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.”
Russell Janzen is a New York-based writer and a dancer with the New York City Ballet.