Let me start by saying that I was very excited to read "Lifted By The Great Nothing." When I spotted it on a list of galleys available, I jumped at the chance to read a story about a Lebanese teenager coming of age. It sounded interesting, thoughtful, and just political enough to feel relevant. As soon as I was approved by the publisher, I dove in.
What I found was .... Well, it was interesting and at times thoughtful. There were political elements, so I wasn't wrong in my immediate assumptions. But let's back up a bit.
"Lifted By The Great Nothing" is the story of Max, a Lebanese-American boy growing up in New Jersey. He lives with his father, Rasheed, and has no memory of his mother, who he is told died protecting him before he and his father came to the United States. Max's simple, if lonely, life gets turned upside down with the arrival of a woman Max believes to be his father's girlfriend. At the same time, new neighbors move in across the street, and Max strikes up a friendship with the soon-divorced woman. When Rasheed's now-ex-girlfriend reaches out to Max and shares information previously kept secret, the teenager's identity and history are turned upside down.
The premise is interesting: A young man learns the truth about his immigration to the United States and embarks on a journey of self-discovery. But the way in which the story is told gets so jumbled and confusing that it's hard to keep up with the action. In the beginning Max is about thirteen, then the timeline jumps forward four years. That in and of itself makes sense, but in between we jump forward and backwards months or even years, just enough to make you wonder how much time is actually passing in the story.
At times the story feels forced, with dialogue "conveniently" explaining problems or outlooks. A woman engages Max in an Israel-Palestine Conflict 101 type conversation. The next door neighbor has an unrealistically nuanced and frank exchange with him about the meaning of right and wrong, in the space of a few sentences between the two of them. It just doesn't feel real.
Neither does much of Max's life. Even as a thirteen year old boy, all the adults in Max's life seem to have zero boundaries. Everyone is flailing, except for Max, who manages to stay on the straight and narrow despite being surrounded by horrible role models. When he decides to go to Lebanon to track down his possibly alive mother, he's able to fly to Beirut without a problem. But he's only seventeen, and it's hard to believe a teenager who has never traveled internationally would be able to bring all those pieces together, let alone not be questioned by TSA. Once in Beirut, everything comes together too cleanly for the kid. He happens to meet a woman who happens to know someone at the nearby university who happens to have no problem giving Max the phone number for Max's aunt who happens to welcome him without qualms. It all feels hollow.
There are questions worth examining in the story. What does it mean to be American? How can we reconcile our past and present selves? Can lies told out of love be worth more than a painful truth? But these questions are answered in a clunky, at times cliched way that doesn't do them justice. "Lifted", while having merits, ultimately falls short of its own ambition.
Bridey is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.
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