The Lazarus Project Aleksandar Hemon (Riverhead Books)

Reading The Lazarus Project, Aleksandar Hemon’s latest novel, is kind of like staring at one of those paintings where inside that painting is another painting of the painting you’re staring at. The book is about a man who wants to write a book about a man who wanted to be a writer. And like those surreal paintings, it not only challenges your perception of the subject but brings the creation of the work itself into focus.

Vladimir Brik, a Bosnian living in Chicago in 2004, is married to a brain surgeon and has a well-read column in the Reader, where he writes about being an immigrant in America. He wants money to research a book about the experience of a particular immigrant—Lazarus Averbuch, an eastern European Jewish teenager from the turn of the century—but refuses to ask his wife for help because he fears that she and her family already see him as a “wastrel or a slacker or a lazy Eastern European.” When he stumbles into the grant that will make his travels possible, he heads to the old country with his buddy Rora, a photo-snapping raconteur who fought in the siege of Sarajevo.

Hemon’s backstory is well-known to his fans by now: he visited Chicago in 1992, with just enough English to get by as a tourist; on the day he was to return home, war broke out there. He stayed on, worked odd jobs, got a master’s degree in literature from Northwestern, and in 1995 wrote his first story in the language of his new home. His first story collection was published in 2000, his first novel two years later. He’s often compared to Conrad and Nabokov, not just because he’s a second-language author with an astonishing command of the English vernacular but also because of his fondness for metafiction. That is to say Hemon has a knack for posing questions about what he’s writing about by allowing the writing to draw attention to itself.

Hemon made his mark with The Question of Bruno, a collection of short stories about war and exile. His debut novel, Nowhere Man, which takes place in Chicago, Sarajevo, Kiev, and Shanghai, expands on the saga of one of Bruno‘s characters, Jozef Pronek, a Bosnian teenager who finds himself stranded and directionless in Chicago. A loyal Hemon reader, six years older and digging into The Lazarus Project, might suffer a bit of deja vu. In Hemon’s latest, a Bosnian man feeling lost in Chicago goes home to learn about an eastern European teenager who immigrated to Chicago. The Lazarus Project, though, separates itself from its predecessors with its time-shifting format, and as ever Hemon’s writing is engaging—colorful, at times gritty, and full of passages that can make a reader nod and mutter his adoration aloud.

Hemon gets right to it in chapter one: “The time and place are the only things I’m certain of: March 2, 1908, Chicago. Beyond that is the haze of history and pain, and now I plunge.” What he’s plunging into is the true story of the shooting of suspected anarchist Averbuch by Chicago police chief George Shippy—the circumstances of which have been debated ever since it was reported. Hemon’s masterful portrait of post-Haymarket Chicago, on edge at the prospect of anarchist revolution, resonates with the post-9/11 climate we live in today. There’s eavesdropping on phone lines. Arrests when someone sputters some anarchist phrases. Indefinite detainments. Changes in immigrant laws. Deportations. Racial profiling. Sound familiar?

The book alternates between 1908 and 2004 at almost every chapter break. The reader views a confused and bitter young Averbuch through the eyes of his protective sister, Olga, and modern-day Ukraine, Moldova, and Bosnia through the eyes of Brik and Rora. As he spins these twin strands, Hemon explores broader themes and questions: What is the purpose of life? Are you living a life worth living? What does it mean to die? Why live? Why write?

Brik’s life in Chicago is unsatisfying—his writing is stagnant, his marriage is stalled out, his love for America is waning—and he finds himself wondering who the world is actually for: the living or the dead? And if there are more people dead than living on earth, then whose earth is it, really? He searches for answers in the act of writing.

“That was one of the reasons... why I absolutely needed to write the Lazarus book,” Brik writes. “The book would make me become someone else, go either way: I could either earn the right to orgasmic selfishness (and the money required for it) or I could purchase my moral insurance by going through the righteous processes of self-doubt and self-realization, achieve writerly sainthood, become the one who knows.”

When the book shifts to 1908, Lazarus’s best friend explains why the dead boy wanted to become a literary man:

“He wanted to write. He wanted to meet girls, have some fun. He wanted to be liked. He wanted to be like everybody else.”

Any of these reasons, or all of them, might be why Hemon writes, or why anyone has ever put pen to paper. But there’s another explanation, one that becomes evident the longer you look into the painting within the painting, the book within the book. What brings the world of the dead and the world of the living together is words—words, which give us context where there was none and let the living imagine they understand the dead.v