Bookish: Nowhere Man, Aleksander Hemon

When I was in university, my intellectual confidence was so low that if I had trouble understanding the point of a particular academic passage or book I always believed it was me, not the author, at fault. Surely, I reasoned, he/she is published and highly credited in their field, this failure to follow their line of thought is due to my intellectual capacity, not the writer’s inability to explain things coherently. I have since realized what utter bunk that is, that most texts which seem to say nothing really do say nothing even (or especially) when they are overwritten and wrought with four-syllable words.

Which is not to say any of those things about Aleksander Hemon’s novel Nowhere Man except that I had a brief moment at the end where I felt, “Damn, I don’t understand this ending, I guess it’s just too deep for me.” Fortunately I’m a lot wiser now and within a few hours of thinking about it realized that the fault was not mine, no matter how good Hemon’s writing is. Nowhere Man really doesn’t hold together as a novel.

Hemon is, however, a brilliant writer of short stories and since this was his first foray into novel-writing (2004) I can forgive him for leaving the reader without a concluding chapter to tie up the lose ends of the “plot” as it were. In fact, without that concluding chapter, there really is not plot to this work, and each story reads as its own stand-alone short story without building a completed work.

Nowhere Man is ostensibly about the life of Bosnian Josef Pronek who is born in Sarajevo and comes to the United States before the outbreak of the civil war as part of some invitation to write (alluded to, not expanded on). Like Hemon in real life, Pronek is unable to return to his home country because of the strife and so becomes an immigrant to the United States without being a refugee like others from his country. Each section of the book is told from a different point of view and shows us Pronek’s life in snapshots – as a young musician forming a high-school band, a cocky youth on a cultural exchange to the Ukraine, as a man receiving letters from friends who have been harmed by the war that he has avoided, as an angry immigrant to a country he is at a loss to understand by the end.

Each perspective pulls the reader towards different sympathies, a tad disjointed but still evincing a strong sense in the change of disposition Pronek undergoes between his youth in Sarajevo and his difficult adulthood as an immigrant to America. What isn’t explored is how that transition takes place. We have snapshots of the young, cocky Pronek and snapshots of the struggling immigrant Pronek, but never do we get the snapshot that links one to another. It is as though we are reading about two different characters, linked only by name.

I kept expecting the last chapter would clear this up somehow but was sadly disappointed when instead I found what seemed to be another short-story with little (if no) tie-in to the rest of the book. This is where I started to wonder if it was my failure to comprehend some deeper thread running through the story, and I rushed through the last few pages looking to get my bearings with the rest of the novel. But aside from one mention lead me to wonder if the historic figure talked about is Pronek’s distant ancestor, nothing else in the final pages bears any resemblance to the rest of the book. Which is a real shame, because all it would have taken to turn this from an odd collection of snapshots into a coherent story was one scene at the end to unify the others.

All that said, Hemon is a master of the short-story (his most recent collection Love and Obstacles is a brilliant and beautiful read) and I still think Nowhere Man is worth reading if you don’t expect a novel out of it. I am curious to read The Lazarus Project (which is awaiting me at home, checked out from the library this week) to see if his second novel lives up to his writing promise or not. Some people really write in a single genre very well and never transition to others. I hope this is not the case with Hemon who has a lot to offer any genre which he is able to master.

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