The Effect of Living Backwards
, Heidi Julavits's second novel, is a mess--but a good mess, an ambitious mess. The title is taken from Through the Looking-Glass
, and Julavits's narrator--named Alice--certainly wanders into a perplexing wonderland. She and her sister Edith are flying to Morocco, where Edith is to be married. The plane is hijacked by a charismatic, chubby blind man named Bruno. After a time, the hijacking appears to be an extended moral case study: Bruno forces his hostages to consider whether they would give their own life to save another. The hijacking, it turns out, may or may not be real; Bruno may or may not be blind; Alice may or may not be falling in love with Pitcairn, the hostage negotiator who's supposed to save them all. As she unspools her black comedy, Julavits displays a wildly discursive style; the book can seem overwritten. But as her plot gains momentum, so too does Julavits's writing, and her tortuous sentences begin to make sense: they reflect the awkward situation of the heroine. After a supper of candy and punch, Alice tells us she and her fellow hostages "suffered extreme intestinal discomfort, which made the lavatories more unspeakably filth-ridden, and tempers, whose foulness is always proportional to the decrepitude of a WC, began to fester." On one level, this is an unhappy sentence; on another, its very contortions are funny. So it is with The Effect of Living Backwards
, which, in its patience-trying elegance, recalls the underrated novelist Nancy Lemann. This is a brave novel, aggressively intelligent and aggressively silly all at once. --Claire Dederer
From Publishers Weekly
When contentious half-sisters Alice and Edith board a jetliner en route to Morocco, where Edith is to be married, they step unknowingly into a vortex of international intrigue when the jet is hijacked-or is it? As events unfold, the motives for this act of "terrorism," apparently a high-stakes stunt being pulled by one of two factions from the International Institute for Terrorist Studies, become ever more murky. In the futuristic and fantastical world of Julavits's second novel (after The Mineral Palace), which takes its title and epigram from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, the political and familial machinations we recognize from our own contemporary lives scramble into a kaleidoscopic puzzle. Julavits's rambling surrealism is overlaid and intensified by a strong dose of paranoia
la Pynchon, and the political and the familial merge in the form of a game from Alice and Edith's childhood called "shame stories," in which others are convinced to tell their darkest secrets. These tales, told by the sisters' fellow travelers, are fascinating excursions, a blend of the bizarre and the everyday. But as Alice's wastrel father tells her, "People don't want to be surprised. They want to hear the same story. Tell them the same story and they'll listen," and Julavits follows this advice herself. Beneath its absurdist trappings, her larger tale is surprisingly conventional, its real focus the sibling rivalry between Edith and Alice, shadowed by the terrorism subplots and the veiled references to September 11, or the "Big Terrible." Neither the novel's imaginative framework nor Julavits's cool, unerring eye for detail can quite compensate for its curiously mechanical emotional trajectory.
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