The Effect of Living Backwards by Heidi Julavits

Hijacked into a looking-glass world
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The Independent Culture

There can't be many stories about an airline hijacking which make you laugh. Yet The Effect of Living Backwards manages to be darkly funny while posing some serious moral and philosophical teasers.

There can't be many stories about an airline hijacking which make you laugh. Yet The Effect of Living Backwards manages to be darkly funny while posing some serious moral and philosophical teasers. Reading Heidi Julavits's second novel is like being trapped amid sickness bags and in-flight magazines on the wrong side of the Looking Glass. With an act of terrorism bordering on the surreal and a passenger list with absurd names and strange compulsions, it has the giddy playfulness which - as the White Queen tells Alice - comes with living backwards.

Julavits's heroine is called Alice, but plain, plump and in her thirties. A failed social worker, sexually hapless, she's one of life's "Good Girls", always doing what she should. Travelling with her on Flight 919 is her luscious blonde sister Edith. Definitely not a good girl (she lost her virginity at 12), Edith is about to be married.

Among other passengers making up the ideal hostage cluster are a rich Indian called Sad and a pregnant heiress popping pills like peanuts. Meanwhile, the ringmaster Bruno - a blind terrorist with a dog - keeps everyone alive to the shifting moral implications and their own feelings of guilt. As one character says, "There's nothing like a hijacking to make you put a finger on the things that really matter."

While Alice and Edith squabble through life, the International Institute for Terrorist Studies in Lucerne has also been suffering from the internecine spats of two factions: the Brain Worms and the Incursionists. They disagree on tactics but agree that if terrorism is a craft, then anti-terrorism must be an art. Negotiators learn to role-play and stage mock hijackings using real passengers.

This particular hijacking begins to resemble a game show. Losing is not dying, but being humiliated before strangers. Yet possibilities also exist for those not ready to resume their boring lives. As Alice says, "There was room for advancement." She gets to feel special - more special than Edith - when chosen to talk to Pitcairn, the inscrutable negotiator, in "Sasak". Unfortunately, her grasp on that language is shaky, so that "I'm well" comes out as "I am a wallet head of exuberance".

It's not just the negotiators and terrorists who are trying to outwit one another. In families, there's another kind of struggle for survival, with siblings forced into roles, rivalry and competition. Before the plane has even left the tarmac, Alice accuses Edith of losing her spark. Five days later, wire-cutters, sexual liaisons and an engagement ring ensure that the sisters will never again view each other in the same way. They aren't the only pair of siblings revelling in schadenfreude.

Snappy, sharp and at moments quite mad, The Effect of Living Backwards is a brave book. At a time when we are all cowed by the threat of terrorism, Julavits harnesses its comic potential to say something about our own feelings of worth, shame and identity.

Marianne Brace

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