Nowhere Man

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Aleksandar Hemon’s Jumbo Lexicon

My dictionary is the sturdy, hardback two-volume edition of The New Shorter Oxford English much loved by editors the world over - even if they have to keep it on the bottom shelf so the bookcase doesn’t topple over. Although it’s an effort to pull it out and I’m always concerned about a possible hernia or crushing my dozing cat in the event of a misstep during transit, there is no way in Hades I will ever use an online version. Nothing beats the individually carved furrows for each letter of the alphabet, the “looking up” process that my print version permits. I do not want or need to know the meaning of a word instantly. I enjoy the minor workout my mind receives in scanning the page, calculating if I need to flip forward or turn back in order to finally, satisfyingly arrive at my destination. Such pleasure is usually diminished by the brand of “ever so pleased with itself” fiction that clubs you over the head as many times as possible in each sentence with mysterious words that do little more than highlight the author’s need to prove he is much smarter than the you. John Banville, I’m looking at you here. Like most people, I don’t wish to feel moronic when reading, even if it is uncomfortably close to the truth. This is part of what made Aleksandar Hemon’s Love and Obstacles such a revelatory reading experience. Yes, he used words I’d never heard of, and once I had hired a crane to lug my dictionary to the table, it stayed there. In fact, I felt like such an idiot I started looking up words I thought I knew the meaning of, only to discover that I had often been sorely mistaken. Let me throw a few examples at you, see how you fare. Fenestral. No? What about edentate? Numinous? Yet Hemon is no show-off who ate the OED for breakfast. He evidently loves the dictionary, but keeps his language simple and straightforward, with these fabulous words thrown in occasionally, giving the impression he has only just discovered them himself and is reveling in sharing them with you. This glee in the English language stems from the fact that in 1992, at age 28, Hemon was stranded in Chicago when war broke out in his native Bosnia. His fiction is replete with mentions of how fortunate he was not to be in Sarajevo at the time, but tinged with regret that he will never understand the conflict that tore his country apart as well as someone who was there. Hemon had already written several stories in his native language but only began writing in English upon his absorption into American culture. Unable to return to his homeland, Hemon worked as a bike messenger, a doorknocker for Greenpeace, in a bookstore, and eventually as an ESL teacher. His English language stories began to appear in American literary journals in 1995, and by 1999 he had his first piece picked up by The New Yorker. Naturally a collection of his early stories followed a year later, The Question of Bruno. No less a talent than Zadie Smith ruefully commented, “The Question of Bruno is all right I suppose if you appreciate multilingual genius types who learn the language in six months, write with great humour and style and then get compared to Nabokov in the New York Times.” A novel, Nowhere Man, featuring one of his earlier characters, Jozef Pronek, came out to considerable acclaim in 2002 but it was a 2004 genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation that marked a dramatic upswing in his career. Half a million dollars in his pocket meant Hemon was able to travel back to Sarajevo with his childhood friend, the photographer Velibor Bozovic to research his superb 2008 novel, The Lazarus Project. This investigation into the real-life 1908 murder of Jewish immigrant Lazarus Averbuch by Chicago’s then Chief of Police, George Shippy, is illustrated with Bozovic’s photography and is a telling meditation on the life of a migrant. One year after its release, Hemon’s most recent book of short stories, the aforementioned Love and Obstacles, appeared. The question of how a writer manages to express himself so well in a language that is not his own and in such a short space of time is perhaps a puzzling one, but Zadie Smith hints at the answer in her summation of his first collection. Hemon taught himself English by reading Nabokov’s Lolita—an insanely daunting task. In a 2008 interview with the Guardian, Hemon explained, I didn’t know half the words. At the beginning I would start underlining the words I didn’t know on the page, but then I started underlining too many, so I started writing them out on notecards, and whenever I read, I made lists of words and then looked them up in the dictionary. It’s a technique Nabokov probably would have appreciated, given that he drafted his novels on index cards. (His most recent posthumous publication, The Original of Laura, is in fact presented as a series of perforated index cards, designed to be removed and shuffled by the reader, even if it is difficult to imagine philistines tearing apart Chip Kidd’s design.) “Lolita is the bomb,” Hemon told the Guardian. Reading it in English after reading it in translation “was like the difference between listening to an orchestra live and through a phone.” Applying Nabokov’s love of English to his own work caused some ire among reviewers at first, who felt that beneath the startling words lay an understanding of grammar and diction that left something to be desired. But Hemon, who has stated in several interviews that he speaks much better English than he does Bosnian, wanted to embrace Nabokov’s willingness to experiment with language. In a 2008 interview with BOMB magazine, he said that during the ESL classes he taught, he would identify the roots of certain English words in the home countries of his students, thus allowing them to lose their fear of the world language. “The thing with English,” he suggested, is that its borders can be pushed. It can be transformed and recharged. At the same time, because it is so fluid, so limitless, people feel that the rules and idiomatic strictness must be enforced - otherwise the foreigners will take the language away. This defiant ‘owning’ of English is evident throughout Hemon’s work. As a Bosnian writing in English he feels none of the trepidation most non-English writers do about “getting it wrong.” Released from such constrictions, his prose is natural and flowing, peppered with rich, satisfying phrases. A slug in the rain is described so: “The wet dew on its back twinkled: it looked like a severed tongue.” A “wet loaf of bread” is seen to have “excited ants crawling all over it, as if building a pyramid.” The ass of a horse taking a poop opens slowly, “like a camera aperture.” Hemon is also unafraid of inserting himself into his narratives, albeit in a heavily disguised and exaggerated form. His protagonists are often Bosnian men living in Chicago, despite his abhorrence of “the memoir craze,” as he puts it. “I hate it beyond words. It’s a crisis of the imagination.” Hemon cleverly deflected any criticism of his seemingly autobiographical stories in an interview with The New Yorker last year. He describes hurting the ligament in his hand one morning and losing control of his car while talking on the phone with his sister in London. He sideswipes his neighbor’s parked car and knocks on their door to confess. When no one answers and he notices the door is unlocked, he ventures inside to see if they are home. In the living room he spots a strange vase in the shape of a monkey head and picks it up for a closer look. His injured ligament lets him down and he drops the vase, smashing it. Now mortified, he scurries out of the house with the new intention of admitting nothing. This sounds like a perfect Hemon short story, except he then admits that he did not actually call his sister, though she does live in London. He caused no damage, did not trespass and saw no monkey-head vase. The only parts of the tale that actually happened were that he hurt his hand one morning and still drove his car. Yet such is Hemon’s mastery of language that even a casual recounting of the story during an interview is compelling enough to be believable. Hemon has built his own version of English. It is fluid and clever, refreshingly free of the jarring attempts to dazzle the reader often found in contemporary literary fiction. He is the first writer I have read who made me wish I could forget all the bad habits and lazy tics ingrained through virtue of being born a native English speaker, that I could start again from scratch and build a formidable lexicon such as his – simple, elegant and imbued with a profound love for the beauty of forgotten words.

A Year in Reading: New Yorker Fiction 2005

My year in reading involved a couple dozen or so books, most of which I wrote about here, but it also involved, to a large extent, my favorite magazine, the New Yorker. I spent three or four out of every seven days this year reading that magazine. So, for my "Year in Reading" post, I thought I'd revisit all the time I spent reading the New Yorker this year, and in particular, the fiction. It turns out that nearly every one of the 52 stories that the New Yorker published this year is available online. I thought it might be fun to briefly revisit each story. It ended up taking quite a while, but it was rewarding to go back through all the stories. What you'll find below is more an exercise in listing and linking than any real attempt at summary, but hopefully some folks will enjoy having links to all of this year's stories on one page. I also wanted to highlight a couple of blogs that did a great job of reacting to New Yorker fiction this year - you'll find many links to them below - Both "Grendel" at Earthgoat and "SD Byrd" at Short Story Craft put together quality critiques of these stories. Now, without further ado, on to the fiction:January 3, "I am a Novelist" (not available online) by Ryu Murakami: This story by the other Murakami is about a famous novelist who is being impersonated by a man who frequents a "club" of the type often described in Japanese stories. The impostor runs up a huge bar tab and gets one of the hostesses pregnant. Murakami is best-known for his novel, Coin Locker Babies. Links: I Read a Short Story TodayJanuary 10, "Reading Lessons" by Edwidge Danticat: A Haitian immigrant elementary school teacher, a resident of Miami's Little Haiti, is asked by her boss - and lover, "Principal Boyfriend" - to tutor the illiterate mothers of two of her students. In 2004, Danticat received much praise for her novel, The Dew Breaker and this year she put out a young adult novel called Anacaona, Golden Flower.January 17, "The Juniper Tree" by Lorrie Moore: I really had to jog my memory to remember this one. It starts out with a woman who puts off visiting her dying friend Robin in the hospital. She plans to go in the morning but Robin has already died. Who Will Run the Frog Hospital is Moore's most recent collection. Links: Tingle Alley, Elegant VariationJanuary 24 & 31,"Ice" by Thomas McGuane: This story was more memorable. A young protagonist with a paper route is intimidated by a drum major. To overcome his fears he skates toward Canada on frozen Lake Erie as far as he dares. Presumably, this story will appear in McGuane's upcoming collection, Gallatin Canyon. Links: I Read A Short Story TodayFebruary 7, "The Roads of Home" by John Updike: The middle-aged absentee owner of his family's Pennsylvania farm, David Kern returns to his childhood home after a long absence, feeling guilty and a little disoriented. A standard Updike story. Updike has a new book coming out this year called Terrorist. Links: This story has inspired a field trip sponsored by The Alton Chronicles - AKA The John Updike Reality Project.February 14 & 21, "Up North" by Charles D'Ambrosio: City guy visits the inlaws for Thanksgiving at their hunting lodge. He goes hunting with the family men and finds out about some skeletons in the closet. I remember liking this story. I'm guessing this story will appear in D'Ambrosio's new collection, The Dead Fish Museum.February 28,"The Conductor" by Aleksandar Hemon: The narrator and Dedo, two Bosnian poets, are reunited in America after the war. This memorable story contrasts the hardness of their Bosnian experience with their new lives on the American academic circuit. Touching and funny. Hemon's written a novel, Nowhere Man, and a collection of stories, The Question of Bruno. Links: 3quarksdailyMarch 7, "The Gorge" by Umberto Eco: Italian boy and anarchist help Cassocks escape from Germans in war-torn Italy. Pretty straight-forward for a story by Eco, it turns out this piece was culled from his then-forthcoming novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. Links: Conversational Reading, A Roguish Chrestomathy, Unhappy with the New Yorker's editing: The LaboratoriumMarch 14, "Della" by Anne Enright: I'd completely forgotten this story. It made no impression at all, but upon rereading I see that it's a sad story about two old folks living next door to each other, one worrying the other is dead, and beneath its somber surface, there's a little humor to it. Enright's most recent book is The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch.March 21, "Men of Ireland" by William Trevor: I've never been a big fan of Trevor, his stories are a little too gray for my taste, but it can't be denied that he's a great storyteller. In this one a destitute man accuses his childhood priest of long ago improprieties. Though we can't know the truth for sure, somehow, in this telling, both seem guilty. Trevor's most recent collection is A Bit on the Side. Links: James Tata.March 28, "A Secret Station" by David Gates: A classic New Yorker story: An old man ruminates on his wasted life - multiple marriages and infidelities, dabbling in prescription drugs to dull the pain. But Gates paints the characters well and this is a good read. Gates is best known for his novel Preston Falls. Links: shes-krafty.com.April 4, "Solace" by Donald Antrim: I've always enjoyed Antrim's stories. This one is sort of a romantic comedy about two disfunctional people who, due to difficult housing arrangements, must conduct their relationship only in borrowed apartments. Antrim's memoir, The Afterlife, pieces of which have appeared in the New Yorker, will be published in May.April 11, "Mallam Sile" by Mohammed Naseehu Ali: Another good story, especially if you like exotic locales. This one is about the original 40-year-old virgin, a tea seller in Ghana. It is included in Ali's recent collection, The Prophet of Zongo Street. Links: James Tata.April 18, "The Orlov-Sokolovs" by Ludmila Ulitskaya: I've had the impression for a while now that the New Yorker publishes a lot of stories by Russians, but perhaps it just seems this way because they loom so large on the page. This story is about a young couple that falls prey to Soviet bureaucracy. The story appears in Ulitskaya's collection Sonechka.April 25, the only issue of the year with no fiction. Instead, a remembrance of Saul Bellow by Philip Roth.May 2, "Where I'm Likely to Find It" by Haruki Murakami: The first of three Murakami stories that appeared in the New Yorker (Yes, he does get in there a lot.) In this one, we have a typically-Murakami detached narrator who investigates missing people, but, this being Murakami, it's not a typical mystery story. Murakami has a book coming out this year called Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. Links: Earthgoat.May 9, "Along the Highways" by Nick Arvin: A sad fellow named Graham follows his brother's widow and some guy named Doug as they drive out of Detroit for a weekend getaway. Graham does this out of jealousy and a misplaced protective instinct. It does not end well for him. Arvin's debut novel, Articles of War, came out in 2005. Links: Earthgoat.May 16, "The Room" by William Trevor: The second of three Trevor stories in the New Yorker this year (Yes, he gets in there a lot, too.) Another gray story, but, of course, well-crafted. It's about a woman who covered for her murderer husband and is now admitting everything to her the man she's cheating on the murderer with. It sounds more thriller-like than it is. Links: Earthgoat.May 23, "Two's Company" by Jonathan Franzen: Franzen goes Hollywood in this tight little story about a screenwriting couple that battles over a script that celebrates monogamy. There's no Franzen fiction in the pipeline that I'm aware of, so if you haven't read it already, ignore the hype and read The Corrections. It's that good. Links: James Tata.May 30, "The Russian Riviera" by David Bezmozgis: This is a great story. One that I still remember well more than six months after I read it. There's something about boxers. It seems they're always getting suckered when all they want is a shot at the big time, like in a favorite movie of mine, On the Waterfront. Bezmozgis received much praise for his debut collection, Natasha. Links: Earthgoat.June 6 "A Mouthful of Cut Glass" by Tessa Hadley: Normally, I dislike Hadley's stories, but this one stands out as better than the others I've read. It's about being young and in love and the tendency that those so afflicted have to romanticize their partners. No false notes in this story. Hadley's most recent book is Everything Will Be All Right. Links: Simply Wait, Earthgoat.June 13 & 20. Then came the Debut Fiction issue in which three stories appeared, "An Ex-Mas Feast" by Uwem Akpan, "The Laser Age" by Justin Tussing and "Haunting Olivia" by Karen Russell. I discussed the issue here. My favorite was the Akpan for its exotic setting. I was also impressed to learn that Russell was just 23. Of the three, only Tussing has a book on the way, The Best People in the World.June 27, "The Blow" by J.M. Coetzee (not available online): This novel excerpt (from Slow Man) is about an elderly amputee who, after at first resenting his caretaker, allows himself to be fatherly to her son. Good, but too long. I wish the New Yorker would do away with these novel excerpts. They're not really short stories. Links: Conversational Reading, Earthgoat.July 4, "Ashes" by Cristina Henriquez: This story is set in Panama City and it's about a young woman whose mother dies. Her family is already in tatters so it's up to her to try to keep everything together. Henriquez's debut collection, Come Together, Fall Apart comes out this year. Links: Simply Wait.July 11 & 18, "Long-Distance Client" by Allegra Goodman: This, I think, was my favorite story in the New Yorker this year. In it, Mel, the oldest employee at a tech start-up, bewildered by his coworkers, finds himself misaligned and in severe pain. He goes to an odd sort of chiropractor, Bobby, who, when not giving Mel the runaround, is able to straighten him out. But Bobby claims to have a client that he treats over the phone, and the truth behind Bobby's claim becomes the quirky question at the heart of this story. Goodman has a new novel coming out soon, Intuition. Links: Earthgoat.July 25, "Awaiting Orders" by Tobias Wolff: The masterful Wolff puts together a brief story that deftly circles the topic of gays in the military. It's funny that now that we're at war, the once popular gays in the military controversy is old, old news, and, somehow, without being obvious, Wolff manages to highlight that irony. Wolff's most recent book is Old School. Links: Earthgoat.August 1, "Commcomm" by George Saunders: There's no one writing like George Saunders. "Commcomm" is too weird to briefly summarize, but in typical Saunders fashion, he places us in an alternate and oddly terrifying universe where people talk like zombies yet somehow remind us of people we interact with every day. "Commcomm" includes an element I'd never seen before in a Saunders story: ghosts. Saunders' new collection, In Persuasion Nation will come out this summer. Links: standBy Bert (featuring an appearance by Saunders in the comments), Earthgoat.August 8 & 15, "Gomez Palacio" by Roberto Bolano (Not available online): A somewhat oblique story, this one is about a young man teaching in Gomez Palacio. Both he and the director of the school are poets and they're a little odd. They go for a long drive together. That's about all that happens. A new book by Bolano is coming out this year: The Last Evenings on Earth. Links: Earthgoat.August 22, "Thicker Than Water" by Gina Ochsner: This story is about a Latvian girl who lives across the street from a family of Jews. Latvia being what it is I suppose, her parents are suspicious of these people, but she is fascinated by them. In the end, there is an ill-fated chess tournament. Ochsner's most recent book is People I Wanted to Be. Links: Earthgoat. August 29, "The View from Castle Rock" by Alice Munro: An unusual setting for a Munroe story - a ship heading for Canada in 1818. I like Munroe's stories generally and this one is no exception, though the drama at the center of this long story - a young man who meets a well off father and daughter who tantalizingly offer to lift him from his poorer circumstances so that he must choose between his family and the promise of a better life - it's a bit trite. Munro's most recent collection is Runaway. Links: literarylover, mike.whybark.com, Earthgoat.September 5, "Club Des Amis" by Tony D'Souza: Mr. Wu, who lies at the center of this story, is a Chinese man in Africa. The narrator is a Western aid worker, and he relates how Wu's son "went native" and died in the bush and now Wu is trying to be a distant benefactor to the son his son had with a native woman. I'm a fan of exotic locales, so I liked this one. This story appears to be an excerpt from D'Souza's forthcoming novel, Whiteman.September 12, "Coping Stones" by Ann Beattie: A very good story that asks how well do we really know the people we think we know. A widower, Dr. Cahill, rents a house on his property to a young man, Matt, who he treats as a son, but one day the authorities come looking for Matt. Beattie's most recent collection of stories is Follies.September 19, "Cowboy" by Thomas McGuane: This story is about An old cowboy who hires a young cowboy to work with him. Both exist under the watchful eye of the old cowboy's sister, who eventually dies. I think this story is about friendship, really, one that grows slowly over many years. This story will appear in McGuane's collection, Gallatin Canyon. Links: Literarylover.September 26, "The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day" by Haruki Murakami: What if you knew in advance that you would only love three women (or men) in your life? Would you worry, with each new person you met, whether he or she was one of three. This is Junpei's problem and it makes relationships pretty tough for him. Links: shake it off.October 3, "Companion" by Sana Krasikov: I enjoyed this story. Ilona, thrice divorced we quickly learn, is living with Earl, a man much her senior, not because she is "with" him but because she is in financial straits and he has offered her a room. This makes pursuing her love life difficult and all of her friends somewhat snidely assume Ilona and Earl are together. Earl's family meanwhile is quite suspicious of her. I like the desperation in this story. A sample description: "The air was stale with the yeasty scent of bread."October 10, "Early Music" by Jeffrey Eugenides: Another story of desperation. Rodney just wants to play "early music" on his clavichord, but he and his wife Rebecca are in serious debt. She is trying to make ends meet with her ridiculous invention, Mice 'n' Warm. His precious clavichord on the verge of being repossessed, Rodney watches his life's dream slipping away. Eugenides' most recent book is Middlesex.October 17, "Path Lights" by Tom Drury: A bottle falls out of the sky - no, it's not The Gods Must Be Crazy - and almost hits Bobby. He becomes obsessed with this bottle, Blind Street Ale, and eventually tracks down the bottle-thrower, but it's awkward. This story may be an excerpt from Drury's forthcoming novel, Driftless Area. Links: Short Story Craft.October 24, "Summer Crossing" by Truman Capote (not available online): This is an excerpt from a long-lost, recently found Capote novel. The story is well-crafted, if a bit formulaic. Rich girl gets mixed up with tough guy who she thinks she can "save." You can tell that Capote wrote this when he was young - he was only 19 - but still, his talent is evident. Links: Earthgoat.October 31, "The Children" by William Trevor: Another Trevor story, the final one of the year, and he uses the same palate we're used to, the scrubby Irish countryside. Young Connie and her father Robert suffer the death of a mother and wife and when he decides to marry the mother of Connie's friend, we think all might be well, but as Robert new wife Theresa discovers, "nothing was as tidy as she'd imagined."November 7, "God of War" by Marisa Silver: A daring choice of main character, the troubled child Ares, is at the heart of this story. Set near the desolate Salton Sea, this story covers Ares' relationship with his brother Malcolm, whose inability to speak Ares may have caused, thus dooming them both. Silver's most recent book is No Direction Home. Links: Wuff.November 14, "The Best Year of My Life" by Paul Theroux: A young man and woman are in love but nonetheless, she is pregnant with his baby. To escape scrutiny (the story is set in an earlier time), they hide out in Puerto Rico, where they are miserable, but somehow find the experience heartening. If there's anything I enjoy as much as stories with exotic locales, it's stories in which the protagonists travel. Theroux's most recent book is Blinding Light. Links: Short Story CraftNovember 21, "The Year of Spaghetti" by Haruki Murakami: One of the weakest stories to appear in the New Yorker this year. Murakami brings us a guy who eats a lot of spaghetti, then a girl calls looking for an old friend of his, the narrator demurs and returns to cooking spaghetti. That's about the extent of it. Murakami has a book coming out this year called Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. Links: Earthgoat, Short Story Craft.November 28, "Love and Obstacles" by Aleksandar Hemon: I loved this story; exotic locale,traveling, etc. An adolescent Croatian (I think) narrator is sent by his family to buy a freezer in Slovenia. Desperate for adventure, he treats this errand as though he were a wandering poet, but he turns out to be more bumbling than anything else. Funny and poignant. Hemon's written a novel, Nowhere Man, and a collection of stories, The Question of Bruno. Links: Short Story Craft, The Glory of Carniola.December 5, "Wenlock Edge" by Alice Munro: This was one of my favorite stories of the year. It starts out very predictably before taking a deliciously strange turn. I won't ruin it for you, but basically our narrator gets thrown in with an oddball roommate in college, and this roommate lures her into some odd situations. Munro's most recent collection is Runaway. Links: Short Story Craft.December 12, "La Conchita" by T.C. Boyle: Boyle, a California resident, loves to make use of his home state's frequent natural disasters in his fiction. In this story, we're dealing with mudslides, which impede the route of the narrator who is delivering a kidney for transplantation. He is on a journey to save a life but he stops on the way to try to save another. Boyle has a book coming out this year called Talk Talk.December 19, "Twenty Grand" by Rebecca Curtis: A pretty good story. A harried young mother is forced to give away an old coin - a family heirloom - at a toll booth, only later discovering the coin's real value. The story is told from the perspective of the young daughter. Links: Short Story CraftDecember 26 & January 2, The year ended with the International Fiction Issue. It contains five stories. In lieu of descriptions, I'll rank them in order of my favorite to least favorite and provide links when available. "Last Evenings on Earth" by Roberto Bolano, "The Albanian Writers' Union as Mirrored by a Woman" by Ismail Kadare, "Beauty is a Fate Better Than Death" by Tahar Ben Jelloun, "Pregnancy Diary" by Yoko Ogawa, "The Word" by Vladimir Nabokov. Links: Literary Saloon.If you want to keep up with the fiction next year, you can always subscribe.

Roth Excerpt

Visit this link (and scroll down) for an excerpt of the new Philip Roth novel, The Plot Against America. In other news, Pulitzer Prize winner Edward P. Jones is one of 23 people to be given a MacArthur Foundation Genius Award. That's "annual checks for $100,000 for the next five years, to be used however they want," for those of you keeping score at home. This year's other literary geniuses are short story writer Aleksandar Hemon (The Question of Bruno, Nowhere Man) and poet C.D. Wright (Deepstep Come Shining, Steal Away). Here are profiles of Chicago's two geniuses.
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