The Effect of Living Backwards: Am I Stupid?

Quick post because I need to get ready to leave for the beach and hopefully more enjoyable, coherent books.

The Effect of Living Backwards by Heidi Julavits is a weird book that makes little sense, which I hope was the point.    It sort of has a plot.  It begins in what you think is the present with a character named Alice as a student at the Institute for Terrorist Studies.  Some psychologist is trying to get her to role play her relationship with her sister and to revisit the hijacking she experienced.  The story then shifts to the hijacking:  Alice and her older sister Edith, with whom she has a strained, competitive relationship, are on their way to Edith’s wedding.  Their plane is hijacked, and Alice becomes the liaison with the terrorist negotiator due to her language skills.  But things are weird and nothing is what it seems.  Do the hijackers have a plan?  The passengers are threatened with guns that don’t have bullets.  Is everyone on the plane involved?  The bulk of the story follows the hijacking and then suddenly you are in the real present with a much-older Alice. Throughout the novel, chapters are devoted to the background stories of Alice and Edith’s mother and their fellow passengers. 

I’m actually making to plot sound more straightforward and dramatic than it was.  This book was very absurd and post-modern and is exactly the type of book that makes me feel stupid.  Every character is unreliable.  Nothing is what it seems.  The hijacking is someone’s grand experiment to prove a point.   I felt like the entire book was full of philosophical BS that only elite, super-intelligent readers can understand and let out a wry, knowing chuckle as they read it.  However, I think its real focus is the relationship between siblings and sibling rivalry.  Edith and Alice have always had an uneasy relationship, and the hijacking only exascerbates it.  It actually becomes a main part of the hijacking as they are pitted against each other.  And it turns out that there is another set of siblings in the novel for whom the hijacking may just be the latest volley in a long-simmering rivalry.  

Clever readers (or those who read reviews to figure out WTF was going on in this book) realize that the title of the book, The Effect of Living Backwards, comes from Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and of course, the main character’s name being Alice is a dead giveaway.   Like Carroll’s Alice, Julavits’ Alice has entered a weird world full of strange characters. 

Julavits is a really good writer, and there were parts of the book I enjoyed.  None of the characters were likeable, and there was a distance to the storytelling that made it hard to engage the book.  I personally do not enjoy absurd, post-modern fiction.  The whole time I read the book I kept thinking that it reminded me of Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49.  I like plot.  I like structure.  Maybe I’m just stupid.


3 Responses to The Effect of Living Backwards: Am I Stupid?

  1. Katie says:

    Sounds like another attempt at expanding the Alice metaphor. Post-modernism is weird and alienating. Liking plot and structure doesn’t make you stupid, it makes the author who omits it a bad writer.

    So there,

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