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Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

Review: The Book of My Lives

The Book of My Lives - Aleksandar Hemon

Dear Sasha,

May I even still call you by you that name? Perhaps we should stick with more formal titles. I hope I may still call you Aleksandar. Surely, our relationship is not so torn that we have to refer to one another by our surnames.

We've known each other for some years. At least I've known of you. I first encountered your words eight years ago now. From across a room, your gorgeous prose seduced my ears. They were words spoken with grace. The selection was read during a lecture on word choice entitled “Knocking the World Askew...”. The lecturer was Amy Hassinger, my first MFA mentor. I credit her with introducing the two of us.

Admittedly, I was enamored. I pretended that the language did not somehow arouse and haunt me simultaneously. I wrote your name at the margin of my notebook. I wrote it again on my suggested reading list for the semester. I casually mentioned my desire to read “something of this Hemon guy” to my peers. I strolled through these early days of knowing you as though my heart had not been stirred. I'd hoped my feelings were not evident to everyone. Secretly, I couldn't wait to crack open one of your novels, but I waited, desperate to not seem too eager.

And then you wrote to me. No, I couldn't wait too long, but I did wait until the end of that semester to make my first selection. Four long months of waiting for your words. Your letter was aptly titled, Love and Obstacles. Indeed. I found more of the words I'd fallen in love months earlier, though I was disappointed with the stories themselves. I called you an “average storyteller,” but raved to all my friends about your brilliance with the English language. I showered your prose with words that paled in comparison to your own: original, gorgeous, extravagant. And yet, I was slightly disappointed. There was so much beauty but I felt that, for whatever reason, you and I didn't connect. Yet there were so many more opportunities to win me over.

Our next outing came in the shape of The Lazarus Project. Oh, how part of me died with that novel. I had so much hope and it was dashed completely. Such a great idea and such careful orchestration, but all for naught. The language was of course wonderful as always, but I just failed to see your vision for this very personal project. At the time, I thought your words almost felt stilted, as though you were holding something back from me. Were you? Now, I cannot help but think you were. And yet, I had continued to hope. In my response to The Lazarus Project I wrote, “Nevertheless, I look forward to my next meeting with Aleksandar Hemon. I have no doubts it will be a delight.”

If only it were true. Aleksandar, you have failed me time and time again. Or perhaps, I have failed you. When two forces fail to connect, is one more to blame than the other? It's easy to cast blame on you, but I recognize my own faults. Perhaps I romanticized your words far too much. Perhaps they weren't meant for me. Perhaps I am just too shallow and ignorant to truly understand your brilliance.

As you may know, next came The Question of Bruno. Some amends were made for the previous letter, but I admit that it was then that I began to wonder about us. I had trouble finding the beauty of the Bruno affair. I didn't hesitate to blame myself. “Perhaps I’m way too lazy,” I said, “or I’ve grown too familiar with Hemon’s style of writing and didn’t notice” the musicality of the words. And though publicly I expressed hope for the one Hemon book that “knocks me off my feet,” inwardly, I doubted that day would ever come.

In the sea of your letters, this last one had finally arrived. I'd left it unopened for some time. The days of peeling back the pages and leaning into the words are long gone. Nevertheless, I hoped. I thought if ever I would fall in love again with the words, it would be in the letter of your life, The Book of My Lives. Oh how I wanted it to be true. I read the pages voraciously, but carefully, yearning for a semblance of what I knew must not be. There were tales of drunkenness and orgies, tales of escapades. And I felt you pulling away, not even a shadow of the person I thought you were. Suddenly, the words began to feel dirty in my hands. I never knew this side of you; I never even imagined it as a possibility. It's not that I expected you to be a saint, by any means, Aleksandar. It's only that I felt there was a grace beneath those words that I thought might make me a better person. I'd hoped for someone who was benevolent and romantic. You lacked sobriety. You were a crass teenager who happened to have a way with words. And yet, you are so much more. I see it in the words you sacrifice in memory of your daughter, the words you end this volume with. In these concluding words, I saw so much potential. I thought to myself, here it comes, the moment I have been waiting for. There was so much beauty in your tribute to Isabel. And all of that was brushed aside to fulfill some rant about religion. It was in this moment, I fell out of love forever.

Dearest Aleksandar, I do not want you to get the wrong idea. I do love your words. There are times in your letters that I am swept away to that moment when I first heard your words spoken. I did think less of The Lazarus Project, but I recognized the beauty. I praised the rest of your letters, but with some apprehension. I wish this were not so. Not for your sake, but my own. The fact is, the more I get to know you, the more I realize you are not the writer I fell in love with eight years ago. I took one passage from afar and shaped into a gorgeous creature that benefited my needs, but this creature was alien to you. It was not you. And yet, I cannot help but think maybe it is you, an alien creature within you that you yourself have yet to face. And perhaps I continue still to this day to hope that is the truth. Maybe I am still projecting my own desires.

I believe in you. I believe there is a beautiful writer in there with words that can change the world. I don't know if you want to be that writer, only you can decide that, but that's what I believe and it's what I hope for. There are letters from your past I have yet to open and I assure you I will open them when I am ready. When new letters from you arrive at my doorstep, I will read them. It's not that I don't love your work (as I hope is evident from the many four-star reviews), it's that I had wanted so much more.

Love is like that sometimes, as I'm sure you know. There's that moment you see her across the room and immediately know, she's the one. You learn all you can about her, you study her from a distance, and the more you learn, the more you are sure. You meet, your infatuation gets in the way, but there is no denying the spark. But the more you get to know her, the more you see: she is beautiful, but there's some disconnect between you. How much you wish it wasn't true. How much you want to fall in love again. And at some point, you may have to choose to let go.

I am letting go. I hope we can still be friends. As I said and I hope you believe, I will not give up on you. I will continue to read your work with great zeal. But it will be as a casual reader who loves to read. It will be as a student of writing who has much to learn and who recognizes your talent. It will be with a closed heart and some apprehension. And if ever again I hear your words spoken across a room by a dazzling voice, I will stop and I will feel, but I will not turn around.

Chris Blocker, reader