Skip to main content

The Tactile Beauty of “The Lazarus Project”


PUBLISHED: March 30, 2009

I’ve written here before about book covers and their importance for marketing and aesthetics. A beautiful cover and imaginative design, when paired with an enchanting text, create a sense of completeness, of a perfect whole. No longer is a great story hemmed in by clichéd cover art or all too predictable blurbs; instead, an elegant design lifts the book out of the ghetto of a thing produced into the rarified realm of something crafted.

This completeness is evident in Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project. Besides being a very good novel, the text benefits from the careful interspersion of photographs taken from the Chicago Historical Society and Velibor Bozovic, a friend of the author. These black-and-white photographs, blurred at the edges, filled with shadows, and positioned in the center of forbidding, inky black pages, provide a sort of bridge between the intersecting narratives of this historical novel. They both break up and interweave the varying story arcs: of the modern-day protagonist, Vladimir Brik, a writer investigating the story of Lazarus Averbuch, a young Jewish immigrant murdered by the Chicago chief of police in 1908; of Rora, a photographer and fellow ex-Sarajevan who joins Brik in his retracing of Averbuch’s journey across Eastern Europe and regales Brik with jokes and stories, possibly invented, of war-time adventures in Bosnia; of Averbuch himself and his sister, Olga, who attempts to figure out what exactly happened to her brother while she deals with constant harassment from the Chicago police and a muckraking journalist.

These brief summations only hint at the startling depth of this book and its ability to produce a synthesis out of its initially scattershot parts. The characters’ peregrinations and their searches for truth come to overlap in the text, but this convergence is also aided by the book’s design, by the frequently oblique photographs that, besides being beautiful, evoke a vague curiosity and wonderment, made clearer when the reader matches the visual to some action taking place later in the text. It is in this act that a strange mirroring takes place: just as the fictional writer, Vladimir Brik, dips back in time to narrate and investigate the story of Lazarus Averbuch, so too does the reader dip back in his experience, perhaps only a few minutes, to try to match a verbal image with a previously encountered visual one.

The reading experience is enriched by the effort taken to curate these photographs. They manage to enhance the story without self-consciousness or preening vanity. And surrounding all of this is a solid hardcover book stamped with an eerie, quasi-holographic image of an eye that manages to integrate an ashen Chicago skyline, the book’s title and author, and the haunting visage of the murdered Averbuch, an image that recurs both in the text and in the photographs. Holding this book in my hands, feeling its weight, flipping through its pages, looking at the eyes on the front and back covers, one containing the sleepy-dead gaze of Lazarus, the other the fearful intensity of Olga, there is the sense that this is a story that transcends the pages that carry it, that communes with and honors the historical event that inspired it. It is too bad, then, that the paperback edition, to be released in May, does away with this fine artwork. Future readers will have to content themselves with an excellent story, intriguingly told, lazily packaged.

4 Comments

PJ's picture
PJ · 11 years ago
I don’t know that it’s lazily packaged – commercially packaged, maybe. That paperback cover makes the book seem important but sort of fanciful and exotic; it reminds me every so slightly of the Absurdistan paperback, albeit more serious-seeming. The publisher probably figures that the beautiful hardcover design didn’t have a broad enough appeal. By the way, glancing at the copyright page over at Amazon, it says the book design for the hardcover was by Amanda Dewey. Kudos, Ms. Dewey.
+1
-62
-1
PJ's picture
PJ · 11 years ago
Actually, the book jacket says “jacket design keenan c 2008,” which I believe means it’s by Jamie Keenan: http://www.keenandesign.com/index.html In any case, good work all around…
+1
-9
-1
Matt S.'s picture
Matt S. · 11 years ago
Excellent post, Jacob. Have you read the James Wood essay on “Lazarus Project”?
+1
+50
-1
Jacob Silverman's picture
Thanks, Matt. I have read Woods’ essay (here for those interest: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2008/07/28/080728crbo_books_…). I’m not strongly pro- or anti-Wood like many people seem to be these days. I really do enjoy some his work. I liked much in the essay you’re referring to, but I disagree about the issue of Vladimir Brik’s anger. While there is a partisan, raging sense about it that’s unusual in fiction, I think it very much makes sense given the time period that the book was written in and is about (at least the Brik narrative). The Iraq War, Abu Ghraib, and Hurricane Katrina – I think – are all referenced in the book. Combine these with all of the humiliations heaped upon Brik in his time in the U.S. and a somewhat close-minded spouse and it makes sense that this is a man who is quite angry. And while Woods wanted Brik to have “some of Jozef Pronek’s bumbling, Pnin-like charm,” I think we too often expect immigrants, particularly Eastern European ones, to conform to that caricature. To me Brik was more real because he wasn’t a bumbling, Pnin-like jester. Pnin is a fine character, but to expect other characters to ape him just because they are also immigrants from Eastern Europe (and really, Bosnia does not necessarily fit in that category) smacks of cultural chauvinism.
+1
+11
-1

Recommended Reading