Aleksandar Hemon and the David Copperfield Kind of Crap

This book is problematic.  I didn’t much like it myself, although conscience forces me to admit there’s some good stuff in here (particularly the sequence where the narrator participates in the savage beatdown of a pimp–the way that there’s absolutely no reflection on how “horrifying” it might be is disturbing and effective enough in itself, notwithstanding how excellently the scene is built up and executed).

The problem I have with this novel is symptomatic of a larger issue that needs to be addressed–the increasing lionization of the “immigrant narrative”.  It is perhaps unfair to single out Hemon’s book as an offender, as it’s easily more reflective and aware of its status as merely one of many such narratives (although, as I’ve said, the book just wasn’t much fun to read–Hemon writes in a dry, offputting style that is absolutely dripping with arrogance, which interestingly enough brings him closer to Nabokov than any facile comparisons regarding the number of languages both authors are conversant in.  The problem here is that Nabokov was a genius and could get away with this and Hemon isn’t and can not, his MacArthur, admittedly, to the contrary).  The problem here is that Hemon’s book follows a pattern that has become depressingly common recently in modern literary fiction: i.e. Modern Narrator Finds Self Through Connection To Immigrant Background.  This conceit single-handedly destroyed Junot Diaz’ otherwise wonderful Brief And Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and fuels the narratives of books as disparate as Everything Is Illuminated, Middlesex and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.  Now what connects all these works (aside from the depressing consistency with which they seem to win Pulitzers) is the fact that the flashbacks are easily the weakest sections of each work.  Wao was excellent when focusing on its titular character’s difficulties with getting laid, Middlesex was fascinating when detailing the narrator’s teenaged love for the “Object,” and so on.  Why then these lengthy detours into the lives of the narrators’ distant ancestors and their adventures in the Old Country (Kavalier and Clay, to its credit, at least only focuses on its main characters’ adventures overseas, not their grandparents’.)?  Holden Caulfield would have called this the “David Copperfield kind of crap.”  What’s the point?

Full disclosure:  I personally can think of fewer things more boring than family history, genealogy and who-begat-who and who lived in whose house and who was whose nephew.  It holds no interest for me whatever.  I spent my early years practically drowning in family lore and it became an irritating slog.  There were too many family members to keep track of, too many farms (we’re Midwestern), too many marriages, too many funerals, too many births, too many christenings.  Also I stubbornly hold to the (almost certainly naive) belief that in America, past doesn’t matter, only the future does, you’re not defined by the actions of your father and mother but by your own, etc.  So it makes sense that these kind of books wouldn’t interest me much.

But leaving that aside, what accounts for the popularity of these narratives, and their frequency?  Hemon’s novel offers a depressing clue: grant money.  The book involves a narrator named Brik (whose biographical details are unsettlingly close to Hemon’s–I’m getting tired of authors trying to have it both ways, giving us narrators who are basically them but still trying to hide behind the device of fiction) who, upon receiving a fortuitous grant from a local cultural society, decides to travel to Bosnia to research the life of Lazarus, a Bosnian immigrant killed in cold blood by a Chicago police chief in the early 20th century.  Simply put: it is easier to get grant money to write a book if it involves some level of “familial research”.  It’s not hard to determine why this is so.  American literature is under fire these days from those who accuse (mostly the Nobel Prize Committee) that our work is too “insular”; that we don’t partake in the “great world conversation of literature”  (And how might we do that?  Write novels that don’t take place in our own nation?  Novels that don’t reflect the places in which we live our lives?  Good luck making any good art out of that, pal).  So, to placate these critics, we pump out novels in which the narrator can only look backward, novels that are basically great dumping grounds for grant-assisted genealogical research.  This was fine for a while but, as with anything successful, it’s becoming a formula, and it’s time for authors to move beyond it, and engage with the past in different ways.

–Jon W.

3 thoughts on “Aleksandar Hemon and the David Copperfield Kind of Crap

  1. “Why then these lengthy detours into the lives of the narrators’ distant ancestors and their adventures in the Old Country …?”

    Having read Middlesex I couldn’t disagree more. The scenes set in Turkey were brilliantly rendered (I lived in Turkey for 9 years), and the complex history of the Greeks and Turks was expertly distilled to what happened in Smyrna/Izmir in 1923 when the city burned. How poverty-stricken a point of view it is when you can’t bear to see what life is like in another country, another time. That’s the point of this particular David Copperfield kind of crap (and Holden Caulfield never had a thought worth a complex sentence … which of course he would proudly insist is because he’s not a “phony”).

    Nor does the narrator of Middlesex Find Himself Through Connection to His Immigrant Background. He’s not an immigrant. He’s second generation American. He simply details his family history from around 1923 to the present. I can’t speak for Hemon, with whom I’ve had my disagreements in terms of the merit of the European short story, but Eugenides is as deft in his handling of the Old Country as he is in rendering life in Detroit.

    And nothing is more short-sighted than thinking the past has had no influence on the present. Try that one out on a Native American reservation … see how far it gets you. Or maybe at a meeting of the NAACP. Or at the Holocaust Museum. Or … in Smyrna (now Izmir) next time you are there and you cannot find a single building older than 87 or so years … because the rest were burned in 1923.

  2. I suppose in this case it comes down to difference of opinion on how well it was executed–I thought the childhood narrative in Middlesex so outclassed the “historical” section (the section detailing the narrator’s “deflowering” in the cabin and the events leading to and progressing from it is some of the best writing of the past decade) that I wondered why it was even in the same book. There was the business regarding the incest leading to the child’s deformity, but that just didn’t seem like a strong enough reason to include that material (Admittedly, Diaz’s justification for including the material seemed even thinner–the fuku? I didn’t buy it). And of course the past has an influence on the present, and there are writers who have dealt with this kind of thing in a far superior manner–Sebald, for one. Ha Jin is another author who seems to handle the connections between past and present in a fascinating way. William Vollmann’s obsessive (and excessive) research is also a different kind of thing, something interesting.

    My problems with this kind of work is it seems borne out of the interests of intensive research rather than honest fascination with character, and this is evident in the writing. No writer is to be faulted for attempting to illustrate the connections between past and present–what matters is how it’s done. Hemon, honestly, seemed like he didn’t care all that much–like writing that novel was a painful duty that he had to get through in order to justify grant money so he could get to the things that really interested him. There’s more interest in the 8 or so pages of “The Life and Times of Alphonse Kauders” than the whole 300 of “The Lazarus Project.” At least, that’s how it seemed to me.

  3. Wasn’t it Emily Dickinson who said, “Execution is everything”? So … fair point. I admit, I thought Middlesex uniformly good. And someone else quite good (name escapes me) said, “There are no uninteresting subjects, only uninteresting ways of writing about them.” I think, from what I read above, this is basically your point–if you’re going to include it, you’ve got to do it well. Again, no argument from me. I happen to be slogging through EUROPE CENTRAL right now … it’s a slog because however brilliantly Vollman writes–and he is one of the best of his generation–his characters remain studies on the page, somehow not much more than chess pieces moved by the plot. Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful reply.

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