Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Nirvana Is Here by Aaron Hamburger


NIRVANA IS HERE is different than what I usually read but that ended up being part of what I liked about it-- because it's so many different things. It's a #MeToo story. It's a coming of age set in the 1990s. It's a love song to the rise and fall of counterculture and alternative music/grunge. It's about coming out. It's about finding and losing love. It's about privilege, race, and class. It's about SO many things and it handles almost all of them deftly and with finesse, with the same spare and devastating directness as J.M. Coetzee

While reading this book, I actually kept thinking about DISGRACE, a book that also tackles the subject of rape and its long-standing effects. Ari, when we meet him, is a middle-aged professor of medieval history, and his partner, M, has just gotten into trouble for sexual misconduct with one of his students. The incident triggers memories of Ari's coming of age in a bougie suburb near Detroit, where his first sexual experience was with another boy who forced him. This ends up triggering feelings of confusion and guilt-- is he only the victim because he is "straight"? Was he partially at fault for getting aroused by parts of it? It's truly heartbreaking because I feel like the thoughts that Ari has are mirrored by many other victims made to feel complicit by their attackers, and it was worked into the narrative with so much subtlety that you could really tell how damaged Ari was.

On the other side of the equation, we see him fighting his growing feelings for his friend, Justin, who is Black and comes from the part of town that is not quite as well off. Justin is everything Ari is not: he is a person of color, he is Christian, he is poor (or at least, lower-middle-class), he isn't quite as good at school (they meet because Ari is his peer tutor), he is popular, and he is straight-- or is he? As they become closer, it seems less and less like the attraction is one-sided, but Ari is terrified of misstepping and isolating his friend, especially with the AIDS scare on the news and his own bubbling memories of his past trauma threatening to surface. Told in dual narrative (a favorite style of mine), it zips between past and present, as we see Ari struggle through conflicts that strangely mirror each other.

I loved 90% of this book. I just wish the ending had been a bit more satisfactory, even though I still think it ended with growth and Ari finding his own internal well of strength-- I guess that's why I prefer romance to literary fiction. Literary fiction likes to deal out the truth sandwiches and sometimes they taste bitter. The music references and cultural references were totally on point and I loved the relationship between Ari and Justin. The narrative with the older Ari, by contrast, did not feel quite as strong and I think that part of that was because Ari was such a timid voice-- the past parts are narrated in first person past, while the present parts are narrated in third person present, so I feel like you REALLY get to be inside his head for the past POVs, whereas the present ones are way more removed. Probably, that was deliberate; I just don't necessarily feel like it was the most gripping choice.

Apart from those two small hang-ups, I thought this was a really excellent book. It will definitely appeal more to 30-40-year-olds than it will with the younger set, I think, although I think younger audiences will probably strongly relate to Ari's angsty coming of age story. I would love to see this author try his hand at writing an angsty romance-- I bet he would do a really good job. He perfectly captures the voice of the wistful adolescent in such a pitch-perfect, heartbreaking way.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review! 

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

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