Thanks largely to Donald Trump, 2016 is turning out to be a year of atavisms. Right now, two of the major issues in the presidential election are suspicion of Russians, a throwback to the Cold War; and fear of immigrants, a throwback to the restrictionist 1920s. Ugly as these obsessions are, however, they make Still Here, the new novel by Lara Vapnyar, a peculiarly timely book. It is not that Vapnyar has anything overt to say about politics. On the contrary, this is a determinedly private story, about the eternal themes of personal life—love, mortality, parenthood, career. But its main characters are all, like Vapnyar herself, Russian immigrants to the United States, Muscovites turned New Yorkers, who find themselves living adult lives that are nothing like the ones they expected to have growing up. And so Vapnyar asks, with sympathy and insight, the very question that is so often posed in tones of suspicion and hostility: What does it mean to be an immigrant?
This has been a central concern in Vapnyar’s work since her first story collection, There Are Jews in My House, appeared in 2003. Vapnyar was born in Russia and came to America in the 1990s; she is part of the distinguished group of post-Soviet Jewish writers that includes Gary Shteyngart, Boris Fishman, and David Bezmozgis. In Still Here, the answer she seems to give is that, in America, being a Russian immigrant means everything and nothing. Certainly, the four friends at the heart of this novel—the married couple Sergey and Vica, and their friends Vadik and Regina—are acutely aware of the barriers that keep them from feeling simply at home in America.
But these barriers are more like transparent scrims than barbed-wire fences: Not once in Still Here do we hear about trouble with visas or work permits, not to mention fear of deportation. These are all securely middle-class people, though they are acutely aware of the professional and economic inequalities among them. Sergey works low-level jobs in finance and Vica is an ultrasound technician; together, their salaries allow them to scrape by, raising their son in a house on Staten Island. Vadik, by contrast, is a well-paid computer programmer, and Regina, who back home was a literary translator, now lives a life of discontented ease as the wife of Bob, a rich American entrepreneur.
What marks Vapnyar’s people as outsiders is something more inward, which surfaces in subtle ways, such as Vadik’s inability ever to settle down in an apartment. “The problem wasn’t that Vadik couldn’t find a suitable place to live, but that he couldn’t figure out what kind of place would be suitable for him,” Vapnyar writes. “For most people, the choice of apartment was determined by their financial situation, social status, and personality. But for immigrants it was more challenging. They couldn’t figure out what their social status was, their financial future was murky, and relying on one’s personality seemed frivolous.”
With no social cues or family traditions to tell them to how to live, all four of Vapnyar’s protagonists find themselves floundering. Regina, once part of the intelligentsia, now spends aimless days binge-watching television and binge-eating delivery food; she repeatedly tries, and fails, to get past the first page of Infinite Jest. (Later on, she is assigned to translate a hip novel called Humdrum, which seems to be Vapnyar’s sly parody of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s insistently quotidian My Struggle.) Similarly, Sergey, who had a Ph.D. in linguistics and was regarded as a genius in Moscow, now finds himself unable to fit into the American professional world, with its chipper conformism and its endless “evaluations”: “Sergey needs to demonstrate improvement in human relations”; “Sergey needs to react to criticism in more constructive ways.”
In short, Sergey needs to be more optimistically American. Yet browsing Facebook, he observes that “in his 14 years in this country he hadn’t made a single American friend.” Seeing the status updates of his friends back home, he feels jealous even of one who was “severely beaten by pro-Putin thugs”: “They seemed to have real lives, lives pulsating with excitement and meaning. They had lives he could have had if he’d stayed in Russia. Why, why on earth had he been so sure that he’d make it here?” (It may be a coincidence that Sergey and Regina, the intellectuals of the group, are both said to have Jewish or part-Jewish backgrounds, while Vadik and Vica do not. But in Vapnyar’s telling, and in sharp contrast to her earlier work, Jewishness itself seems to mean nothing in the lives of these friends. It is effaced in a common post-Soviet identity.)
Compared to these drifting melancholics, it’s hard not to feel a sneaking sympathy for Vica, who is outwardly the least appealing of the four. Vapnyar has deliberately given Vica many of the traits of the stereotypical Russian immigrant: She is aggressive and materialistic, dresses garishly, and pushes her son, Eric, relentlessly to academic achievement. (One of the novel’s best set-pieces concerns Eric’s attempt to get into a Stuyvesant-like high school, taking a test as Vica fumes and worries outside.) But Vapnyar also gives us access to the passions and insecurities that drive Vica; unlike the other characters, she at least knows what she wants, even if she sometimes drives everyone crazy in her attempt to get it.
But then, these friends are all in their late 30s, on the brink of midlife crisis, and as the slightly older Bob tells them, “That’s a crazy age. … Kind of like puberty for adults. When you’re 40, you’re branded as what you really are, no wiggle room after that—you gotta accept the facts. People do a lot of crazy shit right before they turn 40.” That is a pretty good description of what happens in Still Here, as its protagonists lash out in desperate attempts to distract themselves from the facts of aging. Vica, afraid that Sergey will never succeed and that she will be trapped in a mediocre life, throws him out and experiments with being single. Vadik restlessly searches for a woman he met only briefly years ago, on his very first day in America, and who has come to represent all the possibilities of American life that he never managed to grasp. Regina, drawn back to the old country for a visit, is confronted with the possibility of becoming a mother, something that she once thought was impossible.
And Sergey, who is the closest thing to an outright failure in the group, does everything he can to chase our era’s version of the American Dream: inventing a successful app. “You immigrants think of apps as this new gold rush,” Bob tells Sergey condescendingly, to which he replies: “Yes, we do. … What is so wrong about that?” After all, haven’t immigrants always come to America to get rich through smarts and hard work? Sergey has both: The problem is his idea, an app called Virtual Grave, which would analyze your social media posts and then, after you die, continue to tweet and post in your voice. Is this a genius idea, the kind of thing that could go viral and make millions? Or is it a terrible one, creepy and inauthentic, that forces Americans to confront the one subject they try hardest to ignore—the inevitability of death?
Over the course of the novel, various characters voice all these views of Sergey’s project. But there is no mistaking that Virtual Grave is where the two central themes of Still Here collide: hope and mortality, which are another way of saying youth and age—and also, perhaps, America and Russia. For if there is one aspect of the American character to which these four immigrants can’t adjust, it is the sunny, but also childish, refusal to confront tragedy. Vadik tells Regina that “the major difference between Russians and Americans was that Americans believed that they were in charge of their lives, that they could control them. Not just that, but that it was their responsibility to control their lives as much as they could. They would try to fight to the very end against all sense, because they considered letting go irresponsible.”
Vadik and Regina, like Sergey and Vica, are all experimenting in various ways with control—seizing it and relinquishing it. Vapnyar has an exceptional ability to show how this issue, which is almost philosophical, plays out in people’s real lives—and still more, in the 21st century, in their virtual lives, where we all exercise an illusory control over our image and desires. Cleverly, she stages the events of the novel so that smartphones and social media play a structural role in the characters’ lives. They communicate, and sometimes fall in and out of love, over Facebook and Skype; they use apps that tell them how to cook dinner and what to eat while watching different movies. In Moscow, visiting her mother’s grave, Regina comes across an ad for a service called GrieveForYou, which promises to send someone to visit graves for you. But can real life be lived so frictionlessly? Still Here is not just an insightful look at one privileged stratum of immigrant life; it is a satire, usually gentle and appealing, of the mediated existence we all live now.
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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.