The Short Version: Joshua lives in Chicago and has a decent enough life. He teaches ESL, comes up with ideas for screenplays in a screenwriting group (although rarely actually commits to writing them), and has a loving girlfriend. But after an idea comes to him that might have legs, his world spins a little out of control thanks to (variously) his landlord’s psychotic break, one of his students being a bit too attractive, and his own inability to keep life in order.
The Short Version: It’s hard to know what to expect when you pick up this novel. For one thing, there’s the cover (now with, I think, sillier red type instead of the green & black) and the title – and then there’s the knowledge that it’s been written by Aleksander Hemon, a respectable author of respectable things. The jacket copy is pretty vague and the novel opens with three “Script Ideas”, set in italics and helpfully numbered. (These script ideas will continue throughout the script too in an almost Palahniukian repetition.) So I had pretty much no idea what I was in for when I started and probably wouldn’t’ve predicted that, at the end of everything, I’d’ve just read one of the best indie comedies of the last 15 years.
I’m using a film metaphor partially because of the whole wannabe-filmmaker aspect of the novel but also partially because the tone (not the writing but the overall tone) strikes me like the best indie comedies. Noah Baumbach comedies, the ones that end up as dramatic as they are funny – or the sort of movie that Garden State was the simultaneously worst and perfect example of, where the filmmakers grew up on Woody Allen and the like but brought a distinctly 90s/00s aesthetic into the mix. It’s also a terrific WMFU novel – and I should also make it clear that I think this is an immense compliment: far too often, the WMFU novel ends up being a little too goofy or stoner-y or altogether unnecessary.. but this one strikes just the right balance. It doesn’t feel like a screenplay treatment (like the still-enjoyable but pretty simple This is Where I Leave You, for example) but it feels indebted to those films somehow.
The moment that crystalised this for me came rather early on. Joshua, our main character (a slightly schlubby but ultimately well-meaning ordinary guy), has come home from his screenwriting class and the ensuing drinking session to find his kind-of-crazy landlord in his bedroom crying into his underwear. I was already chuckling at the description of Joshua seeing Stagger there, doing this peculiar home invasion routine, but only after he has fled (the story going from kind of ordinary, a little funny but pretty normal, to suddenly hilarious in the space of a page) does Hemon provide this nugget: “Stagger, it might be pertinent to mention, was Joshua’s landlord and downstairs neighbor.” This provoked a full-on guffaw from me, as did just about every ensuing appearance by Stagger in the text. He’s a completely ridiculous character and Hemon clearly has a blast writing him – and something about that light authorial intervention that almost (again with the film metaphor) felt like a voiceover… it was just obtrusive enough to not pull me out of the book but actually pull me further in. I fell, in that moment, hook line and sinker. I’m still laughing about it, just typing this review.
But the book isn’t all fun and games. As Joshua works on his script (an interesting but not tremendously innovative zombie movie idea, constantly changing and vaguely mirroring the events in the ensuing pages), he’s also dealing with a late-quarter-life crisis. His parents are divorced, his sister is a harpy, he’s listless in his job and surprised by his girlfriend… it’s sort of a drifty time for him. As things start to go bad and his life starts to fall apart, you get the sense of a man doing what he wants, just to see what will happen – and it never feels fake. It never feels like Hemon is putting Joshua through something ridiculous for his own enjoyment or for his reader, but rather everything feels like it could happen to you. Sure, you might fall for the sexy Bosnian immigrant in your ESL class and you might even sleep with her – and you might even think that everything is alright after the fact. The hope that Hemon bestows upon Joshua in the novel is as authentic as the sometimes-really-very-harrowing shit he drops on him as well.
But I keep coming back to the humor, because without it I don’t think the book would be anywhere near as worthy of your time (let alone as good). Hemon is better known for work that’s much more serious in tone (even though he is, as I saw at his FSG Originals Series event, a very funny and relaxed guy) – I’ve read several of his essays and a few short stories and I can only imagine that someone who’s read the breadth of his work would be surprised here, even more so than I was. But for Hemon to turn his pen so smoothly towards humor while still retaining the insightful looks into people’s lives – and social commentary both about the immigrant experience (specifically Bosnian and the Bosnian war’s toll) and about living in this country in the early days of the Iraq War… it’s a remarkable achievement. At first, I’d thought that the Iraq War stuff was unnecessary, that it was just background noise – but then I realized that, no, Hemon is quietly making points there that, even if we already know them/agree with them/believe them/have heard them, are so skillfully just “a part of the story” that we don’t notice. It all coalesces in such a way as to make the reader just grin and, frankly, want to clap.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. Hemon is having a ball here and it’s evident on nearly every page. People keep talking about how “unexpected” the humor is – but even if you go in now expecting it, you’ll still laugh. There is a glee to the writing, a glee the author quite clearly felt, that makes it that much more fun for the reader. It might not be a life-changing novel or story about a serious topic – but not all novels need to be. Quote-unquote “serious” authors ought to follow Hemon’s lead and have a little fun now and then. As he proves, you can still write something heartfelt and thoughtful while making people laugh. I almost feel a little spoiled that this was my first of his novels.