Publication: The Moscow Times
Title: (Not) Making Sense of Russia
Date: September 7, 2001
Author: Dan Nehmad
Website: Link

My mother was never big on the idea of my moving to Russia. Just before I left she was seized by a desperate faith in last-ditch efforts to stop me from leaving, and she began to pepper me with apparently casual, deprecating remarks.

In one instance she related the response of a friend's son upon learning that I was going to Russia to work for a newspaper. The clearheaded, pre-professional son, no doubt squinting with all the distaste my mother showed as she retold the story, replied: "Why would anybody want to do that?"

His question has come back to haunt me on occasion -- usually when the mysteriously well-coordinated inconveniences of life in Russia achieve some kind of critical mass. Why am I here? Such self-questioning can corrode the will and muddle the brain.

But anyone who has lived in Russia knows that the remedy for this confusion is simply to stop asking that kind of question. Once you start to abandon the habit of reason, the absurdity of Russia becomes more agreeable. Abandon it completely, write down what you see, and you are left with, well, a novel, I guess. This is what A.J. Perry has done.

Twelve Stories of Russia: A Novel, I Guess is a compilation of the mostly comical experiences of a young American, James, who comes to Russia in 1991 on a whim to teach English and ends up staying for six and a half years. The book is composed of about a dozen of James's strange encounters with Russian culture. The author has written no preface and provides no biographical information, but his well-documented knowledge of Russia's cultural idiosyncrasies suggests that the work is at least semiautobiographical.

This kind of clash-of-cultures realism is certainly nothing new, especially between the United States and Russia. But Perry has the ability to write without analyzing his experiences or calling attention to himself. He finds the humor in what's going on around him. "With time," James narrates, "Irina and I became closer. She stopped referring to me in the plural. She bummed my cigarettes. She told me about her failed loves and successful abortions. At times, she even let me get a word in edgewise."

There is admittedly little that weaves the book's disparate scenes into a coherent whole. James moves in and out of friendships and romances, consumes a great deal of vodka and struggles over his relationship with a mother who left him. What gives the work some semblance of cohesiveness -- that is, what moves it along and allows it to end -- is an attempt to understand Russia without actually trying. Inspired by a cryptic German he meets on his first flight to Moscow, James is looking for 11 words that will allow him to "understand a people and its culture." The German advises him on how to do this: "Live for all of these words, but do not seek them; in time they will come themselves." So most of what we read is James living life, waiting for words.

This passive goal allows the book to shine with humor and casual bits of cultural insight without being too pedantically conscious of it. At the same time, the inevitable consequence of this laid-back style is that we are never completely engaged intellectually. Even though James reaches an end to his 11-word quest, he never tells us what the words are. Since we are not involved in it, the search is only nominal. It seems like an overlay for writing that would otherwise have little in the way of justification for its aimlessness.

Perry acknowledges this uncertainty of purpose in his halfhearted title. It's a novel, he guesses, if the reader is willing to buy that. Some may not. Perry often lingers around an issue as if he is about to contend with it critically, but he never really does. The raw material is there for the contemplating, but do not expect the book to push you to it.

A wavering syntax is another sign of just how completely Perry has cast off the burden of making sense of things. His opening paragraph begins: "At last I can say that Russia is neither here nor there, but less hopeless than inevitable." But the broadness of the theme -- hopeless, inevitable, Russia -- draws us in with the hope of finding something profound.

This heady introduction launches James into 448 pages of marveling at a number of questions that fascinate him: how "here" can so suddenly become "there;" how one can both love and hate Russia; and how belonging and culture can be reduced to the color of one's passport. He summons up grand questions like these, but never digs in. Soon the rationalist in us starts to wonder: Is his critical restraint really an admission that the absurd is beyond reconciliation? Or is he simply afraid to pursue these questions?

Though Perry does not directly confront this complexity, he succeeds in evoking it with great force through the juxtaposition of unrelated events. Happy, tragic, frustrating and, most of all, drunken experiences are mixed up. Subplots are woven together and called up selectively throughout the book in order to complicate emotions. The wit of "Twelve Stories" is just as much in the juxtaposition of ideas as it is in the writing, and so the book is neither a novel nor a series of short stories as much as it is a thoughtful collage.

Perry's prose is now truncated and simple, now flowing and irrational. He keeps details and concise explanation to a minimum. "My life in Russia: love, democracy, irony, logic, danger, marriage," he writes, with the abbreviated thought of an unsure protagonist. The intent is to provoke with ambiguity. But those who are not familiar with Russia, and occasionally those who are, will be disappointed by references like these that are never unpacked.

The beauty of this collage is that it entertains us with absurdities and never compromises their extremity by asking why. This may be all he wanted. James, sitting in Sheremetyevo-2 at the end of the book, says: "How should I spend these last few hours between here and there? What should I do until I leave? And then it occurs to me: I'll write something! Nothing too serious or meaningful, of course. Just the usual bit: naive foreigner goes to Russia, lives there for six and a half years, then leaves forever. Even I can write something like that."

James seems to seek the reader's respect, but he never takes the requisite risks to earn it. In a conversation with a friend, he offers up this thought: "You see, Vadim, for me the most important thing isn't the meaning. At this point in my life the most important thing is irony!" We then have to swallow these big words and move on.

With all due respect for the need to avoid asking why, ignoring the question can sometimes be just as perplexing as asking it in the first place.


"Twelve Stories of Russia: A Novel, I guess," by A.J. Perry, is published by Glas. 448 pages.


Dan Nehmad is a freelance journalist living in Moscow.