In 2002, Gary Shteyngart published The Russian Debutante’s Handbook but it wasn't until 2008 that Emily Gould christened “The Beet Generation”. In an article of the same name in Russia! Magazine, she declared sagely that Russian immigrant authors are “So Hot Right Now”, a remark confirmed a year later by Masha Gessen in Snob magazine, who noted that “for an American writer today, it is best to be a Russian.” Not ten years since Shteyngart’s first novel, Adrian Wanner writes the first scholarly book on the topic of Russian translingual diasporic fiction and posed the question: “Have we already reached a point of ‘overkill’?”. Yet last year alone saw the publication of Shteyngart’s memoir of the Soviet émigré experience alongside second, third or fourth books by Ellen Litman, David Bezmozgis, Alina Simone, Lara Vapnyar and Anya Ulinich with debuts by new “Russian immigrant authors” on the scene — Yelena Akhtiorskaya, Kseniya Melnik, and Boris Fishman. Yevgeniya Traps called 2014 “the year of the Soviet American Jew, when it seems like every man, woman and child who hails from the good old USSR and owns a writing implement has detailed his or her experience.”
So what’s the deal with the Russian American immigrant novel? Why the enduring fascination with this genre?
We are reminded over and over again by publishers and publicists that these novels are Russian, promising both humour (funny accents! funny food!) and weightiness (tormented soul! tormented history!). The phrase “eastern European émigré” rings with the alliterative allure of foreign intellectuals marooned on our shores, and if the blurbs are to be believed, contemporary Russian American authors all write like Tolstoy/Dostoevsky/Chekhov/Gogol/Babel/Nabokov, carrying the blessing and burden of their literary heritage.
While it is true that this literary craze offers both an outsider’s insight into American culture and insider knowledge of an inscrutable exotic world, there is an overlooked reason that these books have gained increasing popularity over the past decade; one which has more to do with the shared American experience than curiosity about the Russian one. The Soviet Jewish immigrant experience has become a prism through which to examine American generational feelings — anxiety and disappointment.
The Scent of Pine is Lara Vapnyar’s second novel and follows 38-year-old Lena, a frustrated academic giving a talk at a conference on “The Aesthetics of Oppression.” Her talk is entitled “Sex Education in the former Soviet Union” and not a single person shows up to hear it. “Nobody came to her room. Nobody cared to listen to her… Lena was suddenly seized by an acute feeling of being a stranger in America,” writes Vapnyar. But at the hotel swimming pool Lena meets Ben, an American with whom she begins a brief, intense affair, and the book weaves between this new intimacy and her memories as Lena tells Ben about one fateful summer at a children’s camp in the woods of pre-perestroika USSR. When Ben, listening patiently on their car ride to his cabin in Maine, confuses the names of people in her story, it occurs to Lena that “she hadn’t thought about how foreign her story might seem to him… Did he even know what sunflower seeds were?” But it is because Ben is an outsider, an American, a stranger, that Lena can for the first time open up and tell her story. The story unfolds as a mystery retracing the disappearance of Lena’s former camp sweethearts, and the disappearance of something approaching happiness.
Immigrant adversity is expressed as a personal, depoliticised frustration with romance, career and identity
Another Lena who also struggles with intimacy, immigrant identity and the pursuit of happiness is the protagonist of Anya Ulinich’s humorous and tender graphic novel Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel — a take on Bernard Malamud’s classic tale of Jewish matchmaking updated with the modern-day horrors of internet dating. As in Vapnyar’s novel, childhood memories of the “Glorious People’s Sex Education” (Soviet sex ed) lurk behind the pathos and difficulties of adult relationships. After a second divorce, Lena travels to St. Petersburg for the first time —“I knew it from literature” —to tour her novel The Village Idiot’s Guide to America (a wry joke on Ulinich’s 2008 novel Petropolis) and falls back into infatuation with her high school boyfriend Alik. The fantasy doesn’t quite work out: “all I know is that going back would be like trying to unthink a thought.”
Both Lenas echo Leningrad in name, a city that now exists only as St. Petersburg, in a country now known as the Russian Federation. The nostalgia they experience is accompanied by a sense of displacement: neither a prior home nor a remembered sense of possibility can be returned to. “Can you really say that your pursuit of happiness, to date, has been anything but a sequence of panicked attempts to stave off the frightening abyss of life’s meaninglessness?” asks Ulinich. “‘If you think about it, practically every single thing that we do is… to distract ourselves from what is wrong with our lives,’” says Ben to which Vapnyar’s Lena replies, “ ‘I know, I know, I know.’”
These books are not alone in exposing dissatisfaction within the American “intellectual” or “literary” world. The protagonist of musician and essayist Alina Simone’s debut novel Note to Self is not a Slav herself but a failed student of Slavic studies, kicked out of the Columbia University Slavic Department. She works at a firm “as the filling in a capitalism cannoli” before being let go. In Boris Fishman’s A Replacement Life, Slava Gelman has a rather unglorious job editing a column of language flubs at Century, a respected midtown magazine that resembles The New Yorker (where author Boris Fishman works). Slava’s life largely consists of trying and failing to get published, until the death of his grandmother puts him back in touch with his estranged Russian Jewish family in Brooklyn. (“Grandmother had been in the Holocaust — in the Holocaust? As if in the army, the circus? The grammar seemed wrong. At the Holocaust? Of it, with it, from it, until it? The English preposition, stunned by the assignment, came up short.”)
Similarly, in Little Failure Gary Shteyngart recalls being caught between the worlds of New Yorker stories and his mother’s stories, between written and oral memory, and the different ways of writing the past. In one part of the book, Shteyngart is encouraged to submit what he calls “an earnest homage to my uncle Aaron and the labor camps” to The New Yorker by his professor. When he gives the piece to his mother to read, she sighs and says, “‘That’s not how it happened.’” Throughout his memoir, the mouth is site of both sustenance and agony as young Gary eats, wheezes, relishes and struggles to speak in three languages: Hebrew, English and Russian. The book ends with the closing of the Mourner’s Kaddish in all three tongues: “Ve’imru, Amen. Let us say, Amen. И СКАЖЕМ: АМЕН!”
Panic in a Suitcase, Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s sprawling debut novel of a family split between Odessa and Little Odessa, the Ukrainian Jewish enclave of Brighton Beach, focuses on Pasha, who comes to stay with his family in America in the hope of emmigrating there. Pasha has “a poet’s constitution, sickly from the outset”. When he is visited by some Upper West Side émigré poets he meets at a literati party hosted by Renata (“poet, essayist, psychoanalyst, wife, mother, mystic, Jew, woman”) they discuss Brighton as being “hilarious and exotic”. “They were strictly explorers, anthropologists in an absurd land… Pasha followed along, feeling vague stirrings of resentment. This was a real neighborhood where people lived, people with families and tight budgets and, furthermore, people who spoke and read in the language in which they wrote.”
By the end of the book, the narrative perspective shifts to Frida, Pasha’s niece, who came to New York as a young child and was raised, like Akhtiorskaya herself, in Brighton. Pursuing a medical degree in New York with lacklustre commitment, Frida returns to Odessa for her cousin’s wedding. When family friends ask if her shirt is a typical American top, Frida replies, “‘No. They wear lots of different kinds… An infinite variety. No such thing as a typical American top. That’s why America’s known as a free country.’ She wasn’t sure why she was taking this tone or whether she was being sarcastic.” Frida’s name itself is a meditation on the problems of American freedom and opportunity: Frida is free—duh! And she is also freed, uh…
This latest generation of writers emigrated as children or young adults after perestroika. Expressing what scholar Karen L Ryan has called “a post-lapsarian outlook,” these books speak to an underlying frustration with collapsing systems that promised much more. Gary Shteyngart’s first novel, often considered the book which heralded Russian immigrant fiction, was published just one year after the fall of the twin towers, the physical and symbolic collapse of America’s economic centre. Its aftermath had meant the re-examination of the American dream in an era of increased income disparity, unemployment, and student debt, in cities rapidly rendered unrecognisable by gentrification and corporatisation. Leaving the turmoil of 1990s Russia for the economic boom of 1980s and 90s America, only to grow up amid the war and recession of the Bush and Obama years, these émigré writers interrogate the values of US capitalism and its accompanying promise of freedom.
And yet in place of economic and political hardship, here immigrant adversity is expressed as a personal, depoliticised frustration with romance, career and identity. Early 20th century authors Abe Cahan, Anya Yezierska, and Henry Roth wrote immigrant conversion narratives about assimilation; Shteyngart, Akhtiorskaya, Vapnyar, Ulinich, Simone and Fishman write of a fractured and confused hybrid identity. In many of these books, the protagonist is a young (Russian Jewish) writer trying to make it in New York as a cultural voice, using that voice mainly to bemoan professional, romantic and existential confusions. (Lena Dunham’s Girls, anyone?) As the characters strive to make up for what’s lacking in their lives, they take on new creative projects and begin intimate affairs. These twin pursuits form the arc of the stories.
Telling and re-telling the immigrant story is crucial to the American myth
In all six books there is an affair of sorts, often between a Russian protagonist and an American lover. In her 2009 article “Adultery and the Immigrant Narrative,” Natalie Friedman writes “once fidelity to a national identity is broken, it follows that marital and familial obligations might be destabilised as well… adultery, especially, becomes an imaginary space in which authors explore what happens when national and ethnic identity is destabilized.” A romantic affair creates a separate world within which the obligations of an unsatisfying life in a particular role are lifted and the protagonist can be someone else. These can stand in for the émigré relationship with the English language, its initial foreignness allowing for an appreciation of its quirks. Letters are characters — in both the linguistic and theatrical sense — who sway like drunkards (Shteyngart) or reach up like spires of a cathedral (Fishman). The mouth as a sexual and speaking organ becomes the site of opening to the Other — both enacting and expressing a betrayal of place, identity and language.
The books share this tendency towards meta-narrative in which the protagonist functions as something of an alter-ego for the author, musing on Russianness, on writing and on writing about Russianness — with a self-consciousness that verges on self-parody. This exaggeration of Russianness allows the writer to capitalise on the current marketability of Russian-American literature while also making fun of it. As scholar Adrian Wanner writes in Out of Russia, “Constructing a Russian personality while at the same time satirizing the commercial exploitation of a manufactured ethnic identity allows them, as it were, to have their cake and eat it too.”
While all of these authors are of Jewish origin and many have received awards and accolades from Jewish publications, they are marketed as Russians, not Jews. And yet this new wave of post-Soviet Jewish writers has been hailed as saviours of the Jewish American novel, reinvigorating a genre deemed dead by critics in the 1970s and 80s, ever since many of the early 20th century Jewish immigrant writers assimilated into mainstream American society, no longer writing from the persecuted margins. Russian Jews emigrating from the USSR in its final decades brought with them their own literature on Jewish hardship, even though this was largely overlooked during the secular Soviet Union. As Adam Rovner has pointed out, the market for new Russian Jewish immigrant stories speaks to a desire for Jewish literature to “assert Jewish difference — or better, the nostalgia of difference.” Readers of these books include the offspring of earlier waves of Russian Jewish immigration who are now third or fourthgeneration assimilated Jewish New Yorkers — myself among them. Reclaiming an immigrant story can be a mechanism to resist assimilation and to recall a shared experience of adversity. Yet in the context of recent anti-immigrant racism and legislation, largely directed towards young Latin-American immigrants, choosing to Other oneself as culturally un-American is truly a privilege of those who are safely American enough to risk doing so.
Telling and re-telling the immigrant story is crucial to the American myth: the dream that America is a land of opportunity for all where even the most bereft can, with sacrifice and hard work, achieve a life of comfort (a narrative that fails to acknowledge the American realities of structural oppression, entrenched poverty and collapse of industry). Where the traditional immigrant novel posits the immigrant’s journey as one of redemptive transformation from poverty and backwardness to financial and cultural comfort, these newer novels of the Russian Jewish immigrant experience emphasise a continued feeling of confusion and discontentment in spite of the modicum of middle class success that can be achieved in the US. The classic American dream has been achieved yet a lingering ennui persists. In the words of Anya Ulinich: “You’d hurled your body against the locked door to the ‘American dream’. You tore the door off its hinges! but then you panicked: now what?”