The Bottom Line: There is no reason to read this even if you like experimental fiction.
The Book of Lazarus is a work of experimental fiction. It is in equal measures both, and that leads less to confusion than it does to a different mental condition.
I apologize in advance for the way the plot summary has to work. Ive tried several ways and breaking it up like in the same way the novel presents itself is the only coherent way to do it.
The following is a list provided by one of the narrators in the book about what it contains: a single sheet of paper by . . . a prostitute probably the day before she died, a letter from Martin Hulander [apparent killer], a ransom note, an undated love-letter, a group of aphorisms intended to be a Red Book of [the] cadre, a farewell note, a bizarre seventy-page sentence, a collection of two line poems surrounded by [crude] drawings, a barely coherent discourse by [the father of the main narrator], Hallowed Hall of Heroes [people who died while saving the lives of others], and the last entry was a long poem written by [the narrators half brotherhomeless keeper of these documents]. Like I said, this is experimental. It is a poor attempt at a mystery so 1) I will take on each section mentioned above and 2) will refrain from spoilers.
The quote takes place in the middle 1990s (with flash back to events related in the book), some of the stories that construct the sections revolve specifically around one event. The remainder of the book is tangentially related, if at all.
Gretchen, the prostitute contributes the first entry. It is a handwritten presentation of 15 New Years resolutions (complete with hearts as dots on the is). They seem to be a decent replication of something that would be relevant in the early 1970s: I promise to stop eating animals. And I promise not to eat so much candy especially when I smoke grass.
I will cover the aphorisms and Hall of Heroes together because they are scattered throughout the novel. The Hall of Heroes shows a picture on the left side and a crudely written explanation of who was saved and how the savior was killed. The aphorisms are mostly political in nature and are mostly faux cynicalsome do pass into cynicism for real; a couple of random samples: The moral bedrock of political and economic power is a tawdry heap of insignificant criminal acts. And In a capitalist democracy, the poor by groceries and the rich buy the poor. These are among the tangentially related elements.
The apparent killers letter is just a rant about the powers that be and how everyone sucks. The language is a pretty close match to the politics espoused by the middle-class hippies or wanabees attacking institutions and conformity despite the latter creating its own form of anti-establishment conformity (duh). I will spare quoting this as nearly every sentence is filled with words epinions doesnt allow.
The ransom letter is written by the kidnapped girl herself. While it contains relevant information it is short and, actually, adds nothing to the story.
The love letter seems to be just a piece of detritus that requires no further attention.
On page 65, we get the first coherent section. Emmas (the narrator) narrative is really a novella that explains how she fit in with the group whose thoughts make up the rest of the novel. It covers her life in the US with her mother and her life in Rome as an artist. She re-enters the world she left behind when she gets news of her fathers impending death and that the attorneys are all but insisting that she come, if nothing else, for the reading of the will.
The good-bye letter is one of the pieces of unnecessary detritus adding nothing to the story.
The seventy page sentence is unreadable. It isnt a sentence (no punctuation at all) so much as a vaguely described list of thoughts, dreams, hallucinations. I couldnt finish it because it wasnt at all compelling.
Like the goodbye letter, the two line poems and crude drawings of slightly fleshed out stick figures seem to mean little at all. They are quick to get through though.
Mitch, Emmas father, writes a sort of farewell letter. Emma describes it as barely coherent, but it isntit seems to be the most coherent piece other than Emmas narrative. He is dying of the final complications due to AIDS and the testament is on target even if it doesnt stir any emotions.
Finally is the poem. In all respects, Bobbys poem looks like a Pinsky but is mainly about Jesus and crossing guards and not much else.
The Book of Lazarus is a mimic of the Patty Hearst kidnapping. In this case it was the Peoples Liberation Brigade committing the acts. The father of the kidnapped child is intent on revenge and the book seems to be a gathering of writings by the people involved. They dont point to the revenge, they are just moments in the lives of those who wrote them. Bobby, not involved in the action, became the record keeper even after spending several years homeless in San Francisco. When he dies, a restaurateur who was friendly with Bobby mails these pieces, contained in zip locked bags to Emma in Rome where she decides to publish it.
There are serious problems with the novel. The first is that the structure makes putting the story together not worth the effort. The scattered mess from people involved in some quasi-anti-establishment group shares little of what they were thinking or doing at the time the crime took place. It would be like asking John Gotti to explain a day in prison without asking him to say anything of the workings of his organization. This means, of course, that the book is a huge why bother.
The writing is passable. Nothing stands out as being truly interesting. Richard Grossman seems to think that the format of the novel would be enough to maintain interest. Unfortunately this is entirely wrong. All that this brings to the novel is a chance for the author to play with fonts, handwriting, and photographs (which is hell on editors and typesetters). I think if you just picked it up (and it is heavy because the pages are almost as heavy as card stock) and flipped through it, it would probably get your attention, but if you began to read it at random, I think you would find it boring at best.
Finally, the events that created the motive for revenge are all but totally missing. There is nothing to indicate that The Book of Lazarus is a true mystery, so one would have to assume that Mr. Grossman didnt care about it, forgot it, or it was part of the experiment. If it is the last of the list, it fails totally.
As fiction it is ok at best. As an experiment, it fails badlyplaying with font is something that students do to make a paper look longer than it really is. The same can be said for this novel. To call back to the beginning, the mental condition isnt confusion, just ennui.
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Paul Savage (cyclone_march)
I name and describe everything and classify most things. If 'it' already had a name, the one I just gave it is better.
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The Book of Lazarus is as much a novel about the O'Banion family as it is a scrapbook of the dead - murder victims to be exact. The death of Mitchell O'Banion, a.k.a. Mitchell Finkelstein, a former political terrorist with family ties to organized crime, brings together a bizarre lot of ex-anarchists whose paths have criss-crossed from the heady days of the sixties to the present. In the middle of it all is Emma O'Banion, who has not seen her father, Mitchell, for years. As she uncovers the story of his life, death, and the vast fortune he has left behind, a frightening family history unfolds. Here is the core of Richard Grossman's challenging new novel. Surrounding that core, however, is another world - one in which Grossman creates visual and formal challenges for his readers as he unearths the stories of the dead and the insane. Filled with poetry and aphorisms as well as photographs and hand-written notes from the grave, The Book of Lazarus creates a new American novel.