By Darin Strauss

The daunting thing, of course, is the word itself. You hear "genius," you picture Wile E. Coyote, tinkering alone in the sierras, cobbling together the rocket-powered cycle on which he will catch only trouble.

Sarajevo-born Chicago resident Aleksandar Hemon won a MacArthur "genius" grant after only two books: a skinny story collection, "The Question of Bruno," and a skinny novel, "Nowhere Man." He was 40 at the time.

Considering the old saw that only two things can ruin a writer, early failure and early success, the award could have been murder (forgetting the five-year, $500,000 stipend that comes with it).

Part of the trouble is the word itself; it has been devalorized. Genius used to imply the most exacting and perpetual gifts: a compliment once reserved for those ultraselect who, leaping ahead of the masses, changed the world in a gleam of inspiration—the Einsteins, Tolstoys, the Louis Armstrongs. As author Franz Lidz put it:

"Mankind used to produce two or three geniuses per century. Now, it gives us a couple of dozen per month."

Naturally, for every Lethem, Whitehead and Foster Wallace, there are at least a few MacArthur winners who have trouble carrying it off. I'm not going to name names. But I know of one overburdened guy who—like some little fella swaggering into a bar wearing a sequined heavyweight champion belt—now embarrasses himself trying to bear great significance in every sentence he writes, as if he's expected to justify that impossible, nebulous title each time out.

All the same, I'm about to make a big assertion: Hemon just might have, in his third book, pulled it off. I'm not sure "The Lazarus Project" is a work of genius, but it may be the work of a genius.

Too much contemporary fiction seems purposefully to address small things in small ways—and it's not even a question of a writer's skill; it's a question of intent, of pinched ambition. But "The Lazarus Project" takes a healthy swing at the all-inclusive, the gripping, at the truly audacious. It's a book that manages to do what the best fiction does: It frames the public conscience of its own messy, changeful period. Hemon's is a majestic talent.

Plot summary will make this seem a drier book than it is; it's full of moments that, like shadows, would die if I were to shine a light on them. Also, if I tell you too much now, it'll spoil your fun later. Still, a book reviewer has certain obligations, so here's a taste:

In 1908 Chicago, amid xenophobic fears about local anarchists and/or Jews (I can hear my Jewish grandmother asking, "Is there a difference?"), the city's police chief kills an Eastern European Jew, Lazarus Averbuch, who had merely gone to the chief's house bearing a note. In a concurrent plot, a 21st Century Bosnian-American writer named Brik plans to start research for a book about Averbuch. Brik, using a little doofus charm, wins a grant that takes him and a fellow Bosnian to modern-day Eastern Europe. (The Averbuch incident is true, by the way, and in real life, Hemon and photographer Velibor Bozovic, a fellow Bosnian emigre, took such a journey.)

As the two stories unspool, we see that Brik and Averbuch, though separated by 100 years, are connected—in their glancing way, as best as someone stuck on the fulcrum of an impoverished world, and a modern guy who has made his way to the outside of that world's arc, can ever really be connected.

Brik's research consists of his traveling across Eastern Europe, satellite countries the Soviets left like rock stars trashing a hotel room they'd been forced abruptly to leave. Brik's companion is Rora, a wiseacre photographer whose pictures enliven the novel. Their trip isn't much on grant-worthy research (brothels, fist fights, tall tales from Rora), but it makes for great reading.

Meanwhile, in the 1908 plotline, we meet Lazarus' sister, Olga. Not only is she harassed by the police and a nasty Tribune reporter, but also by a wealthy, assimilated Jew who manages, with a silky bit of quiet knife work, to cut her off from making proper goodbyes to her brother. The modern and historical stories are linked: names echo between the plots, each features a man disguising himself as a corpse; each has a surprising murder.

But as always with good fiction, it's the prose—the skill, the flair with detail, the wit—that counts. The writing in "The Lazarus Project" is clean, sharp and wide, with a smell of turbid city water that kind of wakes up a reader. You feel a mastery that doesn't need to show itself off. Of the Eastern European propensity for tall tales, Hemon writes:

"There was a storytelling code of solidarity—you did not sabotage someone else's narration if it was satisfying to the audience, or you could expect one of your stories to be sabotaged one day, too. Disbelief was permanently suspended, for nobody expected truth or information, just the pleasure of being in the story and, maybe, passing it off as their own. It was different in America: the incessant perpetuation of collective fantasies makes people crave the truth and nothing but the truth—reality is the fastest American commodity."

About war—all war—he tells us:

"In the beginning, every war has a neat logic: they want to kill us, we want not to die. But with time it becomes something else, the war becomes this space where anybody can kill anybody at any time, where everybody wants everybody dead, because the only way you are sure to stay alive is if everybody else is dead."

This is muscular and wise, an odd combination, like a medieval mystic wearing brass knuckles. Jose Saramago does that, but not for long stretches.