Lula, the fierce-witted protagonist of “My New American Life,” by Francine Prose, is a 26-year-old Albanian babysitter with doubtful immigration status and a compulsion to tell outrageous stories. Her sense of decency may have survived the worst excesses of communist dictatorship, but it’s rapidly eroding in the smug cynicism of Bush-Cheney America. Since arriving in the United States, Lula has not been able to stop lying or keeping secrets. She has failed to mention to her employer that she has entertained a trio of Albanian criminals for coffee in his New Jersey home, is hiding something for them in her room, and is making his teenage son, Zeke, mojitos every night. She’s also keeping quiet about the small matter of a stalker breaking into the house.
Prose is the author of many novels, nonfiction works covering subjects from Caravaggio to Anne Frank, and a treatise on reading, “Reading like a Writer,” which provides a key to understanding her own writing style of brilliant images, energized sentences and no paragraph left behind. She begins “My New American Life” by deftly squashing the “Borat” problem — those cliches about funny Eastern European accents, mangled English and poor personal hygiene. Lula is attractive, speaks in complete sentences and understands America through clear-eyed observation. Her Albanian voice is quickly established in her private opinions. Of her employer, Mr. Stanley, a single father who is overly safety-conscious about his son, Lula thinks, “No Albanian father would do that to his son and risk turning him gay.” Considering Zeke’s all-junk-food diet, she decides, “Let his wife worry some day.”
However, we cannot rely on anything Lula might say aloud about Albania. She is as likely to claim that her neighbors regularly burn each other at the stake (as vampires), as she is to report that her parents were killed in the NATO bombing of Kosovo. The latter lie is told to great effect during her job interview. “The smile dribbled off Mister Stanley’s face. It was the perfect moment to mention that her visa was running out.”
During her empty days in New Jersey while Zeke is at school, Lula composes folk stories in order to add “writer” to her enhanced immigration petition. She pleases her crusading, civil rights lawyer with a short story about a princess locked in a tower and a foreign prince who plants a quick-growing vine that provides for her escape and then grows on to wipe out all the local farmers. “Don especially liked that one, which, he said, proved that indigenous folk cultures foresaw the threat of species importation and genetic engineering.” When he and Mr. Stanley insist that sad immigrant memoirs sell better than short fiction, she begins to adapt and twist ancient folk stories into a fake autobiography, though she has difficulty finding a modern substitution for a magic genie.
Lula participates in all the rituals of suburban American life: buying processed food at the Good Earth organic food store; accompanying Zeke and his father on a disastrous fall college tour; joining the family’s Christmas dinner at Applebee’s. As the story progresses, the reader becomes aware that Prose is skillfully suggesting that life in America may be no less absurd than one of Lula’s Albanian tall tales. Don, her lawyer, brings home incredible reports of torture at Guantanamo. Mr. Stanley’s mentally ill ex-wife makes a startling appearance, smeared Karen-Finley-style in what Lula hopes is chocolate. Zeke applies to a college where a school shooting has increased his admission chances. Meanwhile, Lula’s Albanian gangster friends seem more sensitive than her emotionally absent boss or her womanizing lawyer. Most warped of all, American TV seems to Lula to be filled with communist-style misinformation — from ridiculously hyped news alerts of bird flu and “credible” terror threats, to the vice president, who scares her “with his cold little eyes not blinking when he lied, like an Eastern Bloc dictator minus the poufy hair.”
Prose spins the many straws of American culture into a golden tale, shimmering with hilarious, if blistering, satire. While those who have pre-ordered Dick Cheney’s memoirmay not enjoy the pointed barbs about the last Republican White House, readers of all political persuasions will find that Prose is an equal-opportunity satirist in an America that can no longer tell truth from fairy tale.
Simonson is the author of the novel “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.”
MY NEW AMERICAN LIFE
By Francine Prose
Harper. 306 pp. $25.99