Aleksandar Hemon’s “The Lazarus Project”: A Book Review

By: Alexander Nunes and Sebastian Cruz

The Lazarus Project, by Aleksandar Hemon, follows the contemporary fictional character Vladimir Brik, accompanied by his photographer friend Rora Halilbašić, as he tries to uncover the truth about the death of Lazarus Averbuch. Lazarus Averbuch was a real man who died in Chicago in 1908. Officially, Averuch was killed in self-defense, but there has been much controversy and dispute of the validity of this claim. This novel presents one of the different sequences of events, in which George Shippy, the Chicago Chief of Police, prematurely fires his guns on mistaken suspicions.

For a truly historical look at this person, we recommend the following article from Chicago Magazine.

The book is unique for two reasons. First, it combines writing and photography, two very different mediums of storytelling, in an effort to bolster both mediums’ individual strengths, eliminate their weaknesses, and form one cohesive novel. While prose can be precise and effectively relate contextual information, it lacks the visceral impact of photography, whether it is captured in the moment or staged. The horror when reading about a murder is far more primal when you can see an image of the body dead, cold, limp, and crumpled.

The corpse of Lazarus Averbuch displayed by a police captain (p. 52)

The second reason that The Lazarus Project is unique is in its intertwining of two stories, which makes it difficult to define this book as any single genre. The book definitely functions as a historical novel, as it features the real-life account of the mystery behind the murder of Lazarus Averbuch. Additionally, it explores the context and cultural themes of the time, such as xenophobia and the conflict between the institutions of law and anarchism. However, the book also shares some aspects of the mystery genre, as we are following the search to uncover the truth of Averbuch’s death by the book’s narrator, a professional journalist.

Culture, Context, and Time

As was previously mentioned, the book takes place in two distinct time periods: 1908 and the years following the death of Averbuch, and the 2000s, as we follow Brik’s story. Throughout the book, the writing effectively manages to transport its readers to whichever time frame the setting calls for, both by setting and character.

The image before Chapter 1 begins

In its 1908 storyline, Chicago is painted as the growing industrial metropolis amidst the technological revolution. The characters behave accordingly for their social status and the political backdrop of the time, with the country going through mass European immigration and pre-World War I frustrations. This context is established in a few ways. There is spoken dialogue, which maintains proper diction and vernacular for the time period while retaining ease of comprehension. Also, there is the story’s omniscient lens, which allows the reader to peek into the minds of police detectives, wracked with stereotypical assumptions about people from the Jewish ghetto. From the start, these institutional powers work against any justice being brought to Averbuch’s legacy, and the reader can easily understand the flawed reasoning that guides them. Lastly, the content of the photographs help establish the time period, appearing authentic to a gritty, antique aesthetic.

Once transported back to the contemporary story, the world updates to include any technological advancements or historical realities since the time of Lazarus Averbuch. Brik’s friend, Rora, carries a portable Canon camera; in Ukraine, a young man drives the main characters in his Ford Focus. Even when talking to Americans, Brik encounters more tolerance for foreign culture when compared to the close-minded attitudes of 1908 America. From the setting to the supporting characters, it all helps to signify the change in time period.

Narrative and Photographic Techniques in Content and Aesthetic

Chapters oscillate between storylines within their respective time periods, and each chapter is separated with a photo, instead of a traditional chapter title. The photographs share the common traits of being black and white, and appearing as if taken on the film of the early 1900s.

p. 86

For the Lazarus chapters, the photos are historical, taken largely for the Chicago Daily News between 1904 and 1919.* They provide a visual understanding of the actions taken at the time. Photos of the circumstances surrounding the murder, such as the autopsy, the police chief’s home, and the protest groups who came out in anger, all help readers understand the emotional charge and instinctual feeling of the people at the time.

On the other hand, the photographs in the Vladimir Brik chapters are staged, created for the book to serve their specific purpose by Velibor Božovi, a Montréal-based photographer.* The photos still act as the division between chapters, purposefully created with the same aesthetic style of historical photos, but their content tends to be different. The subjects for these chapters’ photos is generally unrelated to what has come before and instead serve as visual foreshadowing. For example, a high-quality image of a dog opens a chapter where the protagonists stay at a Bosnian hotel; the dog only appears at the end of the chapter when it is inhumanely killed by nameless characters in the hallway.

p. 122

Though the photographs and text in The Lazarus Project interact less directly than in some other books that combine both modes, the photos still serve the important purpose of setting the stage, either in setting or tone. Readers will likely find themselves constantly holding the chapter photo open as they read, examining it to see if there are additional details not previously noticed, or anticipating future connections. In this way, the photos inform how the audience will read the following chapter.

One interesting question is whether Hemon has intentionally made the photographs that precede the chapters that follow the modern storyline different in quality from the photographs that precede the historical chapters, to cue readers to the jump in time. The modern photos do appear less grainy and are enriched with more details. However, the photographs overall seem to be purposefully difficult to identify as belonging to one or the other of the storylines. All photos share the same formatting and aesthetics: each photo is its own page on front and back, and each page stands out because the page background is black instead of white.

p. 202

For example, this photo, from page 202 of the novel, appears to be of two young men, perhaps around the age of Lazarus Averbuch, dressed in historically accurate clothing. Hats, collars, and overcoats all give you the impression that this photograph must be from the early twentieth century, and that chapter that follows will continue the story of Lazarus. While you can be forgiven for this thought process, you are mistaken. The photo is modern, taken for the book, and is placed before a Vladimir Brik chapter. It seems that the photographs’ ambiguities are used to better connect the interwoven tales of our main characters.

Through all these photographic techniques, Hemon stitches together stories that are decades apart, giving it a smooth and easy to follow transition for the audience.

Public Reception

The Lazarus Project had a somewhat different reception by the public (as they are represented in online reviews) and critics. The novel has won many prestigious rewards, among them the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for Fiction (2008), the National Book Critics Circle Award Nominee for Fiction (2008), the National Book Award Finalist for Fiction (2008), the Society of Midland Authors Award for Adult Fiction (2009), the Prix Jan Michalski (2010), and New York Magazine’s #1 Book of 2008.

Cathleen Schine from the The New York Times wrote in her review that the novel was, “A remarkable, and remarkably entertaining, chronicle of loss and hopelessness and cruelty propelled by an eloquent, irritable existential unease.” Satisfied readers like Schine were captured by Hermon’s innovative form of storytelling, which still manged to provide raw, captivating panoramas and personas.

Compared to the response of critics, the response of the online public is more lukewarm. On platforms such as AllReads.com, the novel has received 3.6/5 stars. Many point to the the book’s disjointed narrative structure, suggesting this structure is a gimmick. Some professional critics also agree with this critique, including James Lasdun from The Guardian, who wrote, “… the drawing of parallels doesn’t in itself make a novel, and once the reader gets the point, the question arises of what else to do with the story.”

Our Critique

In creating our review, we found that each of us took a different interpretation away, which led to some disagreement about the merits of the book and the smaller details. However, we did agree on the following major points that are most important when trying to learn about writing with photographs.

The Lazarus Project began in an intriguing way, connecting the worlds of two souls with dark pasts and hopeful futures. One ends in death, another has a different fate. Aleksandar Hemon unearthed a historical gem, a plot featuring elements of past oppression and social unrest, while still unwinding plot details carefully, in true mystery-genre fashion. The fallout from Averbuch’s murder was captivating right from the beginning. The story of Vladimir Brik is also interesting as another story of immigration, the struggle of a man suffering in isolation and with feelings of alienation.

We believe that each story could be its own novel, in which each idea could be fully explored and realized. However, in The Lazarus Project, the stories come together to be less than the sum of their parts. Understandably, the author intends to explore a shared psyche and make a whole from the pieces, but unfortunately these pieces never managed to coalesce. Instead, we felt left with fragments of a broken bottle.

The photographs also fail, for the most part, in justifying their own selection and function. As with the narrative, the 1908 photos are intriguing, but the modern ones provide little more than page filler. While technically impressive, these modern photographs did not stir enough admiration to affect our judgment of the novel as a whole.

Overall, while the structure of The Lazarus Project is novel and its technique with photographs is interesting, we wanted a story with a more focused direction. The ending needs to be guided with a purpose that leaves the reader with a sense of takeaway. We want the payoff of investing time and energy to read this novel to be worth it.

Collected Links and Sources