Near the close of Heidi Julavits’s The Effect of Living Backwards, the narrator, named Alice, muses, “Forge forward blindly, and you’ll always have your hopeful fantasies to entertain you”—a piece of advice this watchful pragmatist very seldom follows. But what if you suspect you’re forging through someone else’s fantasy—an immersive hypothesis, an elaborate hoax? In The Matrix, Neo is asked if he wants to know how deep the rabbit hole goes; Alice falls in quite unwittingly when she boards a plane to Melilla with the older sibling she adores and despises, Edith, who’s about to marry a quasi-prince. In coach, the sisters’ mock-casual, fiercely codependent matchup of bare-knuckle word-boxing continues in unlimited rounds (Edith, per Alice, is a “stupid slut”; better that, Edith retorts, than a “book-smart virgin”). Their battle enters a grander arena, however, when a blind master manipulator, Bruno, and a few steward-collaborators seize control of Moroccan Air Flight 919. The passenger pawns double as role-playing conscripts and captive audience for Bruno’s absurdly uncontrolled experiment in terrorism: hijacking as mad tea party.
Unelaborated references to a circa-2001 event called the Big Terrible and Alice’s post-919 enrollment in the International Institute for Terrorist Studies mark Julavits’s second novel in time: It hovers over North Africa in the desert of the real, where we all live now. One of Alice’s professors so severely doubts even her immediate surroundings that she suffers bouts of Sartrean nausea at the institute’s salad bar. “Is this really happening to me?” she asks, and why shouldn’t she? Hers is an age when a just-like-a-movie spectacular in New York provides the pretense for a just-like-a-movie spectacular in Iraq, and footage of an American soldier’s rescue ends up filed under “docudrama,” merely inspired by true events. Bruno, who fancies himself a populist (“Even terrorists must avoid the temptations of tyranny and give the choice back to the people,” he intones), swans around the cabin like a veteran director on a film set, throwing the occasional tantrum and seducing his diva lead actress. Playing the plump, funny sidekick, Alice also gets turns in the spotlight. The aurally alluring negotiator, Pitcairn, summons her into the cockpit to serve as his “conduit,” supposedly because they both speak Sasak—”the Lombok language I had learned quite effortlessly in Mylandrum,” explains Alice, daughter of a globe-trotting entomologist, “because I was talented in that way in which timid girls with uninhibited sisters strive to be talented.”
Bruno’s involuntary cast soon discovers that, contrary to the cinematic version, the hours of a hijackee are dominated not by fear but tedium. The downtime grants Julavits ample opportunity to unpack an extreme relationship under extreme circumstances: Alice the dutiful would-be social worker and Edith the impetuous man-eater. In many ways, Living Backwards suggests an updated projection of Mary Flanagan’s short story “White Places,” in which a hapless little girl submits to increasingly diabolical games of Pretend at the behest of her mean older sister. Julavits’s sense-and-sensibility duo languish at the mercy of Bruno’s whims, but remain more helplessly enthralled to an apparent genetic inheritance of symbiotic spite and a cruelty disfigured by love.
Spite and love-borne diseases prevailed in Julavits’s starkly lyrical debut, The Mineral Palace (2000), a dust-in-the-throat account of a bewildered young mother’s struggle to wend her way through the social snakepit of Depression-era Pueblo, Colorado. Clear-eyed as Alice Munro—that deep-sea diver of the psyche—and bold enough to bring its heroine face to face with Bonnie Parker, the novel strained a bit to shoulder its thick catalog of tragedy: drownings, fires, tormented animals, incest, lamings, suicide, infanticide, corrosive regret. It’s especially intriguing, then, that the ruthlessly self-interrogatory Alice wonders if her pull toward social work doesn’t bespeak an unseemly fascination with other people’s abasements. As Bruno points out—acting on intelligence gathered from waspish Edith, of course—Alice is somewhat a connoisseur of vicarious misfortune and failure, extracting what she calls “Shame Stories” from her fellow passengers, which Julavits intersperses as stand-alone chapters throughout Living Backwards. The author garnered much attention for an essay in the inaugural issue of The Believer bemoaning the “snark bytes” and “bonbons of malice” that too often pass for book criticism in certain New York publications; admirably, her novel in turn poses an implicit challenge to the storytelling instinct itself. (Co-edited by Julavits and Voice senior editor Ed Park, The Believer is published by McSweeney’s; Living Backwards shares with Dave Eggers’s You Shall Know Our Velocity a deadpan intimacy with the cotton-mouthed stupefaction of airline purgatory.)
Always empathic, the novel overindulges Alice’s sentimental streak and skittish prudery. Fixated on the epithet slut, she blithely chalks up Edith’s sexual appetites to self-abuse, and the book would seem to support her view via an odd choice of epigraph from Elizabeth Hardwick (“Reversals and peculiarities fall down upon those too proud of their erotic life”). All the same, Alice belongs among Lorrie Moore’s vivid salon of lonely, awkward ironists: Their compulsive witticisms build a brittle fence against hurt and disappointment, and meanwhile a self-defeating romanticism sprouts around it like stubborn weeds. The endnote of “hopeful fantasy” in The Effect of Living Backwards crystallizes the novel’s wry plangency: the what-if pleasures of wishing made weightless by the impossibility of wish fulfillment.