I’ll admit it: If Viking had designed a novel with the sole purpose of appealing to me, Keith Gessen’s “A Terrible Country” might be the result.
Its main character, Andrei Kaplan, is a worn-down grad student in New York, tired of his research and “heading into a future of half-heartedly grading the half-written papers of half-interested students.” That was me, just a few years ago. At the novel’s beginning, Andrei, at the behest of his shady entrepreneur brother, moves temporarily to Moscow to care for his grandmother. While there, he joins a reading group working its way through Marx’s “Capital”; I did the same last summer. Andrei and his Russian friends blame much of the world’s ills on neoliberalism, by which they mean “the marketization of human relations and affairs.” My friends and I have been known to do the same. My favorite comic novel is a deadpan comic novel, and “A Terrible Country” features exchanges like this between Andrei and his grandmother, who suffers from dementia:
“ ‘You know, I’m about to turn one hundred.’ ‘Well, almost,’ I said. ‘You’re about to turn ninety.’
‘How’s that?’ she said. ‘Well, what year were you born?’ ‘In 1919.’ ‘And now it’s 2009. So that makes you ninety.’ My grandmother looked at me, unconvinced. ‘Maybe,’ she said.’’
All of which is to say, I don’t know that I can be totally objective about how much I enjoyed “A Terrible Country,” hitting as it did all my readerly pleasure centers.
What I can be objective about, though, is Gessen’s remarkable growth from his 2008 debut novel, “All the Sad Young Literary Men.” There, the characters all sounded alike. That was largely the point — it turns out all sad young literary men are sad in much the same way — but it made for a relatively thin novel. Things are much different, and much richer, in “A Terrible Country,” where Gessen’s characters are wonderfully differentiated — and given life — by class and political ideology, by their ways of speaking (“They did not merely curse; they replaced ordinary words with curses”), by their understanding of what moral compromises are acceptable (even necessary) when living in Putin’s Russia.
For much of the novel, not a lot happens. In 2008, Andrei goes back to Moscow — he was born there but moved with his family to America when he was six — and is surprised by what he sees. Where he’d expected to find tyranny, he actually finds economic liberalization and, attendant upon it, conspicuous consumption and inequality. Where he’d anticipated the state’s scrutiny following him like Tolkien’s eye of Sauron, he instead lives largely unobserved, hanging out in Internet cafes, helping his grandmother, falling in with a group of political radicals. (This political affiliation, and the unexpected attention it draws, drives the novel’s second half.)
At a squint, Andrei resembles the characters from Gessen’s debut. He’s young; he’s smart; he’s a little terrible, a little broke, a little romatically forlorn; and he’s unsure of what he wants to do, or can do, with his life. (Andrei’s relocation to Moscow has as much to do with professional and personal stagnancy as it does with familial devotion.) Indeed, some scenes from “A Terrible Country” could have appeared, in slightly altered form, in “All the Sad Young Literary Men”: an absurdist academic party (is there any other kind?); a preening, catty e-mail exchange between Russian grad students. But if elements are shared between the two novels, the manner in which they’re treated isn’t. In particular, there’s a quiet seriousness to the new novel that couldn’t survive Gessen’s younger, more acidic irony. Here, the prose is less flashy, the ideas — and this is a traditional novel of ideas — more elegantly incorporated into the novel’s plot.
Gessen displays what W. H. Auden described as “the gift of double focus,” the ability to dwell in paradox and ambivalence. Andrei criticizes the new Russia that, in its embrace of capitalist greed, is America’s exaggerated twin: “So this was the Putinist bargain: you give up your freedoms, I make you rich. Not everyone was rich, but enough people were making do that the system held. And who was I to tell them they were wrong?” Andrei criticizes but also acknowledges his status as a privileged American.
“A Terrible Country” is a complexly ambivalent novel — ambivalent about Andrei and the possibility of his moral transformation, ambivalent about the meaning and possibility of political courage, ambivalent above all about Russia itself — and a bit about America, too. Andrei comes to hate many things about his once-and-current home, including its state-sponsored lies and day-to-day inefficiencies. But he also comes to love it: “And yet, and yet, and yet. I loved it. I loved kasha and kotlety and I loved the language and I loved the hockey guys and I even loved some of the people on the street.”
My own feelings towards this complexly ambivalent novel aren’t complex or ambivalent in the least. I loved it and expect others will too.
A TERRIBLE COUNTRY
By Keith Gessen
Viking, 338 pp., $26
Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of “Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period.’’