Moacir P. de Sá Pereira on January 6th, 2009
book-cover

From Berwyn to Lithuania.

[Disclosure: The author of this novel is a good friend of mine, but he neither solicited this review nor has he seen it before its posting.]

The surname “Nowak,” like its Balto-Slavic variants throughout Eastern Europe (“Новотный,” “Nowicki,” “Naujokas,” etc.), was affixed to the newcomer. Where the other villagers would have names based on occupations, family histories, or the natural world, it would be the person of uncertain origin, apparently detached from the past, who would be named “Nowak.”

Gint Aras‘s novel Finding the Moon in Sugar (Infinity, 2008; buy here) tells the tale of such a newcomer, Andy Nowak, who is persistently out of place, either in Oak Park mansions or Vilnius danceclubs. A 20 year-old community college dropout and unmoored boat of a character, Nowak floats between deeply understood material demands (his constant owing money has led him to deal drugs again) and startling emotional demands (buckling under the overwhelming emotional pressure of three generations of women in his family).

But the novel opens with a bifurcation in Nowak’s life, opening a space for a different future. His typical drug deal goes awry when he meets an older woman from Lithuania whom he names “Audra” (in an unself-conscious reference to her stormy and unpredictable personality perhaps). The meeting changes him from a mere passive machine, which works only in response mode, to an active desiring machine, wanting to produce a life that involves spending more time with her. The native of Berwyn, IL, soon finds himself selling his belongings and flying after Audra to Lithuania, ostensibly to chase her down, but also to flee, as his father did before him, from a collapsing family life.

Since 2000 or so, Eastern Europe has functioned as a site of self-exploration for many protagonists of American novels. From Jonathan Safran Foer’s search for family history in Everything Is Illuminated (2002) to Aleksandar Hemon’s musing on racism and materialism in The Lazarus Project (2008), the former Soviet Union (rendered with naïve optimistic charm as the “United Soviet Society Republic” by Nowak) has been a convenient laboratory for experiments on the American self. To these characters, the USSR is an unknown territory begging for exploration and discovery. This exploration and discovery then, obviously, become exploration and discovery for the protagonist him–and it’s always him–self.

Aras bucks the convention by having Nowak go to Lithuania precisely not to learn anything about himself. There is no deep psychological understanding that he seeks–as he bashfully admits at one point, all he really wants from life is a blow job by an open window. The idea of fleeing to an unknown Lithuania draws comparison to a character like Chip Lambert from Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (2001), but Lambert is far too brainy and self-absorbed for the fit to be satisfying. Furthermore, where Franzen plays up the exotic nature of the startling setting of Lithuania, quickly reducing the setting to a deep parody of nomenklatura oligarchy that led to official protests, Aras exhibits a much lighter touch in representing the tiny country on the Baltic Sea.

Sure, there is still plenty of drinking and drugs and fights and cursing in Russian, but Aras succeeds in not turning these touches of the real into a fetishistic farce of pathological appetitive consumption. Nowak is simply not a capable enough observer to turn his life story into a farce, and Aras is not interested in having his protagonist earn scoffs from readers who feel superior to a confused youngster from Berwyn.

Instead, Nowak is obsessed with mimetic crises, worried from the start that even the story as presented will not be totally believable. A journal writer since grade school, Nowak does not write to gain understanding, but rather simply to produce memory. Why bother having experiences, he wonders, if one cannot later remember them? Audra joins Nowak as a prodigious journal writer in the novel, but Audra writes in order to ground her far beyond control unconscious world. Audra is a spiritual intellectual with the attendant melancholic narcissism. Nowak, on the other hand, is a simple materialist, far too busy trying to figure out how to make it to the next day to have time to devote to the slow, recursive soul death of the examined life.

The central question, then, that motivates Nowak does not touch his identity, his past, or some other a priori feature. The question is, quite prosaically, what does he want? Focusing on desire like this seems naïve, and Nowak is called naïve at some point by nearly everyone in the novel. But those who fault Nowak fail to see that he is simply pursuing a different path toward an understanding of the self, one with a far greater debt to Deleuze and Guattari’s schizoanalysis than to bourgeois psychoanalysis, the customary companion of the novel.

Nowak makes no pretensions toward arriving at a larger answer to his question; he does not investigate the nature of desire in general. As such, the novel–a first-person narrative artfully written by Aras with the slipshod spelling of a young man with only a few weeks of freshman composition–lacks a sort of preening showmanship that is much to its credit. Other than that blow job by the window, Nowak, it turns out, wants little more than a “safe place,” whether it’s the pouch in his backpack where he hides his passport and journals, a psilocybin-enhanced pond outside Vilnius, or the giant sand dunes towering above Nida. But this safe place is not necessarily a place where he feels he belongs; home, he explains at one point, is just where your family lives. The safe place is rather a place where he can actually push aside the persistent demands of the material and perhaps allow himself the luxury of a little narcissistic self-reflection. The “safe place” might lead to bourgeois subjectivity, to a planting of roots that make him the newcomer no longer.

Unfortunately, the level of tenderness Aras expends on creating such a protagonist creates a supporting cast of varying levels of coherence. Part of this could be merely because Nowak the naïve is incapable of judging people, so he accepts every story whispered to him about every character (and the amount of back-stabbing and double talk is uncanny here). Still, I felt dissatisfied with my ability to understand Audra, Nowak’s mother, and his sister, Jen.

But Nowak is not the most gifted storyteller, and his disinterest in the psychological gives the novel a pleasant uncertainty: the constant warnings from others about the duplicitous nature of Dana, Audra’s friend whom Nowak meets in Vilnius, don’t at all change Nowak’s interest in getting closer to her. The novel runs out of pages before Nowak learns whether those warnings are justified or not. It’s a nice touch, and it reminds the reader that narratives of lives never end–they just arbitrarily stop with their ends still hilariously loose. Nowak can’t finish his story with a neat bow on top, since not only would he not know how, but you would never believe it if he did.

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  1. Tripping through Vilnius
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