A Replacement Life

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A singularly talented writer makes his literary debut with this provocative, soulful, and sometimes hilarious story of a failed journalist asked to do the unthinkable: forge Holocaust-restitution claims for old Russian Jews in Brooklyn, New York.

Yevgeny Gelman, grandfather of Slava Gelman, ''didn't suffer in the exact way'' he needs to have suffered to qualify for the reparations the German government has been paying out to Holocaust survivors. But suffer he has—as a Jew in the...

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A singularly talented writer makes his literary debut with this provocative, soulful, and sometimes hilarious story of a failed journalist asked to do the unthinkable: forge Holocaust-restitution claims for old Russian Jews in Brooklyn, New York.

Yevgeny Gelman, grandfather of Slava Gelman, ''didn't suffer in the exact way'' he needs to have suffered to qualify for the reparations the German government has been paying out to Holocaust survivors. But suffer he has—as a Jew in the war, as a second-class citizen in the USSR, as an immigrant in America. So? Isn't his grandson a ''writer''?

High-minded Slava wants to put all this immigrant-scraping behind him. Only the American dream is not panning out for him: Century, the legendary magazine where he works as a researcher, wants nothing greater from him. Slava wants to be a correct, blameless American—but he wants to be a lionized writer even more.

Slava's turn as the Forger of South Brooklyn teaches him that not every fact is a truth and not every lie a falsehood. It takes more than law-abiding to become an American; it takes the same self-reinvention at which his people excel. Intoxicated and unmoored by his inventions, Slava risks exposure. Cornered, he commits an irrevocable act that finally grants him a sense of home in America—but not before collecting a lasting price from his family.

A Replacement Life is a dark, moving, and beautifully written novel about family, honor, and justice. 

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Twenty-five-year-old Slava Gelman already has a job as a junior staff member of a New York magazine, but he can't resist the call to create a bogus personal history to enable his crafty grandfather to gain Holocaust restitution from the German government. Before long, that one family favor blossoms into multiple south Brooklyn requests for similar fake biographies, entangling Slava in matters that (for readers at least) are as hilarious as they are soulful. Editor's recommendation.

The New York Times - Apollinaire Scherr
…mordantly funny and moving…The architecture of A Replacement Life morphs with its mood. It switches from the highway of plot to the byways of reflection and dream. The novel might have done better at signaling these changes, but it comes by its errant ways honestly. Its method reflects Slava's conflicted, off-kilter life. This impressive debut is immigrant literature to its bendy bones. And like much good immigrant fiction, Slava's predicament stretches out to the rest of us—to anyone who has come to New York, or wherever ambitions lie, and found herself thrown back on her uncouth origins, reliving the past for those who had half hoped she would leave them behind and half known she wouldn't dare.
The New York Times Book Review - Patricia T. O'Conner
Is there room in American fiction for another brilliant young émigré writer? There had better be, because here he is. Boris Fishman's first novel…is bold, ambitious and wickedly smart…The only problem with this novel is that its covers are too close together. I wanted more of Slava, his bumpy love life, his venal grandfather, even Herr Barber. Undoubtedly, comparisons will be made—to Bellow and the Roths (Henry and Philip), as well as to Gary Shteyngart, who also came from the Soviet Union as a child. But in reading A Replacement Life, I thought most often of Bernard Malamud. Like the hero of The Fixer, Slava Gelman is an honorable man who finds that one broken rule, one risky move, changes his life irrevocably.
Publishers Weekly
★ 02/10/2014
The debut novel from Fishman shines with a love for language and craft. Minsk-born 25-year-old Slava Gelman has made it to the bottom of top-tier journalism. He’s junior staff at Century magazine, and he’s just been given a shot at a byline. But the death of his Holocaust-survivor grandmother throws self-involved Slava’s life out of focus. His grandfather—a quick-to-brag but resourceful man who “gets things”—pressures Slava into forging a restitution claim letter for Slava’s deceased grandmother, then spreads the news around his South Brooklyn neighborhood of Slava’s availability to write such fraudulent letters. Soon, Slava finds himself sharing secrets with strangers whose war stories, full of “the oddly specific details he had come to learn make a narrative feel authentic,” leave him feeling much closer to his grandmother. Fishman’s description of the precious information that grandparents pass down is beautiful; their memories have been a burden for Slava, whose grandfather’s meandering stories about Soviet life leave him “feeling like a failure because he was letting gold slip away in a fast-moving river,” but he learns their real value in the course of this forging scheme. Writers like Slava, and like Fishman, have a responsibility to do justice to the beauty in the details, and Fishman achieves that handily here. (June)
Patricia T. O'Conner
“Bold, ambitious and wickedly smart…A REPLACEMENT LIFE is full of descriptive treasures…The only problem with this novel is that its covers are too close together. I wanted more of Slava, his bumpy love life, his venal grandfather.”
Joyce Carol Oates
“A memorable debut by a wonderfully gifted young writer...Boris Fishman has written a beautifully nuanced, tender, and often very funny novel about conscience and familial loyalty that will linger long in the memory.”
Jim Harrison
“Fishman is a stunning writer, and A REPLACEMENT LIFE deserves a wide audience.”
Tom Bissell
“Boris Fishman fearlessly tackles the grandest subjects, among them the nature of honor and the transferability of suffering. That he succeeds this well, and with so much style and grace, marks him as a writer not only to watch but envy.”
Salvatore Scribona
“A terrific talent dealing in serious themes… Fishman is a gifted and accomplished writer, an honest one, grounded in the real.”
Arthur Phillips
“A novel that works beautifully on many levels. It’s about the compromises involved in telling any story…Boris Fishman finds a new way to negotiate these tensions, a new language, even as he sometimes shows how he does it, a little magic act all its own.”
Darin Strauss
“A REPLACEMENT LIFE is a hell of a book. Told with amazing virtuosity, fun and serious, funny and sad, profound and eminently readable, it will make you happy until it’s over. And then you will be sad.”
Teddy Wayne
“A Replacement Life deftly straddles the line of a plot-driven novel of ideas and a moving account of a writer’s maturation…Fishman’s debut is suffused with elegant language and sly humor and composed with the authority of a novelist on intimate terms with both his subject matter and art form.”
Brian Morton
“With a sense of humor and a sense of tragedy, A REPLACEMENT LIFE explores a hidden New York…There’s a touch of Gogol here, a touch of Babel, a touch of Dostoyevsky, but out of these materials Boris Fishman has fashioned something distinctively and triumphantly his own.”
Hilton Als
“Boris Fishman’s A REPLACEMENT LIFE is so strong in voice, humor, and compassion that it transcends fiction’s limitations to become something wilder and more contained—like life. What a remarkable debut—true and resonant, humorous and real.”
New York Times
“Mordantly funny and moving… Justice is eventually served in A REPLACEMENT LIFE along with plenty of black comedy, but the book is less about doing right or wrong than about where absolutes, moral or otherwise, do not apply … impressive.”
The New Yorker
“[An] ingenious debut...the novel is often very funny, but its most rewarding moments come as Slava, listening to the war stories of...elderly strangers, finds himself drawing closer to the grandmother whose secrets once seemed lost to him.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“Fishman, like his protagonist, is a born storyteller with a tremendous gift for language on all brow levels, making for a captivating and rare first novel that is tender, learned, funny and deeply soulful - frequently all at the same time.”
Chicago Tribune
“Fishman’s firm yet light authorial hand, his gift for character and plot development, and his searing use of the English language belie his youth and his novice-novelist status. His witty dialogue and wry, believable descriptions leaven the dark, dense bread of the tale.”
“Beautifully written and occasionally quite funny…[a] complicated paradox of remaining loyal to one’s community while moving bravely into a new world.”
Wall Street Journal
Sly and subversive...smart and sardonic...a touching story about a tenacious way of life disappearing amid the prosperity of America.”
NPR/All Things Considered
“In the way the he presents these [truths] to us with feeling, humor and eyes wide open, novelist Fishman doesn’t miss a beat.”
“Delightful…though the subject matter is largely dark, when you least expect it there is also humor which comes up and bites you in a most pleasant way… A REPLACEMENT LIFE is a brilliant first novel by a talented writer.”
“Fishman has talent galore, and an attractive love interest, funny set-pieces, a brochure-beautiful Big Apple, and spectacular, acutely self-conscious prose are all most enjoyable.”
“Powerful yet tender…real and vibrant…Fishman never loses the reader’s trust. No line in this book rings false, no character is unheard, no event seems like a plot device.”
Shelf Awareness
“Fishman invests Slava’s moral quandary with realism and pathos, while resolving it in a way that’s simultaneously unpredictable and satisfying…Like his protagonist, Fishman manages to keep all these plates spinning, finally bringing them to a clean stop with impressive style.”
The Oregonian
“A sharp, darkly funny debut novel…Irreverent but loving…Fishman explores themes of loyalty, morality, and history, and asks the sorts of questions that don’t have easy answers.””
Tablet Magazine
“[Fishman’s] tales offer the most powerful reckoning with the immigration experience by a Soviet-born American Jewish author this year-and, perhaps, to date.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Tova Reich and Shalom Auslander have delivered witty, nervy books on the subject. Add to their ranks Boris Fishman…Fishman humanizes the participants so well. Contemporary novelists have a bad habit of making immigrants appear monolithically earthy and good-natured, but Fishman knows better…deft and funny.”
“Scintillating…a surprisingly wise novel that’s also full of more or less guilty laughs, a book that joins Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy as the first true post-Holocaust novels of our time. It’s highly recommended.”
The Week
“Boris Fishman’s ‘wickedly smart’ debut visits an immigrant culture readers have explored before, but it brims with descriptive brilliance and ‘crackles with irony.’”
Howard Freedman
“Boris Fishman’s A REPLACEMENT LIFE is one of the year’s most memorable Jewish novels.”
Kirkus Reviews
An ambitious young writer compromises his integrity for the sake of his Russian forebears in Fishman's darkly comic, world-wise debut.Slava, the hero of this tale, toils as a relatively anonymous researcher at Century, an esteemed New Yorker-style magazine. Though he's a gifted storyteller, he's relegated to writing snarky retorts to flyover-country news briefs. His hubristic ambition to write bigger things is seized upon by his grandfather, who wants him to write a narrative for an application to receive reparations from Germany for death-camp survivors. The grandfather wasn't actually in the camps, but no matter: Slava is masterful at giving (and withholding) just enough detail to be persuasive, and soon, much of the post-Soviet Jewish diaspora in Brooklyn is asking for similar assistance. Instead of making a dour morality tale, Fishman mines this setup for comedy, satirizing the magazine's preaching about accuracy (which proves to be conditional) and portraying Slava as an easily led intellectual schlemiel. Bolstering his indecisive character, Fishman has Slava juggling two romantic interests, one a Century fact checker, the other a fellow Russian. How to make such an uncertain man worth spending time with? The novel is largely carried on Fishman's sharp wit, ear for dialect and close character studies, which capture the sociological nuances of everyone from preening magazine editors to doting relatives. (He writes of Brooklyn's Soviet expat community: "These unlike people had been tossed together like salad by the cupidity of the Soviet government, and now, in America, they were forced to keep speaking Russian…and they did, because a Ukrainian's hate of Russian was still warmer than his love of an American." Slava's romantic and professional reckonings in the closing pages are inevitable, but Fishman thoughtfully raises questions of what Holocaust-era suffering is deserving of recompense.A smart first novel that's unafraid to find humor in atrocity.
Library Journal
Slava Gelman has distanced himself from his immigrant family of Russian Jews so that he can become truly American. When his grandmother dies, his grandfather convinces Slava to submit a claim to the German government program for restitution to Holocaust survivors. The catch is that his dead grandmother qualified but his living grandfather does not. Slava amends the story, making the application in his grandfather's name. He suddenly finds that his grandfather has spread the word to the entire Russian community and that everyone wants Slava to write (read: invent) their narratives. When Otto, from the Center for Restitution, contacts Slava about the many applications received from his neighborhood, he must weigh truth against morality. VERDICT Fishman, an émigré from Belarus, captures the complexities of family, nationality, and history as he cleverly ties the loose ends of truth, justice, morality, and family into a tidy bow in his first novel.—Joanna Burkhardt, Univ. of Rhode Island Libs., Providence
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780062287878
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 6/3/2014
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 50,403
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Boris Fishman
Boris Fishman was born in Belarus and immigrated to the United States at the age of nine. He is the editor of Wild East: Stories from the Last Frontier, and his work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, the New Republic, the Wall Street Journal, the London Review of Books, and other publications. He lives in New York City. A Replacement Life is his first novel.
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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Boris Fishman, author of A Replacement Life

What did writing the novel teach you?

My next book will be titled Zen and the Art of Novel-Writing. Like any beginner, I was anxious. Very earnestly, I mapped the whole thing out in advance. But when you've got it all mapped out, there's no chance for the characters and plot to develop lives independent of you, to start telling you how it's going to go - which can give a good novel that sense of both spontaneity and inevitability, and the reader that feeling of I've forgotten I'm reading a novel because this feels like real life. (The irony being, of course, that an author has to warp and distill real life in a hundred ways in order for it to feel like real life on the page.) For instance, my "plan" was for Arianna, Slava Gelman's love interest, to be a much less nuanced version of someone who comes from privilege, but she kept speaking in a different voice. So I went with it. And her portrayal came to feel more interesting and honest for it. Like this, little by little, I let go, I got looser-limbed, I started playing. Writing the novel came to feel like playing - in the most disciplined way. I read this wonderful line once, which I think applies: "art is disciplined abandon."

In addition to its main concerns, the novel seems to be having a conversation between the lines about the way we tell stories - what makes one effective and what makes another fall flat. Can you talk about this?

Since the novel is about the invention of stories of Holocaust suffering, it takes up the question of: What does a narrative need to sound persuasive? Which, of course, is the challenge that the novel faces behind the curtain. As Slava turns these false stories like Rubik's cubes to figure out what will make them sound true, I was trying to understand the same thing. How do I make the novel sound credible? One answer, whether you're inventing restitution claims or fiction, is: Specific detail. As Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the patriarch of making the incredible credible, put it, you tell people there are elephants flying outside your window and no one will believe you, but you tell them six elephants are flying outside your window, and you've got them.

The ultimate answer for me, however, was: Make the reader wonder what was going to happen next. As one of the characters in the novel says, "Tell them a story [so good] they'll forget to care is it true or not." That's the fiction writer's sleight of hand (when it works). You're pulling all these strings, and the audience knows the puppet's not real, but it doesn't really care, because the show is so good. The show can be good for a whole variety of reasons: I've fallen in love with novels even though they moved slowly because they were written beautifully, or because they had unforgettable characters. But what Slava (and in this sense, if not others, I am his proxy) tries to learn, at least in this novel, is how to tell a good yarn.

You add an Author's Note, which says, in part, "The line between fact and fiction, invention and theft, is as loose as the line between truth and justice..." Why was this important for you to point out?

The things I describe in the novel - mass forgery of Holocaust-restitution claims by Russians in South Brooklyn - "came true," more or less as I imagined it, in 2010, about a year after I started writing. It had been going on since the 1990s - by the time it was exposed, something like $57 million had been obtained illegally from the German government. Public reaction was pretty unqualified; news pieces and comment forums tended to regard the people who had done this as evil.

But I knew the community, and the story felt more complicated than that - morally, if not legally. The people I imagined doing this for the novel, and who had actually been doing it all along in real life - many of them have suffered their whole lives, whether as second-class citizens (because Jews) in the Soviet Union, or as Russians in World War II, or as immigrants at a very advanced age to America. These are people who used to live in a country so abusive of its citizens that, in some cases, you couldn't get enough to get by without cheating.

And then these people came to America, a far more generous place, but at an age when it's very difficult to unlearn decades-old habits. Of course, some engaged in the fraud on base motives, but very often the money meant only that their grandchildren could go to a better college. I don't know if there is ever such a thing as a just fraud - it's one of the questions I wanted the novel to pose - but I do know that there's often quite a bit of daylight between the "facts" and justice, between the law and morality. I wanted the novel to explore this distance.

Who do you hope picks up this novel? What do you hope the book achieves?

I didn't intend A Replacement Life as a novel only for Russophiles, or urbanites, or young men trying to find themselves. I wanted it to be a novel for anyone who's ever had to figure out the distance between the "rules" and what feels just instead; who's wanted to find a way to honor someone whose definition of honor is very different; who's grown up with one set of ideas and then run headlong into the not very pleasant realization that life is about something else entirely. Ultimately, Slava is trying to figure out what it means to be a person. I see that as the most democratic concern possible rather than something elitist. The greatest reward to me would be if this book was picked up, in a Barnes & Noble in suburban New Jersey or in greater Phoenix, by someone who doesn't usually pick up "books like this."

And that goes to the heart of my other great wish, which is to wave the flag high and proudly for good stories. Somewhere along the way, stories - I mean novels where the plot has a fair amount of, let's say, "energy" - became suspect, empty calories in a pretty package meant to seduce a reader unwilling to think harder. Well, Elmore Leonard wrote pretty good stories. So did Dostoevsky. I don't agree that page-turners, by definition, can't maintain high artistic standards; can't challenge us intellectually and morally; can't experiment with form. At least I hope not. I don't know if I succeeded, but it's what I tried to achieve with this novel.

What was the most fun part of the novel to write? What was the hardest part of the experience?

The false narratives submitted by Slava to the German government on behalf of these old Russians in Brooklyn - these were among the most compelling things to write. They poured out of me, and, through 12 drafts, hardly underwent any change - the only parts of the book I can say that for. Perhaps because they represented a liberation. The novel occasionally draws on real-life experiences, but these narratives were complete inventions. They allowed me the thrill of writing out of entirely different lives. I enjoy that thought - the story's "illegal" aspects set me free outside the events of the novel.

The other great piece of fun was to invent characters from scratch. You can't transcribe one-to-one even with a character who borrows from real life - the dramatic demands of a viable character are quite different from what makes a human being. But you're still guided, often invisibly and unhelpfully, by the "facts." These facts are the departure point. There is no departure point with wholly invented characters; you make everything. This is thrilling- if you do it well, you're bringing people to life. What a rush. And what a relief for the beginner's great anxiety - if I can do this from scratch, maybe I'm not such a fraud. The hardest part of the experience was getting the women right. They taught me the most about creating characters. The men sprung more or less fully-formed. The women started as clichés, but through very many iterations, became (I hope) the most three-dimensional characters in the book.

If you could talk to yourself four years ago, when you were about to start the novel, what would you say?

Take a deep breath.

Who have you discovered lately?

I don't have many tips on undeservedly obscure writers - it's all I can do to get to the books that are well-known. Perhaps because I gorged on fiction while working on A Replacement Life, I seem to be in a nonfiction period. Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage- a book about his failure to write a book about D. H. Lawrence - was a revelation. You hardly have to care about D. H. Lawrence - it's a book about all the wonderful dishonesties and imperfections and unconstructive impulses that make us human. It's easily the most honest book I've read in a long time. (This is why I love books: It's someone being honest and undefended in a way that few of us are, as readily, in "real life.")

Well, scratch that: Rachel Cusk's A Life's Work: On Becoming A Mother (my next novel is about an adoption) is probably even more terrifyingly honest. It's a sublime refusal to sanctify motherhood as the breathlessly noble enterprise that we often, I think, insist on imagining it to be.

Then, about ten years too late, I got to Alexandra Fuller's Don't Let's Go To The Dogs Tonight, mainly because I've just spent some time in Zimbabwe. What a book. She doesn't analyze. She doesn't judge. She just tells, with incredible lyricism, the story (of growing up with wonderfully unconventional and resourceful, but also racist, parents in Rhodesia). It feels like a novel, unspooling in a never-ending present. It is a novel, in everything but the facts. I love that.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 4, 2014

    I absolutely loved this book. If you like Gary Shytengart, you w

    I absolutely loved this book. If you like Gary Shytengart, you will love Boris Fishman

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 1, 2014

    Hated the character, didn't like the book at all.  Why pity some

    Hated the character, didn't like the book at all.  Why pity someone who is unsympathetic.

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