Monday, October 10, 2005

38. Nowhere Man

by Aleksandar Hemon

I hate to have to say this, but this is, unfortunately, the first time I haven’t loved our book club pick. I didn’t hate it, either, but it just wasn’t for me and I’ll tell you why:

Aleksandar Hemon’s Nowhere Man is mainly Jozef Pronek’s story. It starts out in his childhood, moving through his adolescence and the period of time in which he practiced to be in a Beatles cover band (named "Blind Jozef Pronek and Dead Souls", although I kept thinking the band name should have been "Pronek!" much like "Rovner!"), his introduction to love, the loss of his virginity, and his experiences in college – during which he is introduced to our narrator. Jozef comes to Chicago and gets involved in Greenpeace, during which time war has broken out in his Bosnian homeland. He shacks up with a girl, they love each other, they hate each other, and then maybe Jozef is really a spy. I don’t know. That’s what it seems happened.

Okay, here’s my problem. I’m not really that big a fan of experimental writing to begin with. It’s not that I need everything laid out clearly for me or that I don’t want to think while I’m reading, but I don’t like to have to wonder, “Who is this? What’s going on now? Where are they? Why are we here now?” I don’t like to have my exposition floating off in no-man’s land while I’m sitting here trying to invest in a character. With Nowhere Man I always kind of wondered why we were being told what we were.

I also have a big problem with authors who abuse point of view. Ostensibly, the entirety of this story is told from the first-person narrative other characters. I can’t even remember if we get these characters’ names, because they’re so absent from most of the story. All we know is that one met Jozef in college and that he meets him again in an English as a Second Language course. I guess there are other people telling the story in different periods of Jozef’s life, but I don’t really know. So we start off in the mind of this nameless guy and then, before we know it, we’re in omniscient third person, reading all about Jozef’s sexual experiences and emotional baggage. I know it’s kind of a nit-like point to pick, but dude. Pick a narrative and stick with it.


Okay…there’s a reason why I try to finish these blog posts before the book club meeting. I wrote the above part this morning and, having just returned from the meeting, I have different feelings. Which isn’t to say that I liked the book any better, because I still am not very fond of the experimental type writing, but I think I understand it a bit better. Whereas before I was practically throwing my hands up in the air, like, “I don’t know what’s going on!” other people’s opinions kind of helped bring them back down.

It was interesting that Tony brought up Dave Eggers during our first go around the circle, because I had been thinking about him earlier as well. My thought was mainly that while I have much respect for Eggers, I don’t particularly like his writing because it’s exactly this sort of experimental stuff that’s hard to grasp onto. I’m not saying that as a criticism of either author, but I do know that that type of writing just isn’t for me. Matt brought up the thought that Jozef might not be just one entity, but more an amalgamation of all these different ideas; other attendees agreed with that and we worked with it for a bit. I have to say, the story makes more sense to me when thinking about it that way. It lets me give up the idea of Jozef as a definitive person and accept the structure of the book a bit more. I still don’t understand – or like – the multiple first-person narratives or the fact that they appear as separate entities from Jozef yet relate his inner thoughts, but going with Matt’s theory makes the novel’s concept a bit more tangible. I mean, it’s a much better theory than I had, which would be, um, none.

Now, I haven’t come out of the meeting loving Nowhere Man. But I’m glad I got the chance to discuss it and hear other opinions and theories on what we all agreed was a rather confusing read. I certainly wasn’t alone in that assessment: winner of the Amusing Moment of the Day goes to Alice, whose thoughts on the book’s ending were, “I don’t know.” I cracked up when she said that because, really, I couldn’t have put it better myself.


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