Life in Short
Aleksandar Hemon, Mary Gaitskill and brutal honesty
by Suzi Steffen
Immigrant fiction fills the shelves of any short story lover, with everything from Junot Diaz’ Drown to Nam Le’s The Boat and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck. Naturally, writers like Le and Aleksander Hemon, a Bosnian writer who visited the U.S. in 1992 and couldn’t get home to Sarajevo because of the war, write about the traumas that land them in a new country. Hemon’s Love and Obstacles (Riverhead, 2009; $25.95) follows his National Book Award finalist novel The Lazarus Project.
The stories in Love and Obstacles (the self-referential title comes from one of the narrator-penned poems) touch again and again on the range of young men’s experiences with aggression and maturity. Or rather, one young man’s experience; the stories are linked by the same narrator (save one story, where he becomes the close third-person subject): the weary Conrad-loving teen stuck in Zaire of “Stairway to Heaven” is an older version of the mischief-causing kid of “American Commando.” The stories have a strong autobiographical feel, which Hemon mines beautifully in “The Bees, Part 1,” a painful, poignant tale of the narrator’s relationship with his father, and at heart a tale of the war.
The details of each story strike hard, precise notes, from the music and drugs the diplomat’s kid finds as he escapes his family in “Stairway” to the specifics of the food served by the writer/protagonist’s parents in the strong final story, “The Noble Truths of Suffering.”
“American Commando” itself reads as a harsh preview of the coming wars. Its gang of boy children, buddies who react against a building erected near their playspace, escalates the conflict between them and their imagined enemies until people get hurt. The “noble” in the title of the final story plays off both sarcasm and elegaic affection; the Bosnian writer who wants to be a success, his parents working embarrassingly hard to impress the famous American writer he brings home, the American’s eventual betrayal of that trust. Betrayal, as writers practice it — take real life and make it fictional, take tales in books and try to live them.
“The job of any writer is to seduce the reader,” Hemon writes, but Mary Gaitskill turns that seduction into something more like a hostile kidnapping with the early stories in her newest collection, Don’t Cry (Pantheon, 2009; $23.95). Though her writing snaps from the beginning, the first few stories — tales of women dealing with fear, brutality and a world of pain — take some persistence to get through, especially “Folk Song.”
Patience pays off in the brilliant “Mirror Ball,” which, like its fairy tale counterparts or “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” takes a young woman and young man who connect briefly and carelessly and shows the cost. The young man, not a bad guy but rather a magnetic, privileged, pretty boy, ends up being a sort of soul collector. Like Hemon, Gaitskill writes of the creative process here, how the creator sometimes uses other people to feed art — in this case, and very clearly, his art.
As I read Don’t Cry, I often said out loud, “How does she do this?” Gaitskill rips right through souls herself, the raw honesty of her characters’ obsessions, desires, secret thoughts and actions splayed on the page. Not that she’s stripping them of humanity; she’s not supercilious, not distant, and sometimes, she’s sympathetic to them. They make mistakes, live through layers of regret and shame and hope and foolishness and fear and vulnerability and vain attempts to stay tough. The book’s mixed, half-genius with a few too-manipulative tales, but the half-genius part shines like a writing guide-star, something toward which the rest of us sail.