Vintage Prose

An Albanian immigrant to the US in the post 9/11 years finds that her new life is not that different from her old one.

New York street 521 (photo credit: Bloomberg)
New York street 521
(photo credit: Bloomberg)
Lula, the 26-year-old Albanian immigrant dutifully assimilating in Francine Prose’s droll new novel, is fairly clear on what being American means to her.
You get your own bathroom (“How quickly she’d switched from making do with a filthy communal apartmentblock latrine to needing her middleclass personal space”). You can reframe your past in intriguing ways (perhaps by implying that your father died a heroic freedom fighter in Kosovo instead of in a car accident while crossing the border in hopes of unloading some tribal muskets). You benefit from the unfamiliar phenomenon known as the “win-win situation” (“The Balkans had no expression for ‘win-win situation.’ In the Balkans they said, No problem, and the translation was, You’re [screwed]”).
My New American Life is – happily – vintage Prose: cheerfully pessimistic, smart, funny, with characters unnervingly spot-on in their stages of outrage, denial, malaise or disillusionment.
After her last novel – the lovely, poignant Goldengrove, about a teenage girl coping with her older sister’s sudden death – Prose has come roaring back to the world of satire, where she is supremely at home. She is welcome here anytime.
The author of such brilliant works as the National Book Award finalist Blue Angel, which skewered the pretensions of academia, Prose manages a fabulously cynical world view that never entirely abandons hope or compassion for human flaws, whether the people flaunting them are Lexus-driving criminals, mopey corporate souls who long for more honest work or vampire-obsessed teenagers who wear too much black.
My New American Life takes place during the Bush/Cheney years, and in keeping with the nervous post-9/11 mood, nobody is exactly happy, though they remain vigilant to the awareness that they should be grateful.
Despite her short time in the US, Lula is not immune to that perplexing contradiction.
On track to gain citizenship, she has left behind her Lower East Side apartment, depressed roommate and exhausting job serving Wall Street jerks at a Mexican restaurant specializing in hiring cheap illegal labor. A wellplaced CraigsList ad has led her to Mister Stanley, a single dad who hires her as a sort of companion for his sulky teenage son Zeke. He’s also friends with her liberal immigration lawyer Don Settebello, who takes on clients at Guantanamo Bay and laments attacks by the administration on “the beauty of the US Constitution,” especially after several glasses of expensive wine.
Lula is comfortable in her new, suburban New Jersey home. The decor is dull and oppressive, but the pay is encouraging, and she enjoys Zeke’s company. But perhaps Lula is learning too fast. Like so many Americans in the new millennium, despite all she’s gained, she’s antsy, dissatisfied, bored.
She isn’t sure exactly what she wants until three suspicious-looking guys – one decidedly attractive – show up at Mister Stanley’s house, play the “all Albanians are related” card and ask her for a big, illegal favor.
Prose uses this set-up to dig into our national identity crisis and expose the pitfalls of modern life and the terminal illness of the American dream. Lula’s outsider status and cynical eye, honed by growing up under communism, grant us a great view: She “was impressed by the freedom of the American press to tell the world that their vice president accidentally shot his friend in the face. At home, it wouldn’t have been accidental. And he would have succeeded.
Still, you had to watch out and not criticize, same as anywhere else. You could never predict when Americans, even Mister Stanley and Don, would get all defensive and huffy.”
Likewise, Lula is glad to be out of Albania, but she’s still homesick and lonely and thus easily swayed by handsome Alvo, the thug from back home who needs that favor. Prose writes as humorously about the dangers of ill-advised romance as she does about contemporary alienation. Mister Stanley and Don have told her she should write a memoir contrasting her old and new lives, but Lula isn’t so sure they’re all that terribly different. Neither is Prose, whose critical eye and storytelling skills are as sharp and engaging as ever.
– The Miami Herald/MCT