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If I Were Me

by Clark Blaise

If I were Lander – guilt-ridden main character, failed father and husband, famous neurolinguist – I might be less forgiving of myself. So why does author Clark Blaise allow his character to find so much comfort in his own ego? In If I Were Me, pompous intellectualism overshadows the anxiety supposedly plaguing Lander and the interconnected figures that populate this short novel, destroying any sense the reader might have of their human frailties.

Would it be unfair to speculate that Blaise – 57 years old, the author of several previous novels and collections, director of the University of Iowa’s International Writing School – has lived a life very much like his protagonist? Lander is 60, perched on the precipice of physical, if not mental, decline. He came of age at a time when opportunities were plentiful, discourse still mattered, and sympathy spread through the liberal upper classes like a benign disease. As an intellectual, Lander is all too keenly aware that his life is based on what cannot be known.

Or, at least, that’s what Blaise wants us to know about his self-interested character. Poor Lander. For all his profound wandering (the book is set in locales that include Japan, Russia, and Israel), he remains a stranger in a world that swept his marriage, his children, and his career into its anonymous orbit. Because of this, or despite it, Lander is as distant from the reader as his adopted daughter – the black Slavophile lesbian – is from him.

The problem with If I Were Me is that the book is no more about Lander and his travels and tribulations than it is about its author. What this novel is really about is cutting through all the trappings and titles and restraints one finds oneself lowered into the grave with. There’s nothing wrong with the writing in If I Were Me. Blaise pens wonderful sentences replete with impersonal hysteria, a sense that something terrible is happening, but to other people in other places. Unfortunately, the sentences loom over Lander’s pat need for self-discovery, glittering stars over the dull earth of his conceit. And so they become the shovelfuls that dig this book into its own preoccupied hole.