Keith Gessen’s newest novel, A Terrible Country, takes place in the year 2008, but its true backdrop is actually the Russia of old literature—of strange superstitions, of political turmoil so omnipresent that it almost goes ignored, of charming characters and savvy operators and rubles and kopecks and wide boulevards and long lonely nighttime walks that are as enchanting as they are dangerous. Gessen takes us back in time twice—once to 2008, and then once again to the 19th century.
A Terrible Country is about a floundering Russian-American academic who, after living in the United States for decades, decides to return to Moscow and look after his grandmother as she tumbles into dementia. Back in New York, the protagonist, Andrei, was a free radical, dumped by his girlfriend, unable to land a job, and still living a Brooklyn-based, mid-20s-style life well into his 30s.
The backdrop to this domestic and emotional tinderbox is 2008 Russia—which, in 2018, feels as remote and captivating as it does dangerous. Without drilling into the state of current geopolitical tensions or relying too heavily on Zeitgeist-y curiosities, Gessen attempts to answer the far more human questions that have lingered in the back of Andrei’s mind during his time in America: What would life have looked like if he had never gone to the United States? Is there some surrogate version of his life still there, some alternate version of the life he should have been living? At the same time, the book works to demystify day-to-day life in a country where the quotidian is inscrutable. Each chapter peels back a different part of the Russian enigma as seen through the eyes of a protagonist with modern-day American sensibilities, as he bungles his way through Moscow: going clubbing, making friends, joining a socialist political group, fixing his grandmother’s water heater. It’s like a mid-30s coming-of-age story mixed with a kind of ironic travel memoir.
But what carries A Terrible Country is that Gessen does two things exceptionally well. The first is the act of dissecting Andrei’s suffocating loneliness. Transcontinental moves are always done starry-eyed and full of hope, but from the moment he arrives, Andrei struggles to recreate the rhythm of a normal life in Moscow. Nothing is easy. As soon as he enters his grandmother’s apartment, she has trouble understanding who exactly he is to her. He also has no friends, and spends his days surrounded all too often by his own thoughts or the ambient sound of his grandmother’s propaganda news programs. By all measures, Moscow should be his home and yet he is incapable of feeling at home there. And so even this inability to make sense of Moscow further isolates him because of how humiliating it is to him personally. He feels out of place in his hometown. In moments of desperation Andrei tries to reproduce parts of his life back in New York with Band-Aid solutions: He sits for hours at a time in a coffee shop to get free Wi-Fi, he takes regular beatings on the ice by skilled hockey players just for a chance at playing alongside them, and he trawls Facebook for updates on his friends in America. He drinks himself to sleep at night. Even months after arriving in Moscow, Andrei lives in the absence of human warmth. He is untethered, both physically and figuratively.
The second is that Gessen also finds a way to create a sort of warmth, almost a cozy merriment between grandmother and grandson, even as the latter grows stir crazy. Lonely and beleaguered Andrei, at first easily frustrated with his grandmother, grows more and more attached to her—even protective of her—as he learns to navigate his way through the life she methodically built for herself from the wreckage that Andrei’s family left behind when they emigrated to the United States. Andrei and his grandmother play anagrams together, he studies and memorizes her daily errands, and tries to show her the newer, younger parts of Moscow he discovered on his own, like his Wi-Fi café or art-house movie theaters. Andrei has hardly seen his grandmother in years but quickly finds his way into that frustrated but heartfelt dynamic that only seems to exist with grandparents.
But at times Gessen departs from the things he does best. On occasion he accidentally falls into the trap of a device called “plot blocking,” when the writer prevents plots from unfolding so as to prolong a particular plotline. In this case, as Andrei becomes more involved with a group of Moscow political activists, he meets a young woman named Yulia. It is clear from the onset that he and Yulia will end up sleeping together, but instead of spending any time with her, Andrei arbitrarily goes home. When things start to heat up, he goes home again. The result is not so much sexual or romantic tension, but a romance whose start is delayed by some 75 pages. Although perhaps intended to prolong Andrei’s period of adjustment in Moscow, it also halts the natural pace of a subplot.
But what Gessen does best is flip expectations. By choosing subjects that are so relevant, so of-the-time, Gessen almost leads you to believe his work will be boilerplate, predictable. The title of his first book, All the Sad Young Literary Men, suggests something convoluted and pretentious, not a tender and incisive triptych. Here, too, especially in 2018, with Putin all over the headlines, A Terrible Country sounds like it should be a book almost entirely about Russia—satirical, nearly farcical, like a funny Kafka book. Instead it’s a novel where Russia—a character so compelling that it could have sucked the air out of the room—is merely the landscape on which an even more compelling story plays out—about a human being, and his grandmother.
Read Alexander Aciman’s Bookworm column in Tablet magazine on Mondays.