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A Mediocre Short Story Sunday (God Lives in St. Petersburg and Pu-239)

June 15, 2008

You know, I’ve had a lot of luck with all the collections I’ve discussed for Short Story Sunday. While I haven’t always loved every single story, overall the authors have impressed me. Unfortunately, recently I’ve read two truly awful collections, both set in Russia (which just adds insult to injury in my opinion): God Lives in St. Petersburg and Other Stories by Tom Bissell and Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies by Ken Kalfus. (For the record, if you’re looking for great short stories set in Russia, check out The Red Passport.)

Let’s start with the one-star offering (and I’ve only given two one-star ratings all year, so I don’t do it lightly), Bissell’s. First, the cover indulges in one of my favourite pet peeves: using Cyricillic letters to replace Roman letters that, while they may look the same, don’t represent the same sound. I know, maybe I’m being nit-picky, but seriously. In this case, the ‘n’ in ‘in’ has been transformed into the Russian ‘и,’ which makes the sound ‘ee.’ Then, the ‘u’ in Petersburg has become ‘ц,’ which makes the sound ‘ts.’ But I would have totally overlooked that if the stories had been any good.

Instead, they’re angsty, gritty, melodramatic, racist, stereotypical crap. There are six of them, and the only reason I read all six was because I didn’t want to bash the collection unless I knew each story. The first five are all set in central Asian republics, and while the last one is set in America, its protangonist has recently returned from the Krygyz Republic. In each, young Americans visit a country, discover within themselves bottomless wells of hopelessness, discover corrupt natives, and occassionaly indulge in meaningless, soul-draining sex. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t automatically hold a negative outlook against a book (Crime and Punishment, anyone?), but these stories felt like they were written by a mediocre creative writing student. None of the characters have real depth, the storylines all feel recycled, and there’s just absolutely nothing new offered. You know what: I’d originally planned to offer you examples from the stories themselves, but I don’t want to spend any more time on this book. Suffice it say, I’d completely skip this one, and I resent the ninety minutes of my life wasted on it.

Moving on to a slightly more upbeat discussion of Kalfus’ Pu-239. I detested most of the stories in this one too (they’re all set in Russia proper); it felt like Kalfus was playing on all those stereotypes of Russians as dour people, and his writing had an unbelievability to it that really bothered me (“Anzhelika, 13” is written from the point of view of a girl who gets her period for the first time, and let’s just say it’s pretty obvious to this girl that it was written by a man). But, I did enjoy the story “Birobidzhan,” and I really enjoyed the novella “Peredelkino,” so I’m going to talk about those two. Keep in mind that I’d recommend completely skipping the rest of the collection.

“Birobidzhan” is sixty-four pages long, so it almost qualifies as a novella in and of itself (I’m a little vague as to the dividing line). It centers around Israel, a Muscovite Jew during the early Soviet Union, and his work to create a Jewish republic of Birobidzhan. At the same time, it’s a love story between him and Larissa. It’s told in ‘parts’ that jump back and forth chronologically, and while I had some issues with the narrator (which at first seems omniscient third party, but later intrudes as their child, which seemed hoky and unnecessary), I cared about Israel, Larissa, and her friend Rachel. At first, Larissa wants nothing to do with Israel-she’s in Moscow to become a doctor-but you know what they say about persistance! Israel is one of those powerfully idealistic people who can just bowl people over with sheer willpower, and I thought he was quite finely drawn. Towards the end, as the story moves to focus more on the betrayal by the Bolsheviks of the Russian people, Kalfus handles it in a more human and important way than elsewhere in the collection. So, while it’s not a story I’d tell people they have to go out and read, I did enjoy it.

Then, there’s the novella “Peredelkino.” I almost didn’t read this: it’s about one hundred pages long, and I was so disappointed by most of the preceding stories, I wasn’t sure I wanted to commit anymore reading time to it. But, it was one of my Numbers Challenge choices, and I find it really difficult to stop abandon a book, so I decided to go ahead and try it. And I’m glad I did, because all of a sudden everything comes together and Kalfus tells a good story! Sure, there are still flat characters and stereotypes, but it doesn’t seem to matter as much anymore.

The story opens with the narrator receiving a big box of books to review (this is when I first realised I might actually enjoy this one).

Inside the carton, encased in gleaming, wine red leather, lay the books Malaya Zemlya, Rebirth, and the about-to-be-issued, still-classified conclusion to the trilogy, Virgin Lands. Their author was L.I. Brezhnev. I pulled the first volume from the box. As I lifted its warm, supple cover to my face, I could almost smell the cow chewing her cud. The cow groaned with pleasure as I opened the book.

But of course, but Brezhnev as the author, the narrator knows he’s not to write an honest review. He’s grateful for the chance to try to get back in the government’s good graces, though. Then in part two, he flashes back and the rest of the novella explains how he fell from those graces.

Turns out, the narrator was an author, and thus member of the intelligentsia, right before the big crackdown. He was moderately successful, but through his fascination with a young woman, he becomes more and more entangled with ‘subversives.’ Kalfus handles this really well; how just a few seemingly insignificant things could add up to someone’s downfall in any totalitarian state (in fact, while I was reading it, I was reminded of much of the Wild Swans, concerning Maoist China). The narrator himself, while very male, is believable, and I cared about his fate. My favourite character, though, was his wife Lydia. Here’s her introduction:

As for herself, she foresaw the diminishing future as a place where she would occupy our newly acquired dacha year-round, ten to the garden, make small repairs, jar preserves, do some translation work, and, above all, read. Her only life ambition was to read every good book that had ever been published.

See? How could you not love her? And later the narrator decribes her further:

Lydia’s passion for reading, her wanton surrender to an author, was the sexiest thing about her. Embracing a book, she was completely vulnerable to the author’s advances. She would accept any indignity, swallow any lie, and remain constant in the face of the author’s infidelities and depravities. Regardless of the wattage of the light above her head, she gave the text the firm grip of her attention. She was always missing her metro station, even when she read standing, wedged between the other passengers.

There’s more, but I’ll include them in my favourite passages. Let’s just say, the novella has a spirit to it that the rest of the collection lacks, and literature and books are so important to all of the characters it’s impossible to resist. I’d actually recommend picking up this book: just skip the stories and go straight to the back!

Favourite Passages (“Peredelkino”)
I looked at a pile of books alongside the swing, just as I had painted it on the wall of the cafe, and then through th eopen door at the library that had mysteriously arisen in the front room, like an Inca city in the jungle. Where had all these books come from? I had hardly noticed an attenuation in the thick growth of literature that covered the walls of our flat.

“That’s not why I read. I’m sick to death of literature as medicine, literature as therapy, literature as politics, literature as the beacon of mankind. I couldn’t care less what writers say about the so-called world. Why should they know more about it than I do? …What a writer says about a particular situation is irrelevant. I care only about how he says it. Style is everyting, style is content. I don’t read Gogol because I have an interest in the depressed state of the landed gentry in provincial Russia on the nineteenth century, or Victor Hugo from an interest in Gothic architecture, or Mabokov from an interest in pedophiles. It’s their language I admire.” She [Lydia] paused to collect her thoughts, speaking after a week of virtually empty conversation. “I don’t mean that I simply admire their pretty metaphors. It’s the words they choose, when they can choose perfectly good other words, the tone, their strategy for telling the story…The means by which they create the illusion of event arise from the convolutions of their individual genius. That’s tyle. That’s real art.”

But true literature always showed. When I was young, I wondered if my stories seemed jejune and awkward only beacuse I was reading them in my own notebook, in my own clumsy, heavy-footed hand. As an experient, I had copied “The Captain’s Daughter” into my own notebook, hoping to see it diminished. But before I had completed even the first paragraph, I felt Pushkin’s power flowing in rush through my arm and the clench of my fingertips. The world blazed onto the faintly ruled paper. After the first page, althuogh the results of the experiment were conclusive, I could not resist copying the story to the very end, merely for the pleasure of witnessing the owrds of a genius emerge from under the nub of my pen.

This had been the scene of a particularly raucous party just the week before. We had attended it, but left early: by chance, Lydia and I had looked up at the same time and communicated to each other the urgent desire to read for a half hour before turning in. This murmured agreement-the congruency of desire-surprised us. We giggled at it.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. dfrucci permalink
    June 16, 2008 2:45 am

    Never heard of those collections but kind of glad I didn’t.

  2. June 17, 2008 10:39 am

    DF, lol. Yeah-I’d avoid these. :)

  3. June 18, 2008 11:44 am

    Ooh, must be bad if you are so certain of its 1 star rating! Yikes, I will not try it. The story in the second collection about the bookish wife does sound interesting, though.

  4. June 20, 2008 9:08 am

    Melanie, the novella collection got two stars at least! And it’s definitely worth looking into. :)

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