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Russian Jewish American Lit Goes Boom!

New novels in English by Soviet émigrés navigate the line between immigrant memoir and true fiction

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“You form a certain image,” says Arianna Bock, a third-generation American Jew, to Slava Gelman, a twentysomething, first-generation Russian Jewish immigrant. She is speaking, in Boris Fishman’s debut novel A Replacement Life, of how she perceives Russia, just as many American Jews do, based on the stories their grandparents had passed down about the old country. “And then you read something like what you wrote,” she continues, talking about a personal essay Slava recently penned about his Soviet childhood, “and it’s nothing at all like what you thought.”

Slava and Arianna are the protagonists of one of a half-dozen new books written this year in English by Soviet-born émigré Jewish writers. A dozen years after the publication of Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Handbook in 2002, which was the first notable novel in what would become a full-fledged literary subgenre, this year’s abundant harvest, including besides Fishman’s debut new works by Lara Vapnyar, Ellen Litman, Anya Ulinich, and, later this year, David Bezmozgis, offers a fitting excuse for wondering about this literature’s future.

The writers in question form a generation: They were all born in the 1970s in the Soviet Union—a country that had occupied much of the American imagination during the Cold War. Each of the authors moved to North America, some as children accompanying their parents who were leaving because of the gains of the Soviet Jewry movement elegantly described by Gal Beckerman in his award-winning recent book, and others as young adults. Their coming of age as immigrant writers can be mapped over two overlapping phenomena. On the one hand, they were buoyed by the explosion of literature of immigrant experience in America on the cusp of the 21st century, their names added to the list that includes the likes of Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Díaz, Aleksandar Hemon, and Chang-rae Lee (who was Shteyngart’s mentor). On the other hand, the fact that Vladimir Putin has held an ever-firmer grip on Russia and launched expansive foreign policy has ensured that the region stays in the headlines and, ironically, returns ever closer to a familiar, albeit not entirely accurate, Cold War typology.

In this there is both a blessing and a curse for these writers. As contemporary Russia morphs back into the semblance of its old Soviet self, there seems to be no end to stories one can tell that would continue mining this nexus of immigrant experience and Russian mystique. Much of this creative output has already done so successfully, with critically acclaimed or best-selling work by all the writers already mentioned in addition to the books—so far, one from each—by Nadia Kalman, Irina Reyn, and Sana Krasikov, and with two writers of this cohort—Bezmozgis and Shteyngart—making it to The New Yorker’s “20 under 40” list at the beginning of the present decade precisely as writers to watch in the 2010s. Could it be that we are at a point of oversaturation and a critical juncture: How much more is there for this literature to say?

In Fishman’s novel, Arianna’s comment on Slava’s story is a fine example of “meta-fiction”—a device by which the writer pierces through the fictional world they created and wants the reader to notice the artifice behind this world’s construction. Arianna, as an American Jewish reader of Slava’s Soviet story, is intrigued—but it’s important to note that this conversation is set in the summer of 2006, when the output of Russian-Jewish stories, though already ascendant, was still modest in number. What would an Arianna say now? The question in 2014 is whether literature written in English by Soviet-born émigré Jewish writers has stories to tell that are still fresh and new, and whether they have the ability to pose questions that haven’t been asked before.

The impression from reading this year’s batch of “Russian” books is mixed. Those memoirs or fictions—as well as fictions that are disguised memoirs—that arise out of their authors’ seemingly complete knowledge of their own past don’t seem particularly insightful. Situating narratives in the landscape of abundant facts—facts about the Soviet way of life, for instance—appear as guided by a kind of habitual nostalgia, with its obsessive resorting to what is known, that aims to faithfully recreate aspects of the past that have been lost. By contrast, those of this year’s books in which the central questions emerge either from insufficient knowledge or absence—total or partial—of verifiable facts, or from a painstaking process of questioning those facts, coupled with resistance to nostalgia’s dominant role in the narrative, offer surprising and heretofore unseen ways of looking at the Soviet past, the immigrant experience, and life in America.

Perhaps this is, more generally, a challenge of immigrant fiction as well as fiction by writers who come from strong ethno-cultural communities. Famously, in the decade after Goodbye, Columbus, Philip Roth sought a break from writing about New Jersey Jews he knew so much about and in When She Was Good tried his pen at a different subject matter (before returning full force and with new insights to Newark’s Jews in Portnoy’s Complaint). There are plenty of “meta” bits in this year’s books by Soviet-born émigré writers, and they add up to these authors’ evident understanding that a break from the fictions that are hybrid memoirs may be timely. The awareness of this, scattered on the pages of these books, gives us a hint that the future of this literature may lie not in the rehashing of somewhat familiar stories but rather in a more radical practice of “replacement lives”: a cleaner break with the experience these writers already know and a more daring flight into the possibilities of fiction.

***

In Yiddish, the expression “grandmother’s tales” refers to far-fetched stories that never happened. In Fishman’s novel, the stories that Slava’s grandmother never shared and that, after her death, he is compelled to invent in her stead, become the hook that keeps Slava in the Russian Jewish immigrant fold. He has attempted to escape this community two years earlier when he decided that he needed to become an American—specifically, an American who could be a writer with a style free of “the pollution that repossessed him every time he returned to the swamp broth of Soviet Brooklyn.”

This plan hasn’t worked very well. Slava has been lying to his family about his nonexistent publications in Century, a New Yorker clone, whereas his actual job at the magazine was to comb through improbable-sounding headlines in America’s lesser publications and furnish them with snooty commentary—though without his own byline.

At Century, Slava learns about the pitfalls of writing about what he knows. When sent on an assignment to cover a self-styled “urban explorer” scaling the mausoleum of Ulysses S. Grant in New York’s Riverside Park, Slava uses the opportunity to write about his childhood memories of visiting another mausoleum—that of Vladimir Lenin, in Moscow. Slava’s essay is one of two submitted: He had been asked to write the piece in a competition with another eager junior employee. The editorial board votes down Slava’s contribution because it doesn’t stick to the assignment. His competitor gets the coveted byline.

For Slava, this rejection stings: He had tied his American aspirations to success at Century, but the magazine doesn’t appear to be interested in what he has to say—because he says it about himself. And so, after his grandmother’s death, guided by guilt for not being around her in the final months of her life and lured by his newly widowed grandfather, Zhenya Gelman, with a proposal that feeds his hunger for writing the way that Century didn’t, Slava heads back to Brooklyn.

Slava’s grandmother Sofia was a survivor of the Minsk ghetto, while Zhenya, having lied about his age to avoid the draft, sat out the war in Central Asia. (This is one of the novel’s moral quandaries, centered on the question of forgoing the facts, including of one’s real age: Should Zhenya have gone to a certain death in battle, Slava later asks Arianna, or was lying justified because, in the end, it led to Slava’s birth?) Badly timed, the invitation to apply for Holocaust restitution funds from the German government arrives exactly when Slava’s grandmother has died. Zhenya had previously dismissed Slava’s writerly aspirations as unsuitable for a successful immigrant. Now, ever the schemer, he cynically embraces Slava as a writer and asks him to complete the “narrative” part of the application, which asks for the applicant’s account of the personal suffering endured during the Holocaust—with his wife’s story deployed as if it were his own.

Zhenya’s proposal, detestable though it seems to Slava at first, becomes an opportunity to imagine his grandmother’s life. Slava has to imagine this life because—Slava’s grandmother being one of the people who preferred “to live as if their tragic mistakes never took place”—the actual details are scant. It’s also a chance to write a believable story for a discerning audience.

Before long many more elderly Russian Jews, all of them displaced during WWII or injured in combat but none of them direct victims of the Holocaust, seek Slava out to do the same favor for them. (Zhenya’s dictum, “Maybe I didn’t suffer in the exact same way I needed to have suffered but they made sure to kill all the people who did,” resonates with people for whom deceit, especially in routine bureaucratic circumstances that determined so much in their lives in the USSR, was an essential survival skill.) Slava finds himself busy inventing many narratives and replacing many lives—fearing and even investigating the potential repercussions of the fraud he is facilitating but nonetheless unable to stop.

In the process of writing, Slava heads to the library and reads up on the Holocaust in the Soviet Union. Soon enough, he has gathered a catalog of clear facts about the Minsk ghetto—but together with them, he also stumbled on the realization that narratives of suffering are less believable if they rely too heavily on established facts. Real survivors, Slava reasons, would not have had access to the complete historical narrative in recounting their own stories. As facts get in the way of storytelling—with answers pried out of Arianna about what is and what isn’t a verifiable fact (“anything that can piss anybody off by being wrong,” she tells him on one of their dates)—Slava fills the pages of narratives for the elderly Jewish impostors with bits and pieces of the life he invents for his grandmother. In turn, the love for his grandmother, the desire to imagine her life during the war, and the loss of an ability to ask her directly humanizes Slava’s army of fraudulent claimants and gives them all lives they didn’t live.

***

The question of facts—especially those that the reader of émigré narratives may already know—is also essential to another book out this season. Lena, the Soviet-born protagonist of Lara Vapnyar’s The Scent of Pine, purveys tales to her interlocutor, Ben, of what it was like to work as a counselor in a summer camp during the 1980s—stories of sexually curious and inexperienced university students who are instructed to prevent their teenage campers from masturbating at bedtime. Ben is an American-born cartoonist she met at a conference on “The Aesthetics of Oppression” where she was scheduled to speak on sex education in the former USSR. (At the conference, nobody attends Lena’s talk—perhaps the first hint, whether intended or not, by Vapnyar who has herself spoken and written on the same subject as her heroine, that the topic may be less novel to the audience than the speaker thought.)

In the passenger’s seat of Ben’s cluttered car, it’s mostly Lena who does the talking because Ben keeps asking her to continue—while frequently noting that the story sounds uncannily familiar to him. As the trip stretches into days, the two get further and further into the woods of New England where Ben owns a cottage. They also get deeper and deeper into some midlife-crisis-fueled adultery, replete with the drawing of each other’s genitals: Ben is, after all, a cartoonist—and, at that, one whose first (unpublished) work was Grammatology of a Pussy—though Lena, too, tries her hand at drawing a male member.

During her employment at the summer camp about two decades before, Lena had read—in no small part because of the sexual details—Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Canterbury Tales-like, the novel itself, rather predictably, is a series of stories told while on the road, many of them about sex (or lack thereof), with Lena’s flashbacks to her experiences at the Soviet summer camp. Ben here is a stand-in for the figure of the American reader positioned on the receiving end of stories about the USSR. But unlike Arianna in Fishman’s novel, Ben doesn’t find Lena’s story all that new in the end; moreover, he is already familiar with it.

Ben’s familiarity with the story being told is that bit of “meta-fiction” that illustrates, more generally, the possible overabundance of such stories. In his memoir Little Failure, which I reviewed in these pages earlier this year, Gary Shteyngart has offered an account of himself so complete as to almost preclude its author from putting out any more books with protagonists modeled too much on his own person. (Shteyngart’s next novel is reported to have a globetrotting female protagonist who isn’t of Russian-Jewish stock.) In this vein, Vapnyar’s novel hews closely to what Vapnyar, who is about the same age as her heroine, herself knew of her life in Russia prior to her immigration to the United States. It’s possible, in fact, that this field has been exhausted. Could it be that the intended reader of this literature is too similar to Ben, egging on the writer to continue telling their story even though they are already vaguely familiar with the story’s general outline?

In Vapnyar’s novel, Lena’s story is motivated by something that Lena has been trying to figure out for years—why several men she went on dates with each disappeared from the summer camp after a single night out with her. But the narrative desire to resolve this mystery (as well as its resolution in the end) exists within an overwhelming number of facts that are stationary and inflexible. These are facts about the Soviet way of life in the 1980s: How favors were arranged by people with connections, that the Latin dance Lambada was popular in the USSR, and even the ubiquitous scary stories, told to campers at bedtime, that existed as a clearly defined genre of Soviet summer camp folklore. No matter the mystery at the heart of Lena’s story, the overabundance of these commonplaces makes for a rather trite tale.

Another fiction that provides a catalog of facts about the late Soviet period is Ellen Litman’s new novel Mannequin Girl. Though the story of Kat Knopman, the daughter of a Jewish couple involved in the dissident movement, differs entirely from Lena’s, the setting—a boarding school for children with scoliosis and other skeletal and muscular ailments—affords the writer similar ways of exploring manifestations of Soviet life in the waning years of the USSR. In each novel, the narrative voice takes charge of the characters under its tutelage and intersperses their lives with clichés that come right out of what is each respective author’s lived experience. (Like Vapnyar, Litman immigrated to the United States after coming of age in the Soviet Union, in 1992. Like her protagonist, Kat, Litman was diagnosed with scoliosis as a child.)

From the tune that accompanies the weather forecast on the state TV’s daily news program and the song Russians sing on their birthdays to the fact that one exchanges paper recycling for books one wants to read, Litman’s protagonists appear as props in a narrative defined by commonplaces of the time. To those readers who don’t know that these are Soviet clichés, these references add up to a laundry list of Soviet oddities that aren’t adequately explained. (Had this been a memoir rather than memoir disguised as fiction, these facts might have been explained better.) In such a landscape of predictable facts, the protagonists’ lives appear as little more than variations on how a Soviet person navigates the system around them. Similarly to how Lena’s story appears to Ben in Vapnyar’s novel, The Mannequin Girl is the story that many American readers already vaguely know: that, with variations to account for the specificity of individual experience, Soviet life is a life lived within, despite, or against the system.

***

A series of “meta” reflections on whether fiction—together with clichés this fiction suggests—can itself provide facts one can live by is essential to another book out this season. In the pivotal moment of Anya Ulinich’s graphic novel Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel the first-person narrator—who, much like Ulinich herself, arrived from Moscow to Arizona as a teenager and now is a Brooklynite in her 30s, a woman twice divorced—finds herself seated next to a stranger on a long bus ride after she drops off her two daughters at a summer camp. Following a fantasy involving a curmudgeonly Philip Roth seated next to her (and her confession to him about how much the first-generation American Jewish family described in Portnoy’s Complaint was similar to Lena’s own Russian Jewish immigrant clan), Lena notices that her actual bus seat neighbor is reading a different classic of American Jewish fiction.

The man, whom Lena will soon dub “the Orphan,” is reading Bernard Malamud’s story “The Magic Barrel,” whose protagonist is named Leo Finkle. Lena borrows the book from the Orphan and marvels at the similarity of Leo Finkle’s name to her own, as well as at the parallels between her and Leo’s experience of dating in New York—albeit, a couple of generations apart in time. With her first novel, A Village Idiot’s Guide to America, already behind her and numerous, deliciously caricatured writing classes in Brooklyn already taught, Lena notes authoritatively that Malamud’s story is hardly about true love, contrary to what the Orphan makes of it. In the story’s ending, she says, the perspective shifts from Leo’s to the author’s and therefore is quite cynical of what Leo sees, together with “[v]iolins and lit candles revolv[ing]” in the sky, as his redemption found in love. There is no love there, Lena concludes—and what attracts Leo to his matchmaker’s daughter Stella is “nothing more than panicked grasping for some kind of meaning” arising out of Leo’s crisis of faith. Several pages later, as Lena and the Orphan go out on their first date, Ulinich draws a page that shows Malamud’s violins and candles dancing in the sky—noting that while Leo Finkle’s story ended before it followed his and Stella’s relationship into a predictable decline, Lena Finkle’s story of a torturous relationship with the Orphan had only begun. The mistake, it seems, was that Finkle did not heed the lessons she so effectively drew out of Malamud’s fiction as its critical reader and that she, out of her own longing for “some kind of meaning,” invested the Orphan with qualities he did not possess.

Ulinich focuses on her protagonist’s latent Russianness to point out that this Russianness is mediated by clichés that could be misleading. There is a page depicting Lena’s walking with Alik, both when he was the flame of her Russian youth and now, years later, as the flame that she contemplated rekindling on a return trip to Russia. We see the two of them reciting lines from the Russian poet Osip Mandelshtam’s “Petropolis,” which served as a proof text for Ulinich’s first novel by the same title. But the part of this split panel that depicts Finkle’s earlier self is drawn, like every other manifestation of the heroine in the past, as a caricature-like sketch—comical in comparison to far more detailed images of herself and those around her at present. With the help of this caricature, the panel suggests that the Russian text noted on the page shouldn’t be taken at face value. Revitalizing the relationship with Alik appears to be doomed in great part because, all these years hence, he is too Russian—in a heavy, existential way that Lena has been trying to learn to avoid. The presence of the caricatured earlier self that has once fallen for this existential heaviness appears to warn Lena of giving in to this past and embracing this heaviness again. (Lena’s conscience and/or alter ego, drawn throughout the book as a distinct protagonist who looks like a miniature version of Lena dispensing advice that is mostly ignored, warns Lena that her “brain area that reacts to sad Russian men has been activated” when Alik reappears in Lena’s life.)

Multiple other allusions to Russian literature turn up a subtext that is healthily snarky—rather than nostalgic—about the Russian past. There is Lena’s mother who, while babysitting Lena’s daughters, has taught them one of Alexander Pushkin’s most famous poems (to what end? Lena hasn’t taught her kids any Russian and saw them as “excellent tethers” to her American life). There is Lena’s mother again, bewildered by how Lena could sleep with men she met through online dating sites. On this occasion the elder Finkle channels Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s dictum “Die, but do not give a kiss without love!” (Lena retorts that the quote comes from What Is To Be Done? which is “famously, the worst novel ever written in Russian.”) And then there is a sample online dating profile with Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and the [sic] Margarita listed as one Brooklyn man’s favorite novel (“ ‘The’ Margarita?” Lena muses. “And how on earth has a novel about Satan’s struggle against the Moscow Writers’ Union become a hipster shibboleth?”)

Ulinich’s Lena is aware that treating Russian literature as life’s blueprint is a worn-out cliché—including when it is appropriated by eager Americans. She is spot-on about many other clichés as well. For example, when asked by her (American) friend to evaluate her lovemaking session with Alik, she goes through a hilarious list, in caricature, of famous Russians getting it on—the Gorbachevs followed by the Mandelshtams followed by the specters of Master and Margarita. With this, as well as with other pages that blend several styles of drawing and multiple levels of text, Ulinich makes the ingenious move of first leading Lena’s American friend (and, by proxy, Ulinich’s American reader) astray by describing the lived experience of her protagonist in terms of cultural and literary clichés—and then making clear that both the author and her narrator know that such ways of storytelling won’t do. Unlike the protagonists of Vapnyar’s and Litman’s novels who live among and surrounded by commonplaces that are frequently filled with nostalgia, Ulinich’s Lena valiantly fights back.

***

“Replacement lives” aren’t merely those that immigrants invent for themselves and for their people, or those that, in Fishman’s novel, Slava Gelman invents for his elderly clientele. In the course of his work inventing stories of Holocaust suffering, memories of Slava’s own immigration experience bubble up, too. And Slava’s tales offer the most powerful reckoning with the immigration experience by a Soviet-born American Jewish author this year—and, perhaps, to date.

At one point we get a glimpse into how Slava’s family ended up in America in the first place:

The Gelmans managed to leave the Soviet Union only because all sides had agreed to pretend that they were going to Israel. The Soviet government wouldn’t release Soviet citizens directly to the United States. But it would release its Jews to Israel, “family reunification” being less humiliating to the USSR as the refugees’ reason for emigration than discontent with socialist paradise. If there was no family in Israel, as there usually wasn’t, it was manufactured. Scribes popped up to supply people like the Gelmans with an Aunt Chaya in Haifa and a Cousin Mumik in Ashdod. These invented Chayas and Mumiks filled out affidavits in the scribe’s hand requesting the Soviet government to release their relatives. The Soviet visa office quietly acquiesced.

Moreover, because Soviet Jewish families like Slava’s couldn’t travel directly from the USSR to New York, countries involved in transit collaborated in this deception: “At every step, everyone had lied about everything so the one truth at the heart of it all—that abused people might flee the place of abuse—could be told.”

Holocaust suffering may not be transferrable, as Slava learns, but Fishman’s novel poses the insightful question of whether, regardless of the details of one’s wartime experience as a Soviet Jew, there was enough devastation to go around among family members who, though not incarcerated in ghettos or concentration camps, were displaced or fought in the Red Army. Substituting the details of one specific life for another, then, could be a way to address the suffering that somehow does belong to all. Moreover, what is to prevent such replacement, the novel asks, if all the actors in the related drama of Soviet Jewish immigration agreed to a substitution guided by a similar principle: that an entire ethno-cultural group be treated as qualified for asylum, no matter the individual details and no matter the fictions deliberately invented to skirt laws widely seen as unfair?

Fishman’s novel is ostensibly about the Soviet Jewish immigrant experience at the point of arrival and Slava’s attempted escape from this community. But as the barely noticeable references to points of transit in the journey between Minsk and New York suggest, what keeps Slava in the fold is his own life, which is replaced or supplemented as much as the lives of everyone else in this community.

Fishman’s novel is about responsibility for lives constructed out of lies that may, nonetheless, be justifiable and about reconciliation with a community that is much easier to ridicule than to live with precisely because one is bound to it by these fabrications. Slava may have wished to become an American once and for all by escaping from the fraught familial bonds of immigrant Brooklyn. That initial moment of lying, in the USSR and in transit, precludes the possibility of ever fully replacing well-devised fictions with fully verifiable facts. But that’s how you become American.

***

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Russian Jewish American Lit Goes Boom!

New novels in English by Soviet émigrés navigate the line between immigrant memoir and true fiction