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Monday, April 18, 2011

My New American Life Review

In the final scene our heroine, who cannot drive, is stuck in traffic in an almost certainly stolen SUV, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, leaving behind a home where she cannot stay, but where they aren't ready for her to leave, towards an apartment where she'll be able to stay - at most - a few months.
Lula is an Albanian emigre during the presidency of Bush the Younger post 911, precisely at the time when America was at its most xenophobic.  After working illegally as a waitress she lands work as a part time nanny to the teenage son of an investment banker abandonned by his mentally ill wife.  Things seem to be going well - or as well as Lula could hope - when three of her countrymen show up and ask her to hold onto a gun for them.
An immigrant perspective on the United States provides an ideal satiric vantage point, as writers have long known.  Prose supplies a nice additional touch by making Lula herself  a story teller.  At the behest of her employer and the lawyer who's working to secure her a greencard - two liberals of the sort naively eager to hear tales of hardship - Lula writes "true stories" of Albania, fabricated  patchworks of history and fairytale.  It's the sort of thing that happens everyday to people of all ethnicities asked to "perform" their identities.  Lula spins out improbable accounts in writing as well as conversation, withholding the real but equally improbable truth.
The novel is funny, charming, and well-written, and Prose keeps us dangling at the edges of things that don't quite happen: affairs that don't quite come off, dysfunctional families that manage to stay on just this side of functionality, guns the fire, but not fatally.  And truth to tell, the experience is at times frustrating for the reader - I found myself longing for something more, something richer, something greater at stake, but then at the end - unaccountably, to me - the novel comes together in an entirely fulfilling way. 
In the last scene of Lula driving across a bridge, I realized that Prose's formless story catches the essence a New American Life, of American Life, and maybe Life in General: hopping from stone to stone, always unfinished, always provisional, making it up as we go along.

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