Writing about Dickens, George Orwell mused, “He is all fragments, all details—rotten architecture, but wonderful gargoyles.” Aleksandar Hemon’s new collection of short stories, Love and Obstacles (Riverhead, 210 pages, $25.95), is just the same way. The prose is uneven; the rampant stereotyping of Americans is obnoxious; and at times, the tales told seem downright unnecessary. That’s disappointing, considering the unified effect of Hemon’s last book, The Lazarus Project, a triumph of existential unease. But there is the occasional stunning gargoyle—an elegant parallel structure in the story “The Noble Truths of Suffering,” a successful bit of linguistic play in “Stairway to Heaven”—and I suppose that redeems the enterprise.
The “obstacles” referred to in the book’s title are, of course, words. Designed to signify, for Hemon words nevertheless do the opposite: they prevent the speaker from communicating; they aggravate; they isolate. This is largely a result of the fictionalized narrator’s (and perhaps the author’s) dislocation. Exiled to America from Bosnia by the brutal conflict in 1992, he and his family are constantly troubled by their inability to communicate.
The eight stories that compose Love and Obstacles highlight this anxiety about language. In “Everything,” the narrator, a young Sarajevan boy, travels alone to Murska Sobota and tries (unsuccessfully) to seduce an American married woman with his comically inadequate English. In “American Commando,” the same boy invents his own language—a kind of bastardized, chewing-gum English—by cobbling together lines from Hollywood B-movies and schoolyard songs.
On the basis of this language fixation, critics like The New Yorker’s James Wood have compared Hemon to Vladimir Nabokov. And it’s true, there are striking similarities. Both authors came belatedly to English prose, having begun their writing careers in other (Slavic) tongues. Both were shut out of their home countries at a tender age, and a sense of lost childhood figures strongly in their respective work. Perhaps most important is a shared sense of playfulness and a willingness to experiment with words.
But there is a key difference: when it came to language, Nabokov was ruthlessly precise, going so far as to invent a word where none was apt (“iridule,” “carpalistics” and “nymphet”). For his part, Hemon wields words like a shotgun, aiming them in the general direction of a concept, firing and hoping something hits. Once in a while, that strategy pays off, but too often it results in clunkers like “ambrosial beer” and “lambent rhomboid” and “hirsute little comets.” These words bonk around the novel like, well, like hirsute little comets.
READ: Aleksandar Hemon reads at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. Thursday, May 29. 7:30 pm. Free.