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the Complete Review
the complete review - essays

     

American Fictionary

by
Dubravka Ugrešić


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase American Fictionary



Title: American Fictionary
Author: Dubravka Ugrešić
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 1993 (Eng. 1994, rev. 2018)
Length: 209 pages
Original in: Croatian
Availability: American Fictionary - US
American Fictionary - UK
American Fictionary - Canada
My American Fictionary - Deutschland
No hay nadie en casa - España
  • Croatian title: Američki fikcionar
  • First published in Dutch, as Nationaliteit: geen (1993)
  • Translated by Celia Hawkesworth and Ellen Elias-Bursać
  • Previously published in English, in slightly different form, as Have a Nice Day: From the Balkan War to the American Dream (1994)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : nicely done collection of foreign impressions, account of (this specific) exile experience

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times* . 23/4/1995 Richard Eder
The NY Times Book Rev.* . 25/6/1995 Paul Goldberg
The Washington Post* . 5/3/1996 Robert D. Kaplan

(* review of earlier version, Have a Nice Day)

  From the Reviews:
  • "Have a Nice Day is a journal of pain, and in no way an evasion of the awfulness inside what were once the five republics of Yugoslavia. Or rather, Ugresic's book attempts in some way to be an evasion, and to the degree that it fails it is a searing success. (...) Ugresic's heart is not in furnishing a new house. It is in her displacement from the old one. And she goes from the surface to the depths once she finds the real use for her American observations: to make of them a resonating chamber for her loss." - Richard Eder, The Los Angeles Times

  • "(A)t its best when Ms. Ugresic allows her experiences in America to focus her thoughts on her country. Sadly, instead of capitalizing on her strength, she devotes most of her efforts to critiquing America's popular culture. The result is a book that is as superficial as its title suggests." - Paul Goldberg, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The problem, though, is that as well-written and perceptive as parts of this book are, for too many pages the point is continued without achieving greater depth. There is too little progression of ideas, and the narrative becomes tiresome. It is more an angry reaction to America's cultural weaknesses than an explanation of them. As a reaction, Have a Nice Day would make a powerful magazine-length article. With a book, however, more is required." - Robert D. Kaplan, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       American Fictionary is a revised edition of Dubravka Ugrešić's 1993 collection, Američki fikcionar -- itself a collection of pieces originally written for a Dutch newspaper and then first published in Dutch, as Nationaliteit: geen -- that was first published in English as Have a Nice Day: From the Balkan War to the American Dream in 1994.
       As Ugrešić explains in 'P.S.', the final (and completely new) piece in the collection, about this new version:

This second American edition is different in some ways from the first: one essay has been dropped, another added, a third has been trimmed a bit. The opening motto was replaced by two others. The closing text, a letter to Norman written after my return to Zagreb has been dropped.
       Ugrešić's Dutch newspaper column was called My American Dictionary, but, as she writes in the opening piece of the collection, when she was retyping the columns on her return to Zagreb in 1992 she mistyped the d, hitting f instead, transforming her 'dictionary' into the apt 'fictionary'. With entries that are personal and often creatively embellished, rather than narrowly documentary, the new title nicely captures the kind of writing Ugrešić often practices, straddling factual and fictional.
       The pieces in American Fictionary are arranged much like a word- (and expression, and abbreviation) book, though not alphabetically, with Ugrešić riffing more and less freely about each -- 'Jogging', 'Mail Box', 'Yugo-Americana', 'Trash', 'Bagel', etc.
       The pieces -- except the new, final one -- come from the time of the post-Yugoslavian collapse breaking down and out into war in the early 1990s. Ugrešić spent much of this time abroad, mostly in the United States, and writes as a semi-exile, still closely connected to the homeland -- with frequent contact with and the occasional visit to it. The contrast between the United States, and especially its personal obsessions (notably fitness and consumption, for example), and the former Yugoslavia (shape- and border-shifting even as she writes) is a constant here. Both in communication with those still back home, such as her mother, and among fellow exiles from there who also find themselves in the US at the time, the irreal absurdity -- and its all-too-realness -- of what is happening back home seep into her engagement with the strangeness that is life in the US for the foreigner.
       Ugrešić's displacement is complete. At that time, she comes from:
In Croatia. In a country that does not yet exist. And where is that ? In Yugoslavia. In a country that no longer exists.
       She comes to America with the burden of her background -- leading her to:
envy 'Western' writers. I see my colleague, a Western writer, as an elegant passenger traveling with no luggage. I see myself as a passenger traveling with an enormous load of luggage, a passenger trying desperately to shed his burden, but dragging it tenaciously after him like destiny himself.
       Parts of America allow her some escape, as she can focus on the everyday near-banal, from American television to the jogging craze or the seeming global ubiquity of Coca-Cola. The perspective is that of the slightly bemused foreigner -- with the occasional reminder in her spin of her foreignness: one wonders, for example, if the editors intentionally left the Reebok slogan incorrect: "Life is short, play it hard, advises the slogan", Ugrešić writes -- though of course this is jarring to any American familiar with the actual slogan ('Life is short. Play hard.').
       The entries range from very personal accounts, loosely based on the entry-word, to ones entirely focused on, say the 'Bagel'. Ugrešić reaches entertainingly far, such as in, in 'Yugo-Americana', considering the reach of American culture in old Yugoslavia, a quick tour of its various manifestations (that included, for example, the series Peyton Place on Yugoslav TV).
       The collection is something of a mixed bag -- a collection of columns that isn't entirely haphazard but doesn't quite add up into the neatest of cohesive wholes -- but the well-turned observations and the variety of experiences, past and present, Ugrešić offers makes for a consistently engaging read. With the concluding 'P.S.', reflecting on the collection a quarter of a century after it was written, Ugrešić also nicely bring it into the present day, with its changed circumstances -- a more settled situation in what used to be Yugoslavia, a more rattled post-11 September, 2001 United States, and her own greater familiarity with, especially, New York.
       As with practically everything Ugrešić writes, American Fictionary is certainly a worthwhile read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 September 2018

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Links:

American Fictionary: Reviews (* review of earlier version, Have a Nice Day): Dubravka Ugrešić: Other Books by Dubravka Ugresic under Review: Other books of interest under Review:

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About the Author:

       Dubravka Ugrešić was born in 1949, in Yugoslavia (now Croatia). Her writing has been translated into numerous languages. She was awarded the prestigious Heinrich Mann Prize in 2000.

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© 2018 the complete review

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