December 22, 2008

Book review: "A Map of Home," by Randa Jarrar

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A Map of Home
By Randa Jarrar
Other Press / ISBN: 978-1-59051-272-2

(UPDATE, DECEMBER 2008: I heard today from this book's author, Randa Jarrar, who wanted to make a clarification: that not all of her three college degrees are related to writing, but rather with one being in Middle Eastern Studies and a second in the general Liberal Arts. My apologies for the error.)

(Many thanks to Goodreads.com member Katherine Sharpe, for sending me her copy of this book so I could review it; and yes, I know, I still owe you a book in return! I know, I know!)

It's undeniable at this point, the rapidly growing interest among Western audiences right now for creative, character-based fiction from the Middle East; this is one of the most important things about the arts in general, after all, the thing that's made the arts so important to humans throughout history, is that it's how many of us process and understand topics we don't know much about, complicated topics that are sometimes difficult for us to wrap our minds around. Because of America's involvement there over the last decade, because of the rise of this region as the next minor world power, it's made Westerners and especially Americans more and more curious about what seems to us to be a very mysterious place; and rather than dusty history books and manipulative corporate news reports, many people find the creative projects from a region to be the best aid for getting a fair, balanced, humanistic handle over it all. But there's also a problem with this as we all know, that when a subject in the arts suddenly becomes "hot," it leads not just to a few brilliant projects finally getting the attention they deserve, but a whole pile of badly-done knockoffs too, the literal definition of "riding someone's coattails." Let's not forget, after all, the slew of terrible "blog books" that came out around five years ago; and the slew of terrible slam-poetry compilations that came out in the '90s; and the slew of terrible pseudo-macho coke-snorting yuppie thrillers that came out in the '80s. Oh Lord, let's not forget.

A Map of Home, by Randa Jarrar

Today's book, in fact, is a very good example of what I'm talking about, Randa Jarrar's A Map of Home: because some people will see this as a funny, illuminating book that takes pains to show off all the cultural similarities between struggling families in both the West and East, and will love the book for it; while others will see it as a pretty typical coming-of-age tale that just happens to benefit from the momentary hotness of its setting, a tale that has some basic problems on top of everything else, and will not like the book very much for it. And both these people are right, frankly; when all is said and done, it is ultimately a literary debut that is merely slightly above inconsequential, undeniably benefiting commercially these days from its unique outlook, essentially a foot in the arts-industry door that is Jarrar's to either improve upon or waste with her next novel. What will happen in the future is anyone's guess, of course; but the book is certainly the sign of a writer you should at least pay attention to, who at least has the potential to really astound us all just a little bit down the road, or just as easily become a forgotten one-hit-wonder.

As mentioned, it's basically a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale, set in various locales around the Middle East and the US, as Jarrar's proud middle-class family is forced to run away from one war after the next; and this is why I say that Jarrar has the potential at this point to become an obscure one-hit-wonder, because history is littered now with people who had exactly one great coming-of-age novel in them, but were never able to convert these skills into writing great original stories out of whole-cloth. And that's because the real events of our late childhoods just naturally follow a three-act structure nicely on their own; there's a certain pattern and rhythm to almost everyone's late teens, certain "beats" in life that we all hit, making stories about such events instantly relatable by the mere act of writing them down. No matter where on the planet you live or when in history, if you're a 13-year-old girl you're simply going to have to deal with your first period at some point or another; and since so many of these experiences in real life turn out to be comically traumatic, writing a story about your own comical trauma can very quickly bond you to your audience.

And now, like I said, add what seems to many Westerners like the very exotic nature of the Middle East; because our hero Nidali happens to be dealing with her own puberty right in the middle of the various regional wars over there in the 1990s, a Palestinian whose family first got run out of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein, then were told not to come back after the Gulf War was over, traveling through various places like Iraq and Egypt until finally landing in the middle of white-trash Texas. And let's face it, that for many readers, this is all they need to make such a book a worthwhile read -- a story they can relate to, full of interesting references to confusing events and places they're always seeing mentioned in the news, a way to better understand what's going on over there precisely by filtering it through the family-drama tropes they're already used to. But see, this is where A Map of Home first starts having problems too, because Jarrar makes some of these stories just too improbably twee and precious, as if she was already picturing the high-budget award-winning Hollywood adaptation that would soon be following. I mean, really, an angry letter to Hussein about how his war is interrupting her chances to get to third base with her teenage boyfriend? Really? This manuscript is filled with such cutesy NPR-worthy anecdotes, which will simply make some people react with Oprahesque delight and some with jaded disgust.

Unfortunately, though, the biggest problem with A Map of Home is its uneven tone as it nears the end; to be precise, part 3 of the book feels like it was the first section actually written, and that it was written specifically as a series of artsy short stories for some academic writing program, stories that are stuffy and pretentious and with a veritable checklist of Iowa-Workshop-type problems. (Bad joke about misconstruing Ed McMahon's "you could already be a winner" sweepstakes letter as real? Check! Creepy middle-aged men constantly throwing themselves at overweight immigrant teens? Check! Surprisingly sophisticated understanding of postmodern feminist theory? Check! Entire chapter written in second-person for no particular reason at all? Check! Main character who wants to study writing when she goes off to college? Oh, for f-ck's sake, CHECK CHECK CHECK!) As so that ironically makes the book flow in the opposite way most do; that is, it's at its most casual and assured at the beginning, its most labored and unsure at the end, sadly leaving a bad taste in the mouth after finishing instead of sending us off on a high note.

That's ultimately why I say that Jarrar's future as a writer is now in her hands, because this is neither a spectacularly great book nor spectacularly awful; it's more of a blank slate than anything else, something that merely proves that she can write, and that guarantees she'll get at least one more chance to publish one of these things. What will Jarrar do with this opportunity? Will she transcend the hacky territory of autobiographical coming-of-age fiction next time, shrug off the terrible academic literary gimmicks she's picked up during the process of getting her three freaking writing degrees? Or will she find herself simply with not much creative juice left at all, now that she's already expelled this mostly true story from her system? Whatever the case, A Map of Home is a book I cautiously recommend today; if you're the type that happens to be into these subjects, you'll definitely want to check it out, while if you're ever caught yourself saying that you never want to read another Judy Blume story again for the rest of your life, you may want to give today's title a pass.

Out of 10: 8.0

Read even more about A Map of Home: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari

Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:01 PM, December 22, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |