David Homel's new novel tries to meet the challenge that other writers-cultural voyeurs and marauders of the exotic-have tried for decades, with varying success. In this case, war-torn former Yugoslavia is the subject, and there are not a few people who would like to understand the in situ psyche of a guerilla fighter, a Vietnam vet, or a macho Serb. We guess that a society at war is in an altered psychological state, one that rationalized societies might always be in danger of drifting into out of sheer monotony. Freud tried to explain it to Einstein in his letter Why War, Louis-Ferdinand Céline sought out catastrophes to write about, Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer analyzed it in the Dialectic of Enlightenment, and William S. Burroughs felt it squirming in the back eddies of the American Dream. None of us, living out the healthy impulses of goodwill, believe that society could be so fragile as to turn suddenly, almost overnight, into its malevolent opposite. By now, history has produced a-well, sometimes hysterical-bulwark of opinion against destruction, so when it shows up in other cultures, or in our children, we fail to grasp its genealogy.
Homel wants to deal with this phenomenon, but the formal skills elude him. Through his therapist-protagonist, who is summoned by the Serb regime to run a distress center, we are supposed to learn about soldiers suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is a worthy subject for a writer who can flesh it out. Unfortunately, Alek-the-therapist has very little insight into human nature. His wife Zlata and son Goran are complete enigmas to him. The former is described too many times as having a lingering air of insatiability. She smells like vanilla, but then so does his mistress Tania (p. 110). We learn the wife is ambitious and well connected, but it is her unfathomable sexuality that really counts. "Since the fucking war started," says one of the characters, "women just haven't been the same."
The son suffers from a congenital kidney disease, and from too many descriptions of him as a disaffected teenager listening to loud music. The biggest hope that Alek has for his kid is that he'll get laid soon...Poor old Eros, tired beyond all imagining after having had so many duties to perform, must shudder when he hears that phrase. We totter into the therapist's relationship with his patient Tania, who insists on wearing her bulletproof vest while having sex. The therapist dwells on this fact for the better part of the novel, and Tania remains another mystery woman, linked to vague, dark, impalpable forces, never understood. There's a bit of lugubrious moralizing that follows-hardly distinguishable from self-pity-the typical stuff that passes these days for ethical struggle.
Although it is discouraging to hear the novelistic ideas go clunk in the author's head as you read along, the images of sex and violence-mandatory fare in film, television, and song-must be part of some giant, stagnant place in the socialized human mind. Georges Bataille imagined the ass gaining supremacy over the human head, but did he factor in the commercial aspect, and Eros's evident fatigue? As a society, we are still a long way from finding our way out of this mess, in a way that doesn't just repeat the errors of European refinement, when the brain was allowed to extend so far out of the body that it forgot it had a rear end.
Once the story leaves behind the women, Homel's novel gains a stylistic unity that is surprising after what has preceded it. One of the characters, Nenad Nedic, becomes almost interesting. But where were the editors when this manuscript came through the door? Did someone see the word Yugoslavia, think "This is a hot topic," and stamp it with the imprimatur before anyone read it through?