Love and Obstacles
By Aleksandar Hemon
Riverhead, 210 pp., $25.95
“I’ve always enjoyed destruction,” says the narrator in one of Aleksandar Hemon’s most recent short stories. “[T]here was always something breathtaking in effecting obliteration.” Mr. Hemon is a Sarajevo-raised writer who was abroad during his hometown’s 1992 atrocities, so when he writes about “destruction,” he’s alluding to a particularly obscure hurt—a scar left by the things he didn’t see, a home fallen to pieces far away. The stories in his new collection, Love and Obstacles, reanimate that lost world even as they cast doubt on the writer’s enterprise. Mr. Hemon seeks to bring short fiction back to life by blowing open the pretenses of the art.
His assault is an underhanded one, and its basic tactics will be known to any teenager who’s ever spent a ski trip cooped up with their parents. The book’s tenor is by turns insolent and plangent, needling authority and peering out into a daunting world. One story’s adolescent narrator gets caught up with a raffish expat in the Congo, trying the scapegrace lifestyle only to see through it, to find his own moral geography. The masterpiece in the book, “The Conductor,” centers on a young writer who falls enviously in tow with a great Bosnian poet just before the war. Meeting the old man later in America, he sees him for the first time as he is—a haunted, beautifully dissipated human being, straining beneath the literary laurels.
Many readers will regard stories like these as metaphors for Mr. Hemon’s own experience: the loss of cherished ground, recalibration in America. As much as Love and Obstacles is about cultural displacement, though, it’s also about coming of age. Mr. Hemon’s genius is to write about these two ordeals together, making each a proxy for the other. As characters navigate brave new worlds, we find them—even the adults—stricken with adolescent hunger. “There are walls between the world and me,” the narrator in one story laments, “and I have to walk through them.” The line could be an epigraph for the entire book.
IT ALSO FITS Mr. Hemon’s idea of his craft. This new collection rattles the gates of the literary citadel more desperately than Mr. Hemon’s earlier work (one previous collection and two novels). Where his first book of stories used ostentatious gambits like footnotes and appendixes to show literature as a work in progress, Love and Obstacles gives us stories about the writer’s failing effort to pin down the unexpected, unformed, often messy revelations that crop up in life. Short fiction seems, in many ways, his native form, foregrounding memory-size narrative and rapid tonal changes. Mr. Hemon can conjure a stunning lyrical depiction—he calls a woman’s “brilliant teeth an annotation to her laughter”—only to describe a house, a bit later, as just “way the fuck up the hill.” He is the virtuoso who can pull off Paganini flawlessly, then tuck his instrument against his arm and play it like a fiddle.
The sheer range of this skill—and in a second language—garners frequent comparisons to Nabokov and Conrad. (The author naturally encourages this line of thinking: Nabokov’s name is invoked on the back flap; Conrad crops up teasingly in the first story.) But the comparisons are gratuitous. Nabokov was a hall-of-mirrors postmodernist; Conrad was a romantic with a taste for allegory. Mr. Hemon is both of these, but he is also, crucially, a writer in the confessional mode: The stories in Love and Obstacles are interlinked snapshots that seem to trace a single life—a life uncannily like Mr. Hemon’s. “You may have read my story ‘Love and Obstacles,’ ” the narrator drunkenly boasts to a Pulitzer winner he’s trying to impress. “It was in The New Yorker not so long ago.” In fact, Mr. Hemon’s own “Love and Obstacles” ran in that magazine’s Nov. 28, 2005, issue.
This blurring of real life and fiction isn’t new, of course, and often it does little besides pour hot fudge and sprinkles on a writer’s ego. Mr. Hemon’s self-allusions, though, rain down like nails. His narrator is blundering and vulnerable, always (in his own accounts) the least impressive person in the room. Older writers use him, à clef, in their fiction to personify oblivion and latent promise. Yet he listens. Storytelling is a crucial theme in Mr. Hemon’s work; he has a taste for narratives in narratives, lines “quoted” from imagined documents. In Love and Obstacles, we find him feeling out the limits of the art.
For although these stories deal largely with learning to become a writer—or a better writer—Mr. Hemon’s notion of what literature offers its creators is surprisingly, almost stubbornly, narrow. The poet is more complex and alive as a disheveled man than as a genius author. And of the Pulitzer Prize winner: “he knew that writers knew nothing, really; most of them were just faking it.” It’s unsurprising, somehow, that the narrator’s own adventures carry on irrespective of his literary efforts. Arriving at one’s powers as a writer, Mr. Hemon seems to want to say, means finding out that life is, in the end, bigger than art.
Nathan Heller is on the staff of Slate. He can be reached at email@example.com.