Back to the future

As the second anniversary of 9/11 approaches, it seems unlikely there will be any room for reflection during the media’s pageantry of grief and self-love. The images of that day, shown again and again like Abraham Zapruder’s infamous film, have turned into a convenient tender of patriotism. The magnitude of what the attacks mean has been diminished to a postage-sized stamp of firemen heroically raising a flag.

It’s up to novelists now—those backward-glancing, forward-thinking artists—to show what September 11 has done to our imaginations, our internal lives. Pete Hamill tried and failed in his terrifically boring 2002 novel, Forever. Heidi Julavits fairs much better with her exquisitely odd second novel, The Effect of Living Backwards.

Two sisters board a flight to Morocco, which is later hijacked by a man with badly done highlights in his hair. The other terrorist is a blind man with a seeing-eye dog named Verne.

Although this setup makes the novel sound like another Chevy Chase movie, it’s not all slapstick here. During the hijacking, Alice, the homelier, more internal sister sustains a nasty pistol whipping. Edith, the engaged one with a sexy bravado, takes a beating, too.

Julavits doesn’t get to this part of the story until about 65 pages into the novel. In the meantime, Alice, who is narrating from the future, describes her studies at the Institute for Terrorist Studies, which hosts several role-playing exercises after the event.

Right away, it’s clear the institute is not all about healing. Alice’s interactions there have the bizarre tilt of something in a Stanley Kubrick film. In one scene, she boards a replica of her hijacked plane with an instructor, who gets her stoned and proceeds to make out with her face.

Rather than study terrorist methods, the institute seems dedicated to psychoanalyzing its victims. “We’re taught to find the antecedents to our adult failures in childhood traumas,” says one of the institute’s doctors to Alice, “so we spend our lives looking backwards and pointing fingers, rather than bucking up and forging ahead.”

The narrative structure of Julavits’ novel underscores this idea. The deeper Alice goes into the story of their hijacking, the more she dredges up about the past and her relationship with the tyrannically winning Edith.

Although this dive back into family politics is rather conventional, Julavits is such a minutely observant writer that she can pull it off. At one point prior to the hijacking, the sisters place a bet as to whether Edith can seduce one of the plane’s male flight attendants, causing Alice to recall her childhood of being second best. “Waiting for my sister to be fondled and loved, even if temporarily, hastily, poorly, was a skill I’d long mastered.”

Though Julavits’ first novel, The Mineral Palace, had a forced, overly worked quality, The Effect of Living Backwards hums along powered by gusts of strangeness and kinky sex. Rare is the sentence that does not flaunt some bit of felicitous, slightly gnarly phrasing. If The Mineral Palace felt composed of oak and lumber, this book seems penned with a liquid alloy of aluminum.

All that elasticity allows Julavits to get away with a couple of twists. In another writer’s hands, most of these plot developments would seem pathetically unbelievable. Here, they just increase the giddiness.

“The effect of living backwards,” the queen advises Alice in Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece Through the Looking Glass, is that “it always make one a little giddy at first.” That helium-in-the-head feeling never leaves this intensely likable novel, even if Alice herself overcomes it. Eventually, she comes to terms with the fact that although the hijacking may give her a chance to begin life anew, it does not make the past irrelevant. If anything, by marking a before and an after, it has made the past even more important.