Russian Jewish American Lit Goes Boom!
New novels in English by Soviet émigrés navigate the line between immigrant memoir and true fiction
“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.
The esteemed author talks about all the reasons the founder of psychoanalysis would have objected to a new examination of his life