Homeland Elegies: A Novel
- By Ayad Akhtar
- Little, Brown and Co.
- 368 pp.
- Reviewed by Jack McCarthy
- November 2, 2020
This brilliant work of autofiction takes a gimlet-eyed look at the American Dream.
In Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, the narrator, Alexander Portnoy, speaks breathlessly to his psychoanalyst about the desire for autonomy and the need for belonging within Newark’s Jewish community. In one of the novel’s most provocative chapters, Portnoy draws a touching portrait of his father, concluding: “But what he had to offer I didn’t want — and what I wanted he didn’t have to offer.”
Troubled, Portnoy asks, “Doctor, what should I rid myself of, tell me, the hatred...or the love?”
Ayad Akhtar’s fiercely eloquent second novel, Homeland Elegies, offers a similar strain between the tribal and the transgressive. The narrator, who shares Akhtar’s name, recalls one of the final lucid conversations with his mother before her long battle with cancer erodes the last of her sentience. They talk about Pakistan and their respective feelings for the country.
His mother, Fatima, grew up close enough to the line through Central Punjab that separated the Indian nation to witness the atrocities of Partition. She attended medical school in Pakistan and married her husband in Lahore before moving to the United States. Akhtar, who was born on Staten Island and raised in Wisconsin, frequently visits family in Pakistan and notes the “vibrant childhood memories” created in his father’s village and his mother’s family’s Rawalpindi bungalow.
Fatima, overcome with candor near the end of life, apologizes for bringing her son to America. Akhtar reassures her of his happiness and then silently questions his long and ambiguous sense of resentment toward her: “In expecting what she couldn’t give me, hadn’t I rejected what she could?”
This question of how to establish an identity — and all the influences that sustain it — pulses through the narrative. Compelled by a sense of alienation as a Muslin man in the United States after September 11th, Akhtar descends into the seething ocean of history of both America and South Asia and tries to buoy himself against its currents in an attempt to find not solace but understanding. He descends into these difficult depths with a strange, giddy rapture, imploring us to follow him.
Akhtar begins with an address to America — an “overture,” as he calls it, in which an American malady is exposed. The objections addressed to the country build slowly and resemble the gradual momentum toward one’s disillusionment, for elucidation is seldom a shift from perceiving something as wholly good to wholly bad. Instead, it’s a knot between the two poles Akhtar works to untangle.
Growing up, Akhtar saw the U.S. through the rosy lens of “the God-blessed, light-of-the-world exceptionalism that informed every hour I’d ever spent in history class,” and continued to hold this view until the reality of the American experience became intensely personal:
“I wouldn’t see it clearly until the American Self had fully mastered the plunder, idealized and legislated the splitting of the spoils, and brought to near completion the wholesale pillage not only of the so-called colony — how provincial a locution that seems now! — but also of the very world itself…until I’d ceased believing in the lie of my own redemption, until the suffering of others aroused in me a starker, clearer cry than any anthem of my own longing.”
And so, Akhtar, feeling homeless in his American home, begins his placeless lament. Nothing is below his critical eye, for nothing under the modern political condition runs independently; we are an index of our civilization. Thus, the narrative unfolds between nations, with Akhtar drawing stark but beautifully written parallels between places such as the military-heavy city of Abbottabad and Scranton. Here, he reflects on the uneasy similitude between Pakistan and America following a trip to visit family in Abbottabad:
“Looking back at that trip, I see now the broad outlines of the same dilemmas that would lead America into the era of Trump: seething anger; open hostility to strangers and those with views opposing one’s own; a contempt for news delivered by allegedly reputable sources; an embrace of reactionary moral posturing; civic and governmental corruption that no longer needed hiding; and married to all this, the ever-hastening redistribution of wealth to those who had it at the continued expense of those who didn’t.”
Homeland Elegies reads as autofiction, taking many facts from Akhtar the author’s own biography and channeling them into Akhtar the character. The narrator, like his creator, is an American-born, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright from suburban Milwaukee whose parents, both doctors, emigrated from Pakistan to America. The choice of autofiction was not made to liberate the author from specific details that bind the writer of memoir; this choice has aesthetic and thematic intent.
What art offers is separation from the self as a means to confront what is unapproachable elsewhere. But for Akhtar, not even fiction allows him to escape the claustrophobic avenues of his own world. He has no option but to sing these elegies, noting, “this brand of crazy is fully baked into me.”
Philip Roth once wrote of his characters containing a “multitudinous intensity of polarities,” a description fitting for Akhtar’s writing. Akhtar, like any writer worth his salt, becomes the sum of his contradictions, and his characters the expressive result.
Donald Trump’s presence hangs over the narrative as an embodiment of both America’s malevolence and its mythic Dream. Akhtar’s father, a prominent cardiologist who treats Trump in the early 1990s and subsequently supports him in the 2016 election, pursues “an image of just how much more his American self could contain than the Pakistani one he’d left behind.” Akhtar, as narrator, feels both incensed and intrigued by America’s calamities.
Above all, Homeland Elegies is about the difficulty of creating individuality within a ubiquitous social order, for one’s individuality is indelibly tied to that order. Akhtar’s fiction, a subversive mix of genres that includes cultural critique and historical analysis, aspires to a sovereignty independent of human hysteria, knowing, all the while, that this is impossible.
Jack McCarthy is a fourth-generation Washingtonian currently writing for the Washington Capitals.