At times it seems as if we have become so accustomed to seeing the trademarks of ego in writing — long titles, excessive footnotes, clever copyright pages, ersatz diagrams, illustrations, clever self-referential phrases, and other odd features once lumped together under the even-then-old label “postmodern,” now just deemed normal — that it’s almost a shock when an author takes herself out of a story. Fun though these tweaks might be, it can be just as surprising and enjoyable to read a book in which the author asserts herself by letting the book speak for her, by removing herself.
Elliott Holt’s debut novel, “You Are One of Them,” a story about youth, about lying, about the Cold War, about Russia, and about womanhood, approaches its heady subjects by letting them live and breathe through the narrative itself. To read it is to forget you’re reading a work of literature, and instead to think that someone is telling you a story — someone who happens to have a wildly intelligent sense of detail and just enough restraint to keep her storytelling skill from showing its seams.
Part of what makes the book so alluring is the voice of its narrator, Sarah Zuckerman, who comes at us with offhand force in the same way certain movie voice-overs color an entire narrative with simple inflections of tone. There’s nothing performative about the way Sarah describes the events that sharpen and end her friendship with Jenny Jones as they grow up together in Washington D.C., during the 1980s. Both girls write letters to Yuri Andropov, the premier of the Soviet Union and, in the eyes of many Americans, a fearsome and even gruesome presence, innocently asking for peace. Only one of the letters gets a response, and its author — Jenny — gets a free trip to the USSR, becoming an international celebrity, a plot line that eerily recalls the life of Samantha Smith, whose own childlike letter to Andropov elicited a response and invitation to visit.
Holt paints Jenny, in a series of subtly deployed moments, as ultra-healthy, ultra-photogenic, and, as a capper, mildly warped. It is difficult to reconcile her blond, all-American blandness with her basement Ouija session with Sarah in which she attempts to “contact” Sarah’s dead sister. Sure, young people are blunt in the way they deal with each other, but the note here strikes a little too loudly.
As the novel develops, Russia becomes an increasingly important part of it, and it is to Holt’s credit that she is able to communicate a sense of her characters’ physical environs and states of mind equally adroitly, ultimately melding the two. Not long after her trip to the Soviet Union, Jenny and her parents die in a plane crash (again recalling Samantha Smith). Sarah’s mother, failed social activist and loose cannon, forms a peace foundation in Jenny’s name, whose resources dwindle with each passing year. Just as Sarah is about to file her memories of Jenny away — along with deep, jealous resentments, which seem to have damaged her — she receives an e-mail from a Russian acquaintance of Jenny’s, hinting that Jenny is still alive. Sarah’s first act after graduating from college is to travel to post-Soviet Russia, where everything in Holt’s description — the vaguely competitive and impersonal way people talk, the decadent way they act at parties, the slippery way they do business — suggests that anything, either good or bad, could happen because human commitments are so tenuous and trust is so rare. This tenuousness practically sings in the book’s latter half, as a trip meant to reunite Sarah with an old friend drives home for her the quintessential alienation humans feel, as if the title could be a sentence uttered either by Sarah or her Russian acquaintances. No spoilers, here, don’t worry — but it wouldn’t make any difference if they were present, because the surprise of reading this book is in how closely it might remind you of what life is like, as you live it, all by yourself.
Max Winter’s second book of poems, “Walking Among Them,” was published in May 2013. He can be reached at email@example.com.