September 8, 2006

Hilariously Terrifying

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I read Heidi Julavits’s 2003 novel, The Effect of Living Backwards, in between transatlantic flights this summer. The second flight, my return leg to the U.S. from Paris, took place just one day after British bobbies announced a new terror plot. Planes were stalled all over Europe, security tightened and tourists were angered as Louis Vuitton carry-ons were handed over for Ziploc baggies. Reading the zany and irreverent The Effect, which takes up terrorism as its central subject, transformed the reality of my hairy traveling day into a game-like scenario with fascinating possibilities for diversion.

Rare are the books that infuse such hot-button contemporary issues with levity and humor while avoiding flippant political commentary or glib social criticism. Julavits’s novel manages just that task. The story takes place a few years after the “Big Terrible,” an oblique reference to what seems like 9/11. Using an allegorical codeword gives The Effect enough distance from any actual disaster to transcend stock feelings of anger or grief. It’s funny without seeming lighthearted, suspenseful yet not frightening and emotional without a panicked pace.

Moroccan Air Flight 919 is the central setting for much of Julavits’s story, and passenger Alice Vickery-Plourde is our piloting point of view for its flight of fancy. With an epigraph from Lewis Carroll, Julavits wags an allusive finger at her protagonist, whose through-the-looking-glass perspective makes for a rollicking read.

Alice, a some-time grad student in social work and waitress at a Western-themed steakhouse, is traveling with her sister Edith, who has plans to marry a dyslexic Spanish ex-prince upon landing. Their parents are no longer married, and Alice and Edith share a similarly strained, if not altogether dysfunctional, relationship. As the book opens, the two hoist barbed zingers about the other’s personality — a kind of witty sibling rivalry where only the reader revels. To prove she hasn’t lost her spark, Edith spends the time before take-off placing wild bets about her rediscovered sexual prowess, seducing flight attendants and leading a blind man to the bathroom for all varieties of in-flight assistance. The blind man, Bruno, turns out to be the mastermind behind a terrorist plot, though his tactics are less conventional than anyone might anticipate. Better to think hijinks than hijacking, for Bruno is a former anthropologist and the plane’s takeover his study in human behavior. With a team of comrades-cum-research assistants, Bruno enlists the plane’s passengers in a series of experiments designed to test their moral instincts. These experiments make for the most intense, and often the most engaging, scenes in the novel. In one particular and difficult test, the moral high-ground is not only shamefully self-serving and ego-invested; it’s also the cause for another passenger’s death.

Yet the stakes of Bruno’s shenanigans are not always so severe. For one thing, Alice has difficulty taking the terrorists seriously. About one of the hijackers, she humorously thinks: “His skin was alternately good then bad. I could see the powdery flesh-colored attempts to conceal a few problem areas on his forehead, and residual blond highlights clinging to the tips of his hair, which made my eyes water. I cannot but want to hug and protect a man with highlights from the world.” In fact, the legitimacy of Bruno and his gang is never entirely established at all. They may not actually have bullets for their guns, and they certainly lack a clear political or monetary agenda. Is terrorism terrifying if it’s just a ruse?

Either way, Julavits leaves most of our fear for Samuel Jackson and his snakes. On this plane, you’ll instead find an uproarious cast of supporting characters, a healthy dose of hilarityand surprising turns of expression. For example, when one passenger is prodded by Bruno to shoot Edith, Alice’s background in psychotherapy sends the scene soaring:

what was Justin going to do when he found out the whole business was a big, rollicking fake?…‘Shooting blanks’ would come to take on a whole new erotically problematic meaning for him, it would no doubt translate into a literal form of lifelong impotence; he’d be paralyzed before any ejaculatory trigger, he’d be doomed to wither at the crucial moment of climax, to yield nothing more fertile than snot and tears, which some girls might accept as the Broken Man’s Ecstasy, and consider him ‘gotten off’ in his own pitiable way.

The book is not void of loftier and traditionally novelistic matters either, including questions about personal identity, memory and the bonds of sisterhood. Interposed between sections detailing the events on the plane, Julavits includes chapters on the fraught histories of each character, told in their own voice. We learn more about Winnie Sunderland, a pregnant mid-shelf celebrity who finds medicated nirvana during the hijacking; Cyrus Bing, a freckled-face English bloke with a strong will and a weak heart; and blind Bruno himself. Named after a schoolgirl game Alice and Edith played with stolen diaries, these “shame stories” work to ask whether our childhood experiences and backgrounds shape our adult lives as much as the stories we spin about them.

Julavits, an editor for the literary magazine The Believer, is affiliated with the Dave Eggers and Ben Marcus postmodern circle (both of whom are mentioned in her acknowledgements). She shares their penchant for hyper-specific realist details, disarming narrative leaps and a conflicted sense of nostalgia for youth. It goes without saying that Julavits is also on the bad side of snarky conservative reviewer Dale Peck, which should only indicate her stylistic distance from the likes of Thackeray, Trollope and the Bronte sisters — those long dead Victorians Peck prefers.

While the book drags a little near the end — long flights always come with their share of jet lag — The Effect of Living Backwards has enough surprises to coast pleasantly to its close. Pocket the paperback for your next red-eye; just make sure your seatmates don’t mind laughter while they sleep.