Nir­vana is Here

Aaron Ham­burg­er 

  • Review
By – April 8, 2019

Nir­vana is Here, the title of Aaron Hamburger’s new nov­el, doesn’t refer to the state of self-less bliss, but rather to the nineties alt-rock band that offers pro­tag­o­nist Ari Sil­ver­man a kind of euphor­ic safe space and gives voice to the inex­press­ible anger and pain of his teenage years.

The nov­el begins with Ari, now forty-one, deal­ing with the fall­out from the dis­so­lu­tion of his mar­riage. His ex-hus­band, M, has been accused of sex­u­al harass­ment by a stu­dent at the uni­ver­si­ty where both men teach, and Ari is on the com­mit­tee respon­si­ble for eval­u­at­ing the charge. As he pre­pares to make a judge­ment on his for­mer part­ner, he is also ready­ing him­self for a face-to-face meet­ing with Justin, his high school crush. Thoughts about M and the impend­ing reunion with Justin lead Ari to reflect on his ado­les­cence — a time marked by his pas­sion for Nir­vana, his com­ing to terms with his queer­ness and reassess­ing and con­tex­tu­al­iz­ing his Jew­ish­ness, and the intense sex­u­al trau­ma he suf­fered at the hands of his class­mate and neigh­bor, Mark. (The M”s make a clear con­nec­tion.) While the nov­el bounces between his youth and his mid­dle age, it dwells more on his high school years, as though to explain the Ari of today. Ham­burg­er relates the com­plex­i­ty of Ari’s trau­ma with great care — paint­ing a nuanced but frank por­trait of Ari as not just a vic­tim, but a young per­son grap­pling with angst both typ­i­cal and painful­ly out of the ordi­nary for a queer teen. While explic­it details of the sex­u­al assault don’t appear until lat­er in the nov­el, we know from the start that it was vio­lent, and Mark remains a specter in Ari’s life long after they both leave the Lev Stern Hebrew Academy.

Not quite a dark com­e­dy, Nir­vana is Here is told with irony and a pleas­ing light­ness, although there is some­thing out of sync in its mix­ture of irrev­er­ence and sin­cer­i­ty. While the sto­ry of Ari’s ado­les­cence and how it col­ors the rest of his life is com­pas­sion­ate­ly and evoca­tive­ly ren­dered, the iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics of some of the oth­er char­ac­ters, espe­cial­ly in Ari’s adult life, are not described with the same sen­si­tiv­i­ty. Per­haps this is inten­tion­al, though — Ham­burg­er seems to say that it can be easy to mis­un­der­stand the real­i­ties of oth­ers’ experiences.

Nir­vana songs and ado­les­cent mus­ings about Kurt Cobain pep­per the book, giv­ing it a grit­ty, sar­don­ic edge — albeit one mut­ed by nos­tal­gia. Nir­vana is Here is not a sto­ry about thriv­ing in spite of trau­ma, nor is it a tale weighed down by dev­as­ta­tion. Though Ari’s thorny teenage years illu­mi­nate his adult­hood, the events of his lat­er life do not bring res­o­lu­tion — fit­ting, giv­en the novel’s ties to Nir­vana and their pow­er­ful­ly ambigu­ous lyrics: I found it hard, it’s hard to find / Oh well, what­ev­er, nev­er mind.”

Discussion Questions