Book Review: Russian looks for father, seeks better life in America
Ulinich, Anya. Petropolis. Penguin Group, 2008.
The American dream often seems to have disappeared from the pages of contemporary fiction, only occasionally appearing and usually as an indictment of hollow promises. Perhaps it’s the creeping cynicism of modern life, or perhaps it’s that newer generations of writers have seen the possibility of improving on their parents’ way of life vanish along with a secure and comfortable middle class. Even those novels centered on the immigrant experience, that wellspring of fantasy about a better life, has often focused more closely on the ways in which striving can cut the ground out from under one’s feet.
It’s refreshing, then, to see something like a new American dream appear in Anya Ulinich’s first novel, “Petropolis.” Here, it’s no longer a matter of material success, or even educational opportunities, but about finding a place for one’s misfit heart. Ulinich’s heroine, Sasha Goldberg, a part-black, part-Jewish Russian teenager, hardly knows how to describe herself, a crisis of identity compounded by the fact her father left her and her mother in their tiny Siberian town to emigrate to America, and has disappeared without a trace. In the weary town of Asbestos 2, Lubov Goldberg yearns to elevate her seemingly useless 14-year-old daughter, declaring that “children of the intelligentsia don’t just come home in the afternoon and engage in idiocy.” (For Sasha, that includes raiding the communal pantry and eating everyone’s food.) There’s little opportunity for enrichment, since the town, once bustling, has fallen into decline with the demise of the Soviet Union.
Sasha is a lonely, pudgy girl — an ugly duckling born to a swan of a mother. This near-but-not-quite acquiescence to cliche runs throughout the book but, luckily, Ulinich has a wry sense of the absurd that usually turns the commonplace on its head. (In lampooning the town’s now-faded Soviet bombast, she writes: “Rema Nikolaevna was as old as her name, an acronym for Revolutionary Electrification of the World. It was rumored that she had a sister named Turbine. There was nothing revolutionary or electric about Rema; like most literature teachers, she was the embodiment of ennui.”) Lubov eventually, with a little flirtatious persuasion, gets Sasha accepted to a small art school. There Sasha is introduced to Katia, a pretty, talented girl who lives in a large concrete half-pipe along with her mother and brother Alexey, who has “an expression of suffering that in certain Russian faces looks like pleasure.” And suddenly, Sasha is in love.
Unsurprisingly, their affair leads to pregnancy, at a particularly unpropitious moment: Alexey is rounded up to fulfill his mandatory military service, while Sasha is accepted to the art academy in Moscow. With Lubov raising the child as her own, Sasha is sent off to Moscow as planned, where she quickly falls into daydreams about marrying an American. It’s the Americans’ total obliviousness to her difference that gives her hope: “In the foreigners’ indifferent wire-framed eyes, one could be neither beautiful nor ugly, neither a hippo nor a black-ass, but merely a molecule in a gray mass.”
In quick succession, she meets one of these indifferent Americans, becomes engaged and boards a plane bound for Arizona; once there, disillusioned by her fiance, Sasha takes off across the country to locate her father, finding refuge with emigre Russian families from Chicago to Brooklyn, each unhappy family assimilated (or not) in their own way.
Ulinich has a keen literary sensibility that brings forth the pathos of her heroine’s quest without indulging in bathos. In a house where Sasha is treated as a generic Russian Jewish refugee, the point is subtly pressed by her observation of the art on her bedroom wall: “There was something peculiar about the picture: the particulars had been taken away. There was a boat without a name and a seagull without an eye. The cabin had a door without a handle.”
Easy sentimentality is also thankfully avoided. Sasha’s long-sought father turns out to be a desperately cowardly man; after years away from her daughter, Sasha feels more fear than affection for the little girl, and she fantasizes about disconnecting her cell phone so she’ll never know when her mother dies and leaves Nadia to Sasha’s care. And Sasha’s love for Jake, a young man with cerebral palsy, is more awkward and fraught than inspirational.
“How can you love someone whose body is another person’s job,” she wonders, and then sets about finding a way. At each turn, Sasha’s role becomes something new: a fellow Russian, a big black girl to be feared, and first and foremost a Jew. The absurdity of these preconceptions, and the freedom to escape from them, is what shapes Ulinich’s narrative and what forms its great optimism. No matter how out of place you might feel, there’s surely a place for you somewhere.