No Place Is Home, for the Immigrant Hero of This Debut Novel

HANGMAN, by Maya Binyam

A man receives a phone call and is given instructions to board a flight. His bag has been packed, his ticket is in the pocket of his jacket and a car is waiting outside. It is only on the plane that he discovers he is bound for “the country I had left 26 years prior,” a fact that leaves him “neither happy nor unhappy.” A man by and large without preferences, conditioned into passivity, he is propelled deeper and deeper into a story of surreal recognition and misrecognition in Maya Binyam’s exceptional debut novel, “Hangman.”

“Hangman” is, among other things, a caustic rendering of immigration, diaspora and deracination. If the narrator is not at home in his adopted country, he is equally alienated from the country of his birth. That double displacement might be a familiar subject for fiction, but Binyam immediately short-circuits narrative expectation. From the start, it’s evident that America has been no land of opportunity, and that this visit will also be fraught with disorientation, a return without recuperation.

The narrator arrives in a city “in crisis,” where “everything was in the process of being built or being demolished,” the roads “random and resistant to those who wished to navigate them.” Through a series of encounters with taxi drivers, aid workers, entrepreneurs and scam artists, he finds himself “on an unspecified journey that seemingly had no end.”

A marvel of compressed unease, the novel is also wildly exuberant. This is in no small part due to the tensile strength of Binyam’s prose. Her style is simple and matter of fact, but full of unexpected pivots. She is also very funny. The novel is written with the kind of deadpan humor that makes you laugh even as it leaves you feeling a little queasy.

The narrator himself is a primary source of this disquiet. Unflappable in the face of ever-increasing strangeness, he resembles Cary Grant’s character in “North by Northwest,” interpellated into a system against his will, buffeted by the waves of a wildly illogical narrative, the shape of which he cannot entirely perceive: “No matter where I went,” he thinks, “it would be only one stop on my journey, a journey with its own specific and predetermined chronology, which would override my individual choices, even if I wished my life and the various forces orchestrating it to be otherwise.”

But as the novel moves forward, the schematic shifts. It becomes clear that there is a narrative explanation for the radical passivity of our protagonist. At first his nature seems akin to a reflective surface, a mirror held up to a world without sense. But the barriers around the narrator’s psyche have as much to do with evasion as simplicity, and there are events in both his past and present, a landscape contorted by guilt and shame, that he is either unwilling or unable to confront.

Instead, at home nowhere in particular, least of all in his own mind and persona, he sheds the constituent parts of his being, piece by piece. He loses the material objects of his life — his money, his luggage, his medication and his passport — as if in doing so he might also escape himself. Eventually, that list also includes his body.

What initially seems like passivity becomes a kind of surrender, not least to the lure of obliteration. “I would never be able to find out why my life had been the way it was. Everything was nothing, and that was how it was going to stay,” Binyam writes. “I wanted to go home. I tried to go home — home was inside of me.” There’s dark wonder in the final moments of this exhilarating novel, as the narrator gives himself over at last to both his fate and his longing.

Katie Kitamura is the author, most recently, of “Intimacies.”

HANGMAN | By Maya Binyam | 198 pp. | Farrar, Straus & Giroux | $26

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