Thomas Lehr's latest effort is not without merit, Matthew Adams writes, but the book about the lives of two families dealing with life after 9/11 gets bogged down in the history of Iraq, religion and American provocation, to the detriment of the characters.
September: Mirage chronicles two families in a post-9/11 world
University of Chicago Press
Early in James Joyce's Ulysses, the young Stephen Dedalus finds himself in conversation with the sanctimonious and amusing figure of his school colleague, Mr Deasy. After they have been talking for a while, Stephen utters one of the book's most famous lines. "History," he says, "is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake."
It is a stunning statement, and part of its strength derives from Joyce's understanding of the fact that history is not simply related to the anterior world of politics and event, but functions also as an interior force, visiting unbidden individual minds, shaping and unsettling inner lives: those private spaces in which are ignited, as Thomas Lehr beautifully phrases it towards the close of his newly translated novel, "the silent fireworks in my reflective heart".
September: Mirage does not feature a direct allusion to Joyce, but it does make use of a great many writers and philosophers, prime among them, Johann Wolfgang Goethe. It is Goethe's overrated aphorism "history is the labyrinth of violence" that stands as an epigraph to the novel, and it is this unimaginative and unremarkable view (which amounts to not very much more than saying that history is convoluted and grim) that is indicative of some of the deficiencies that prevent September from becoming the book it might have been.
The book we do have chronicles the lives of two families, one in America and one in Iraq, in the wake of what are arguably the two major geopolitical events of the past 15 years: the attack on the World Trade Center in September 2001, and the war on (some would say for) Iraq that followed. This, then, is a novel of perspectives. In the case of America, the perspective is offered by way of the narratives of Martin and his daughter, Sabrina; in Iraq, by way of the narratives of Tariq and his daughter, Muna.
So far, so symmetrical. And the symmetries continue. For where Martin is a professor at the University of Massachusetts, is nominally writing a book about Goethe's women, and exists "here in the middle of my times as if in my sleep", Tariq is a doctor who writes poetry before breakfast and searches for the reason "I ended up in the incurably detached state I'm still in today". And where Tariq's 17-year-old daughter, Muna, longs to grow up and go to university to study archaeology and ancient history, Martin's 17-year-old daughter, Sabrina, longs to grow up and study earth sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
I deny you no surprises by revealing that these rather ungainly symmetries also extend to the families' fates. Accordingly, Yasmin (Tariq's other daughter) and Muna suffer terribly at the hands of Saddam Hussein and in the chaos that follows his defeat, while Sabrina and her mother, Amanda (Martin's first wife), both die in the attacks on the World Trade Center. Lehr's purpose here is evidently to investigate something like the equivalences of suffering and the equivalences of the causes of suffering, and to offer a forensic view of the sense perceptions, thoughts and feelings that visit individuals enduring the greatest of excruciations.
One of the ways in which he attempts to achieve this is to have each character speak in the first person, to dispense almost entirely with punctuation (there cannot be more than four or five commas in the course of the entire novel, and there are even fewer full stops), and to pattern the page with apparently arbitrary line breaks, so that what we have comes to look something like a 500-page prose-poem.
Presumably the idea here is to move the reader closer to the lived experience of human thought and feeling, to achieve cognitive and emotional verisimilitude by eschewing the artificial structuring and ordering of reality that is imposed by the apparent tyranny of the sentence.
As we know from the example of Joyce (who went further than Lehr in choosing to waive even the personal pronoun), the technique can be employed to wonderful effect. In the right hands, it is capable of delivering almost unbearable emotional concentration. In Lehr's hands, the reverse is the case. Far from enhancing the poignancy of the story, his stylistic decision effects a curious distantiation of the reader, diminishing the pathos he tries so hard to call into being. Given the subjects at hand, this must almost count as an achievement, and ought to serve as a reminder of Baudelaire's insistence that in order to create an affective work of truly exquisite potency, a constrictive literary form is very often a necessity, not an encumbrance.
None of this is to say that Lehr's prose is entirely without merit. He has a small gift for capturing the essence of a person by attending to their appearance (Osama bin Laden appears as if "stuffed with a kind of incurable vanity"); he is alive to the otherworldliness of the natural world that surrounds the recently bereaved ("exaggeratedly three-dimensional marble cloudlets like flying stones against the background of a steel-blue expanse of sky); and he offers acute renderings of the quotidian brutality of life under Saddam Hussein, of "its torture-chamber system with its routine procedures of bestial murders and tens of thousands of victims who can hardly be traced any more".
Yet these are rare moments; occasional treasures whose precision and beauty exist in contradistinction to the wastelands of nebulous and dreary prose that surround them. We can begin to account for that unlovely terrain by returning to Lehr's subject matter, by returning to history. For it is history, in this book, that is Lehr's prime concern. More than any character, any emotion, more than any idea, it is history - history, and the desire to be profound about history - that animates him. Accordingly, vast swathes of prose are given over to this or that character's (read: Lehr's) extended disquisitions on the history of Iraq; on the history of Islamism; on religion and irreligion; on the Middle East and its relationship to the West; on American provocation, Islamic humiliation; on national fear, national pride, national wounds.
Fiction can, of course, deal admirably with such questions. One thinks again - mutatis mutandis - of Joyce. But Joyce's strength, as the line he gives to Stephen illustrates, is to approach his nation's history obliquely, and to do so through language, irony, character. Lehr's weakness is to have followed Goethe: to make history - the terrible fact of history - his main concern, and to use characters - worse, to use the novel - as a conduit for that concern. It shouldn't need saying, but fiction is not the place for expository history; still less for the frictionless, bien pensant variety offered here.
An example: not far from the end of the novel, Martin offers the following reflection: "I can't tell whether I live in a democracy or a dictatorship." Fine. A frivolous statement from a frivolous character, you might think. Only Martin is not a frivolous character, and Lehr has at this point spent pages establishing him as a figure with a serious interest in Iraq, and who knows that between George Bush and Saddam Hussein there lies no moral equivalence. What has happened - plainly - is that the veneer of character has disappeared, and Lehr's own views have slithered onto the page. That, I am afraid, is not literature.
Literature, as Oscar Wilde knew (and to take another Irishman), "always anticipates life. It does not copy it, but moulds it to its purpose." One of the things he meant by that was that in order for literature to take place, there needs to be distance, chronological and thematic distance, between history, the fictional word, and the fictional worlds those words create.
Had Lehr followed that principle - had Lehr followed Wilde, had Lehr followed Joyce - he might have offered such a world in September, with characters whose inner lives he animates rather than employs, and with pages that bear witness to the silent fireworks of the reflective human heart.
Matthew Adams is a London-based reviewer who writes for the TLS, the Spectator and the Literary Review.