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André Aciman’s new novel, Harvard Square (W. W. Norton & Company), a story of two young men trying to come to terms with their outsider status in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has been receiving a lot of buzz about its timeliness in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings. But it’s the timelessness of the book’s themes—assimilation, finding one’s place in the world, deciding who you want joining you there—that will make it a novel worthy of discussion and admiration for many years to come.
Ignoring that the main characters are in their mid-twenties and early thirties, Harvard Square starts off as a typical coming-of-age tale. The unnamed narrator, a Jew from Alexandria, Egypt, is a lonely outsider desperately trying to stay enrolled in graduate school at Harvard University in the summer of 1977 when he meets a Tunisian taxi driver named Kalashnikov—”Kalaj” for short—in a local coffee shop. The latter is everything the former is not: a charismatic, controversial, womanizing taxi driver in possession of very strongly held opinions regarding just about everything and a machine gun for a mouth.
From the first moment they meet, the narrator experiences a near-constant internal tug-of-war regarding whether Kalaj is his friend or foe; his double or his opposite; his hero or a repository of all his pity and scorn. This back-and-forth consumes the majority of the novel’s pages, and while the give and take can sometimes be maddening for the reader, it’s an accurate representation of a loner in a near-abandoned town, left with too much time to himself and his own pessimistic thoughts. It’s when the narrator’s friends and colleagues return to Harvard in the fall and the barriers between his two separate lives begin to crumble that he really has to decide what he’s willing to do to finally feel like a part of the world he’s chosen for himself.
It’s to Aciman’s credit that despite the swirling, thorny topics of belonging and otherness, it’s the unlikely relationship between two young men that really shines through. He writes about their courtship in such a way that, even as they are boasting about their respective heterosexual conquests, there’s an unspoken sexual tension between them that ripples off the page like heat shimmering off of concrete under the August sun. And let there be no mistake about that: these two men are courting each other, experiencing the same feelings of exhilaration, self-consciousness, doubt, and warmth that they receive from their attempts at seducing members of the opposite sex.
Harvard Square has been called a near-perfect encapsulation of the immigrant experience in America. And yet, the narrator’s desire to fit in with the Harvard WASPs that surround him on a daily basis—and his simultaneous longing to tell them all to screw themselves—is one that anyone who’s felt like a minority within his or her own home should be able to heartbreakingly relate. And this may be Aciman’s greatest accomplishment with his latest novel: the crafting of a thoroughly inclusive love letter to those who have ever felt excluded.
By André Aciman
W.W. Norton & Company
Hardcover, 9780393088601, 292 pp.