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A postmodern joy ride into self-awareness

Special to The Times

Flight 919 from Casablanca to Melilla may or may not be hijacked, by men who may or may not be terrorists, in what may or may not be a bold gambit to influence the direction of anti-terrorist tactics at the once-legendary International Institute for Terrorist Studies in Lucerne. By manipulating the relationship between two passengers in particular -- the plump, voraciously self-loathing Alice and her wholesomely wicked slattern of a sister, Edith -- two institutional rivals (who are half brothers -- maybe) will somehow determine the proper place of violence in combating terrorism.

This is the subject of Heidi Julavits’ weird joy ride of a second novel, “The Effect of Living Backwards.” Julavits is already well-known for her warmly received first novel, “The Mineral Palace,” and a recent manifesto in McSweeney’s satellite journal the Believer, in which she exhorted young, post-Eggers ironists to “Rejoice! Believe! Be Strong and Read Hard!,” while calling for “a new era of experimentation, and a book culture that will support it.”

“The Effect of Living Backwards” shows off a young novelist with talent to burn and a desire to push beyond the smug posturing of many of her literary peers. Her vehicle is Alice, the self-consciously modest good-girl narrator whose interior life is filled with just the variety of lacerating, ironic, judgmental bad habits that Julavits would presumably like us to slough off. Although the hijacking is invested with a certain topical grandeur -- Julavits drops vaguely 9/11-ish references to something called “the Big Terrible” -- the stakes are distinctly Alice’s: What will it take to shake her out of her own sad-sack narcissism?

Alice is on the losing end of a lifelong competition with a majestically self-possessed older sister. She’s also the child of an agonizing divorce and the end product of, as she puts it, “various embassy school systems, two state colleges, three-quarters of an overpriced graduate program and a long, humiliating indoctrination by the American restaurant service industry.”

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On the way to sister Edith’s wedding in North Africa, their plane is hijacked by Bruno, a man who may or may not be blind and who comes off as a cross between sociologist Erving Goffman and Alan Rickman’s character in “Die Hard.” A terrorist-anthropologist with an interest in “essential human morality,” Bruno rigs up some wicked ethical dilemmas for his hostages, forcing them to choose who lives and who dies. With Bruno and his many tricks, we are plunged into a world of gamesmanship, play-acting and near total epistemological instability.

Well, we may or may not be plunged. Julavits has considerable gifts of tragicomic invention, and her phrase-turning can be lovely (Alice describes her mother’s chortle as filled with “rocks and consomme.”) But she has, it seems, absorbed every work from the canon of postmodern instability, and her novel, dazzling as it often is, reads like a Rough Guide to such college syllabus hotspots as “Krapp’s Last Tape,” “The Zoo Story” and the collected works of Don DeLillo.

As we find ourselves lost in some vast, subjunctive vat of muddled hypotheses, the head rush we’re meant to experience from all this calculated disorientation degenerates too often into a hostage-like tedium. Julavits’ hijacking, while straining to be a metaphor for postmodernity, too often reads like the transcript from a snoozy late afternoon grad-school round table. (“Is this a test? Or real life,” Bruno asks Alice at one point. “If you can tell me the difference,” she replies, “you’re a smarter man than I.”)

There is the kernel of an idea here, something about how in the same way that terrorism is warfare that transcends the boundaries of the nation-state, anti-terrorism, in all its many psychological dimensions, is warfare that breaks down the boundaries of the integrated human personality. Hence, there are precious few links to normal human sympathy in Julavits’ universe, one in which people are presented as living behind snarky, passive-aggressive social masks, the better to hide their animating sense of shame. The book’s one porthole out of this pattern is the oblique romance that Alice strikes up with the hostage negotiator. Alice gets picked to be the terrorists’ intermediary, as both she and the negotiator speak Sasak -- “the Lombok language I had learned quite effortlessly in Mylandrum,” explains Alice, the daughter of a nomadic entomologist, “because I was talented in that way in which timid girls with uninhibited sisters strive to be talented.”

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As talented as she is, Julavits needs to steady her gifts of invention to win the reader’s deeper sympathy. “The Effect of Living Backwards” seems to be intended as a meditation on the spiritual-ethical-biographical equivalent of DNA. What threads us together as a unified self? The first two-thirds is a massive setup to some mild and evasive answers -- “There’s nothing like a hijacking to make you put your finger on the things that really matter” says the endlessly ironic Edith. Another proclamation, unfortunately, stands as a better headstone to the novel. Admits one passenger, “You find me to be painfully self-aware yet somehow lacking in self-awareness.”


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