According to the familiar adage, there are only two stories: a man goes on a journey and a stranger comes to town. It’s a catchy premise that falls apart when measured against one’s experience of literature. Yet I found myself recalling it after reading Keith Gessen’s excellent new novel, A Terrible Country. What if those two plots were in fact successive chapters in a single story? A man (or woman) goes on a journey and becomes the stranger in town. Isn’t that what happens in the novel of immigration?
A Terrible Country gives us this narrative arc—and plenty more—to consider. It inspires us to reflect on the indelible stamp that each historical era leaves on its survivors; the harrowing or amusing complexities of migration and repatriation; the challenge of understanding—and functioning in—a foreign culture; the dangers of assuming that one does understand that culture; and the relative merits of beneficent socialism, Communist dictatorship, and cowboy capitalism-gone-rogue. At the same time the novel’s narrative voice is so conversational, so laid-back and low-key, that it may take the reader a while to register the scope and ambition of Gessen’s project: how much he attempts and accomplishes.
That voice belongs to Andrei Kaplan, who at six left the Soviet Union with his family and who has become thoroughly Americanized—that is to say, he’s clinging to the lower-lower-middle rung of the American dream. A student of Russian literature whose academic career dead-ended before it began, sharing an apartment with roommates after a romantic breakup, he’s “desperate to leave New York”:
The last of my old classmates from the Slavic department had recently left for a new job…and my girlfriend of six months, Sarah, had recently dumped me at a Starbucks. “I just don’t see where this is going,” she had said, meaning I suppose our relationship, but suggesting in fact my entire life. And she was right: even the thing that I had once most enjoyed doing—reading and writing about and teaching Russian literature and history—was no longer any fun. I was heading into a future of half-heartedly grading the half-written papers of half-interested students, with no end in sight.
The failed academic, unlucky in love, is literary shorthand for “going nowhere.” So like Andrei, the reader is grateful and relieved when, in the opening pages, he gets a call from his older brother Dima, a Moscow wheeler-dealer and would-be plutocrat. Dima’s business affairs have necessitated an involuntary and temporary (or so Dima hopes) period of exile in London, and he needs Alexei to return to Russia to care for their grandmother, Baba Seva, who is almost ninety, lives alone, and is in precarious health.
Andrei, whose Russian is serviceable but rusty, has suffered through previous trips to his native land, grad school summers spent in a city marked by poverty, petty crime, urban decay, and paranoia. During one such visit, he ritually arranged his brightly…
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