(Once a month throughout 2013 and '14, CCLaP critic Travis Fortney is reading a series of classic and contemporary books set in Chicago, not only to understand his new adopted hometown better, but to learn more about the origins and nature of the so-called "Chicago Way." For a longer introduction to this series, please click here, or visit here for the complete list.)
No book written in the last decade can make a better claim to being the great Chicago novel than Aleksandar Hemon's The Lazarus Project. The novel's plot involves a Bosnian immigrant named Brik--a struggling writer attempting to adapt to his adoptive hometown--who receives an unexpected influx of grant money--the "Suzie" grant, courtesy of a wealthy old woman named Suzie--which he uses to dive headfirst into the research of his book. The book--which is The Lazarus Project of the title--is about another Chicago immigrant, Lazarus Averbuch, who arrived in Chicago more than a century earlier and was promptly gunned down by Police Chief George Shippy, in Shippy's home, under suspicious circumstances, and accused of being an anarchist. Brik is curious about Lazarus, and I think it's safe to say that he also draws certain parallels between the earlier immigrant's life and his own, and so when the grant money comes in he sets across the ocean with his old Bosnian friend Sasha to find out about Lazarus. The mission: discover the truth about Lazarus. The just-below-the-surface-but-equally-obvious mission: get back to Bosnia and come to some understanding of their altered identities.
So, at its heart, this is a (very) dressed-up road-trip novel. Sections detailing Brik and Sasha's travels are interspersed with sections in which Brik imagines the story of Lazuras and his sister Olga, from their arrival in Chicago, to Lazrus's fateful meeting with Police Chief Shippy, to afterward, as Olga begins to cope. Sasha's vivid stories of the Bosnian war--he was a photographer who traveled with a corrupt reporter and a warlord named Rambo--also play a major part in the text. So the effect is that the narrative ping-pongs back and forth from the early twentieth century to the early twenty-first, from Chicago, to Bosnia, to Eastern Europe, from genocide to genocide, from immigrant experience to immigrant experience--and all of this is interspersed with some genuine strangeness, heartfelt comedy and sympathetic characters. It's a winning combination. All-in-all, The Lazuras Project is a dizzying, heartbreaking and even at times awe-inspiring novel.
As a Chicago novel, Hemon's book has similar themes to the first book I explored in this series, Robert Herrick's Memoirs of an American Citizen, even though the prior novel was written more than one hundred years earlier. In Herrick's novel, Van is turned away from his home--rural Indiana instead of Bosnia--and arrives in Chicago to struggle for a better life. Both heroes succeed. In Memoirs, the protagonist literally takes over the world, while in The Lazarus Project Brik marries a doctor. But of course Lazarus is a postmodern novel. Hemon assumes we'll know certain autobiographical details about him--that he himself is an immigrant from Bosnia, who arrived in Chicago in circumstances identical to those of his narrator Brik, that, like Brik, he's also a writer, and also lives on the north side of Chicago, and even traveled to Bosnia with a photographer while researching The Lazarus Project, just like Brik does. In short, Hemon knows that we'll know enough details about him to understand that he's writing in an autobiographical mode (in fact, he uses a very similar method, to similar effect, to that which Laurent Binet used in last year's HHhH). And if Hemon assumes we know those details about him, then he must also assume that we know that he's reached the pinnacle of authorial success in the form of a MacArthur "genius" Grant. Which means that although in the pages of this novel Brik hasn't achieved very much at all (excluding of course escaping certain death, coping with enormous change, the loss of his imagined and real homeland, and living a kind of double life that encompasses his present and past but doesn't allow Brik to fully occupy either) we know that huge success is only a matter of time. So maybe Brik and Van from Memoirs aren't all that different.
So, in both novels Chicago is a place where a young man from from the provinces can arrive with nothing and build an enviable life--even if it's not a place you would necessarily want to live. In The Lazarus Project the reasons you wouldn't want to live in Chicago are many. For one, the city is the place where any well-meaning young man might be branded an anarchist and indiscriminately killed. It's easy to imagine Brik's (and Hemon's) outrage at this idea. After all, Brik (and Hemon) has come to Chicago to escape that kind of thing. But for today's Chicagoan, even though The Lazarus Project is only about five years old, the murder at the center of the book isn't likely to incite much real feeling--be it anger, sadness, or empathy. After all, we live in Chicago. We don't need to look back 100 years into the past to find examples of injustice. Just last week, twelve people were shot in a park on the south side. Last year a young girl was shot to death a mile or so from the President of the United States' house, who aside from being a Chicagoan is also the first black President, yet is so unconcerned with the black community in Chicago that gun laws have actually loosened during his time in office. But to bring it closer to home, this also is the Chicago where just a few days ago, you (if you're the author of this essay) might hear a crack-crack-crack out the window then learn that a first floor window only a block away from your own first floor window was shot out. This is the Chicago where a seemingly random murder occurs on the sidewalk your wife walks down once a week on her way to volunteer as a literacy tutor.
So the idea of digging a hundred years into the past for an injustice to write about seems a little bit quaint. This may have been more grating for me in particular because a section of Memoirs of an American Citizen happens to deal with "the trial of the anarchists," during which a dozen or so suspected anarchists were tried on trumped up charges and summarily executed. The hero of Herrick's novel ends up as a juror at the trial and has some qualms about it, but ends up lobbying other jurors toward a guilty verdict, basically because he feels that it's his duty as a capitalist. The anarchists are standing in the way of progress. Of course "the trial of the anarchists" is the first moral failing on the part of Herrick's hero and marks him for eventual doom. My thought here is that Herrick did a passable job of covering this material a century ago. Which makes sense, because the age of anarchism, trumped up charges, police using anarchist tendencies as an excuse for murder, was a problem that belonged to Herrick's Chicago.
Perhaps it's not fair to wish Hemon had narrowed the focus of this novel to a more modern view of Chicago. I would never suggest that the past isn't worth examining, and Hemon does so to an entertaining effect. Today's Chicago isn't necessarily anything like Chicago circa 2005 anyway, and the text of The Lazuras Project is tinged with an often very funny detachment/disaffection. So maybe Hemon is writing at the tail end of an American period that's all but vanished now--where purposelessness and ennui getting in the way of full person-hood is the biggest obstacle one can expect to face on the road to riches. But even if those ideas do characterize Hemon's Chicago, Brik is looking out at that world through the eyes of a refugee, which means he's finding those concerns quaint and ridiculous even as they become his own.