This is a book about time. About nostalgia for the past, and anxiety about the future, and oddly, about the manic indecision that exists in the present. Is there a happy medium… ever? It’s possible, but the protagonist sure does have a lot of angst about it.
A father chaperones his son to potential academic universities. At first the child seems rather punk-ish… or sullen, not interested in entertaining his father’s niceties at the Harvard prospectives initiation. Does the son have better insight about the social protocols of Harvard than his father did when he was a student there? There is an immediate trying to get inside the heads of both father and son as they jockey for domination of the situation—whether they will stay or whether they will abandon the charade of Harvard. Who is being irrational and who is being juvenile? It’s really a toss-up.
…And that’s one of the interesting things about this book—it is constantly trying to get inside the heads of people, the subtleties of communication and receptivity, of human interaction, of predicting what other people are thinking at any given moment. It’s frenetic, and anxious, and it’s how the human mind works all the time. But we usually only do it subconsciously, and only the too-cerebral of us think about these things too deeply and let them overwhelm us.
To constantly be inside the head of this anti-hero (the father, the narrator of the book), constantly being told what he’s feeling and thinking, obsessively living in the mind of the first person is not so much memoir as it is pathological torture. Different novels do different things: some are character studies (as this book is), some are evaluations of history through story or alternative narration (which this book is not), and some books are meant to be an escape from the real world. I wouldn’t call this book so much an escape as it is a prison—we’re never allowed outside the mind and opinions of the narrator, and the irrational, judgmental, pressurized strife (due to social pressures and immigrant displacement) that constantly influence his youthful—if apathetic and shallow—decisions. (And yet, are his decisions apathetic and shallow, or am I projecting them through an American-western-centrist, non-immigrant perspective? Or does that make me too pathologically empathetic?)
The story quickly drops the interaction between father and son, and flash-backs to the father’s time as an Egyptian emigrant/American immigrant—with a green card—working on his doctoral degree. It isn’t going well. He has failed his preliminary tests…and must retake them within a matter of months. The guillotine is hanging; if he does not pass them this second try, he will not be allowed another opportunity, and will be [presumably] expelled from the U.S. as his student visa/green card will be rescinded.
This is a book about exodus and the survival of human beings in the west, its demands of acclimation, or its refusal to bow to egalitarianism, or its façade of reverse imperialism (expansion not through the conquer-and-absorption of territories, but rather the absorption of human beings and cultures that come of their own accord into its own borders and willingly into its capitalist-arbitrationist plutocracy and its false promises of possibility). There is an unseen war going on here—unseen because it never seems to erupt in the streets, rather, it erupts solely as angst and struggle within the minds of individuals as they forfeit cultures of birthright and assimilate the American attitude of compartmentalized class and social judgments necessary for survival in the landscape. The lure of the natural (sex) is contrasted against the plastic artificiality of acceptance (a paper degree). Maslow-type necessities for human basic survival (food—in the form of free chicken wings at an ethnic bar’s happy hour) are contrasted with the illusion of what’s necessary for social survival (allowing one’s chicken marsala to wither to room temperature so that the niceties of small talk can conclude while seated around a table at a 4-star restaurant). We are meant to notice the contrasting verities.
One cannot escape the idea that the other major character in the book—Kalaj, a French-Arab Tunisian—is meant to be the “Id” to the narrator’s “Ego.” But it’s not black-and-white; there is a scale of how much the narrator can, or is willing to, or is able to reject American-western social mores and retain his Middle Eastern identity. We witness assimilation in its throes. It’s not pretty; but it’s also not the messy revolution our sense of justice feels like it ought to be, nor even reminiscent of peaceful protest via civil disobedience; it’s completely a mind game, an engineering through the social platitudes and legal hoops, an epigrammatic challenge that separates cultural groups from individuals who can survive the scalpel through the separation process. It’s divide and conquer.
In addition, the narrator is maddeningly wishy-washy; I don’t know how else to describe it. Despite being such a cranial processor, he has no gumption, no value set that drives his actions, let’s himself be led around by others, and constantly rides a roller-coaster of indecision and remorse. The narrator does ultimately make a choice, but if he is still breaking bad through a nostalgic landscape of memory twenty years later, did he make the right decision? Perhaps this is a book about regret.
Some additional notes…
This book does not paint a flattering portrait of women.…at all. It’s rather disappointing in its misogyny and its Arabic machismo. In that sense, however, it paints just as terrible a portrait of men. The women characters serve only to serve…as social guardians of their husband’s academic standing, or as sexual concubines. No one in this book seems to make virtuous or empathetic decisions, including the women, who are willing to throw themselves at shallow men and men with no fidelity.
For the record, I believe that it’s important to read—or be confronted by—perspectives of exodus and of immigrants, especially at this particular focal point of [real-life] time in history. In one sense, I feel like this might be an important novel for that reason alone. However, it might also be the worst-case argument against immigrant rights, too, considering the desperate characters and their unvirtuous decision-making habits. Again, it takes a thinking person to realize that the desperation and unvirtuous decision-making are born of a society that passes judgment on these characters, automatically classifies them as second- (or third-) class citizens, and forces that survivalist instinct. No one is innocent in this novel, including the receptive country (the United States).
Another book by this same author—André Açimon—is on my list of all-time favorite books: Call Me By Your Name (Picador, 2008). Which is what makes this book such a disappointment. Perhaps my expectations were too high, or I am missing the author’s intent in such an aggressively intense mental-narrative study. Perhaps I will have to re-read Call Me By Your Name to see if I was simply flattered by the theme, or taken aback by that young character’s innocence and passion, or to see what the difference might be in narrative style. At this point, Harvard Square (W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition, 2014) is not a book I would readily recommend as a light read to anyone. Mr. Açimon is an adept writer, but Harvard Square is a bit too cerebral to be considered entertainment. (But perhaps it’s not meant to be entertainment; perhaps it’s meant to be something more academic, or psychological, or experimental…) Açimon is a Proust scholar—which many reviewers are quick to point out, perhaps because the writing in this novel is a bit too excessively focused on the cerebral experience of the narrator. We are left to consider what exactly Açimon’s “madeleine” might be, over which his narrator obsesses so much. Is it Harvard Square? His troubled friend Kalaj? His social standing/acceptance by the academic world…and therefore his projected acceptance in America? Youth? If you discover whatever it might be, please let me know…