth, trying to remember who certain characters were and what their place was in the story–it was stupid and did not do justice to what is, I think, a pretty great book.
The structure of The Lazarus Project is in some ways complex, but also fluid enough to give oneself over to without becoming lost. Brik, a present-day Bosnian writer living in Chicago, married to Mary, an American brain surgeon, becomes fascinated by the true-life case of a young Jewish immigrant, Lazarus Averbuch, who escaped an early 20th century pogrom in what is now Moldova only to be murdered by the Chicago chief of police after showing up at his doorstep, for reasons still unknown. Brik obtains a grant (called, charmingly, his “Susie money” after the woman who awarded it to him–as an aside, I expected more to be made of this and yet, after Brik got the money, that was that) to research Lazarus’s story in order to write about it and sets out for Eastern Europe, an old photographer friend from Sarajevo, Rora, in tow. The two of them blunder through an over-caffeinated journey littered with trafficked women, treacherous bus rides, worse cab rides, oppressive body odor and dilapidated Jewish cultural centers peopled by unknowable possible Averbuch-descendants. The whole expedition ends in a heartbreaking way that I completely didn’t expect, yet, in retrospect, probably should have.
Interspersed throughout the present-day action are chapters and passages about Lazarus, his older sister Olga, their friend Isador, hidden for much of the book in Olga’s bureau (not only hidden, but covered in shit from his previous hiding spot, the inner-plumbings of an outhouse–“beshitten” as Hemon would say, enamored as he is with the prefix “be”). I say “chapters and passages” because Brik’s chapters would sometimes collapse, for paragraphs at a time, into Lazarus and Olga’s world.
I liked these sections better than the Brik sections. They seemed more richly imagined, more poetic, more filled with sadness, telling details, emotion. This, I think, is because they were double-written. They were written by, of course, Aleksandar Hemon, but also, as I took it, written by Brik. The reader is able to draw lines between what is happening in Brik’s life and what transpired in Lazarus and Olga’s, giving us a clue to how writers plug their own experiences into their work, transforming the information they collect for their own purposes. There are moments when the two strands of the book seemed, at first, to align too perfectly, but it isn’t too perfect–one borrows from the other, or both from each other. The present is informed by history, the telling of history is informed by the present.
When Brik lapses, just for a paragraph, into a reverie about Lazarus, the reader gets to see him working out the language, pulling his thoughts together. Although, throughout the course of the narrative, he never actually sits down to write, the whole book was, to me, about writing, or storytelling. Both Lazarus and Isador wanted to be writers (Isador’s book, had he ever been able to write it, would have been called The Adventures of a Clever Immigrant; if Lazarus wrote the poem he spoke about writing, it was lost to history). Rora, the photographer, is constantly telling jokes, jokes that are actually very revealing, and yet has to be pressed to tell stories about his past. I hate to give it away, but I have a feeling it’s probably obvious to most non-motion sick readers that many of his stories are just that–stories. Iuliana, a beautiful historian the travelers meet in Muldova, dispenses the history of her community in a mechanical, rehearsed monologue, yet a deeply-felt one–telling her story without pause as if to protect herself from its horrors.
Without pause is how I suggest you read The Lazarus Project. Wait for a cool, rainy fall day. Get in something comfortable, something that says you’re on the couch for the long haul, make some tea, grab some snacks, and read it all in one shot. Next time, that’s my plan.