Publication: Review of Contemporary Fiction
Title: Untitled
Date: Summer 2002 (Vol. 22, Issue 2)
Author: Pedro Ponce
Website: Link

A. J. Perry. Twelve Stories of Russia: A Novel, I Guess. Glas / Ivan R. Dee, 2001. 448 pp. Paper: $14.95.

Twelve Stories of Russia: A Novel, I Guess documents one character's six-and-a-half years living in Russia during its troubled transition from the Cold War to upheaval and reform. A. J. Perry's protagonist - an English teacher identified only as James - pieces his story together using a variety of forms: lists, alphabets, grammar lessons, card game scores, even the seating chart for a wedding banquet. The effect is at first disorienting, but so is the experience that the narrator struggles to articulate. He is soon introduced to the grim realities of Russian life. Eventually, he learns Russian and makes friends in his adopted country. But the complexities of relationships are beyond the narrator's capacity for quantification and analysis, whether they come in the form of romantic trysts or everyday encounters with Russians who are dubious of the democratic ideals represented by their American guest. Despite his deadpan humor, it becomes apparent over the course of the book that the narrator's play with tone and form masks an urgent need to connect, both with the culture he is visiting and with the estranged family he has left behind in the United States. Episodes from the past punctuate the narrator's affectionate skewering of Russian life, adding a resonance that goes beyond easy satirical cleverness. At one point, a Russian friend advises James to write the usual book about a foreigner arriving in Moscow with high hopes but encountering instead "bread lines...toilet paper shortages...people yelling and shouting..." The narrator's response is emblematic of this inventive fictional memoir: "I came expecting toilet paper shortages...and instead discovered poetry." [Pedro Ponce]