In her stunning debut novel, Anya Ulinich delivers a funny and unforgettable story of a Russian mail-order bride trying to find her place in America. After losing her father, her boyfriend, and her baby, Sasha Goldberg decides that getting herself to the United States is the surest path to deliverance. But she finds that life in Phoenix with her Red Lobster-loving fiancé isn't much better than life in Siberia, and so she treks across America on a misadventure-filled search for her long- lost father. Petropolis is a deeply moving story about the unexpected connections that create a family and the faraway places that we end up calling home.
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|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
An Unspoiled Quality
A CORRUGATED FENCE RAN THE ENTIRE LENGTH OF A STREET WITH NO NAME, until itcrossed another street with no name. At the end of the fence, there were sixevenly spaced brick apartment buildings and a grocery. Just under thebuildings' cornices, meter-high letters spelled: glory to the, soviet army, brushteeth, after eatin, welcome to, asbestos 2, and model town! The letters, red and peeling, were painted along the seams in thebrickwork, which forced the authors of the slogans to be less concerned withtheir meaning than with the finite number of bricks in each facade.
In the fall of 1992, Lubov Alexandrovna Goldberg decided to findan extracurricular activity for her fourteenyearold daughter.
"Children of the intelligentsia don't just come home in theafternoon and engage in idiocy," declared Mrs. Goldberg.
She would've loved it if Sasha played the piano, but the Goldbergsdidn't have a piano, and there wasn't even space for a hypothetical piano inthe two crowded rooms where Sasha and her mother lived.
Mrs. Goldberg's second choice was the violin. She liked to imaginethe threequarter view of Sasha in black and white, minus the frizzy bangs. This is Sasha practicingher violin. As you can see, there is a place for the arts in the increasingausterity of our lives, she wrote in herimaginary letter to Mr. Goldberg, whose address she didn't know. But after themoney was spent and the violin purchased, three consecutive violin instructorsdeclared Sasha profoundly tone deaf and musically uneducable.
"A bear stepped on her ear," Mrs. Goldbergcomplained to the neighbors, and Sasha thought about the weight of the bear andwhether in stepping on her ear the animal would also destroy her head, crackingit like a walnut.
"Sit up,Sasha," said Mrs. Goldberg, "and chew with your mouth closed."
Then came auditions for ballet and figureskatingclasses, which even Mrs. Goldberg knew were a long shot for Sasha. On the wayhome from the last skating audition, where the instructor delicately describedher daughter as overweight and uncoordinated, Lubov Alexandrovna walked twosteps ahead of Sasha in a tense and loaded silence. Trudging through the snowbehind her mother, Sasha contemplated the street lamps. She tried to determinethe direction of the wind by the trajectories of snowflakes in the circles oflight, but the snow seemed to be flying every which way. Sasha was staringstraight up when her foot hit the curb and she landed flat on her face in asnowbank. This was more than Mrs. Goldberg could take.
"I told you to stop taking such wide steps. Youwant to see what you look like walking? Here!" Mrs. Goldberg swung her armswildly and took a giant step. "See? This is why you fall all the time! You tripover your own feet!"
Sasha got up and dusted herself off. Her right coatsleeve was packed with snow all the way up to her elbow, and the anticipationof it melting made her shiver.
"I have some advice for you!" shrieked Mrs.Goldberg. "Watch your step! You should see yourself in the mirror, the way youmove!"
Sasha woke up and stared at the water stain on the ceiling. For awhile, her eyes were empty. She allowed the horror of life to seep into themgradually, replacing the traces of forgotten dreams. It was the first day ofwinter recess. The Fruit Day.
Mrs. Goldberg had a new dietfor Sasha: each week, six days of regular food, one day of fruit only. Fruitmeant a shriveled Moroccan orange from the bottom of the fridge and a mother'spromise of more, since oranges were the only fruit found, if one was lucky, inmidwinter Siberia. Mrs. Goldberg was already at work or orangehuntingsomewhere, her bed neat as a furniture display.
Sasha got up and went to the kitchen. Feeling faintlyrevolutionary, she boiled water in a calcified communal teapot and pulled achair up to the cupboard. In the corner of the top shelf was her mother's canof Indian instant coffee. Sasha put four spoons of coffee granules and fourspoons of sugar in her cup and added water. The next stop was the fridge. Hermother had hidden all the food that belonged to the Goldbergs, but the othertenants still had theirs.
Sasha found half a bologna butt wrapped in brown paper, an egg, abrick of black bread, and half a can of sweetened condensed milk. She ate abologna omelet and washed it down with burning coffee. For dessert she had thebread with condensed milk. Some of the milk seeped through the pores in thebread and made a mess. "Fruit!" cursed Sasha, licking the drips off her fingers.When her hands were clean, she made another cup of coffee and returned to thefridge.
Sasha Goldberg was determined to enjoy her vacation. Winter recesswould be over in six days, and her fellow inmates would be waiting for her bythe gates of the Asbestos 2 Secondary School Number 13, ready to knock her bagout of her hands and send her flying backward down the icedover staircase. Hello, Ugly! Wanna dienow or later? She would pluck her books and herindoor shoes out of the deep snow like birthday candles out of frosting andhurry to class.
Sasha excavated the Stepanovs' enamel pot from theback of the fridge and lifted the lid. Inside, bits of boiled chicken floatedin the greenish broth. Drinking the broth straight out of the pot, Sashabriefly imagined telling her mother what went on at Number 13. Of course, shewould never do that. That her daughter was an oaf sticking an icicle into herbleeding nostril before going to algebra didn't belong in Lubov Goldberg'sreality. Mrs. Goldberg would try, by sheer force of will, to dehumiliate Sashaon the spot. There would be questions—"Why are they doing it toyou?"—and suggestions—"Perhaps you need to be friendlier. I noticeyou don't have any girlfriends." A multitude of diets could emerge from thestack of old Burda magazines; the spiked rubber mat for flatfoot exercises might returnfrom the utility closet. Sasha knew that every measure would fail, and in theend, she would glimpse the true magnitude of her mother's contempt.
She poured another cup of coffee. Now she had no dessert,except for an old honey jar filled with cough drops. For as long as Sasha couldremember, those cough drops had been in the fridge. She tried the lid, but ithad crystallized onto the jar. Shaking from too much coffee, Sasha slammed thejar against the sink, washed the shards of glass down the drain, and sucked themass of congealed menthol until it turned into a translucent green disc.
After her third cup of coffee, Sasha ran out ofsugar. It was almost lunchtime. The neighbors who worked at the asbestos millwere about to come home to eat. Sasha dumped the dishes in the sink, took herorange out of the fridge, discarded a diamondshaped Morocco sticker andreturned to bed. In bed, she disassembled the orange, tossed the peel behindthe headboard and, sucking on the sour sections, read Jules Verne until dark.
At six o'clock she heard her mother's footsteps inthe corridor and, seconds later, a shouting match in the kitchen. It wasn'treally a match, because the neighbors were the only ones shouting. Mrs.Goldberg never raised her voice; she wouldn't stoop to it. Sasha knew that hermother just stood there, pale and stoic, like St. Sebastian tied to a tree.
"Don't you ever feed that child?" yelled Mrs. Stepanova.
Mrs. Goldbergshut the door in Mrs. Stepanova's face and crossed her arms.
This was a purely symbolic offer. Sasha shrugged.
"Take off your pants," said Mrs. Goldberg.
Sasha got out of bed, hiked up her flannelnightgown, and pulled off her bloomers.
After beating Sasha with a dainty patent leatherbelt, Mrs. Goldberg dragged a chair over to Baba Zhenia's Romanian plywoodarmoire and took down a roll of Sasha's drawings and watercolors. Sasha lookedaway, preparing for the shredding. It was important to show that she didn'tcare. Oblivious to the suspense she had created, Mrs. Goldberg set the drawingson the desk and flipped through them slowly, sucking her lower lip with thetiniest whistle.
"I've set up an interview at the District 7 ArtStudio tomorrow," she said in a faintly conciliatory voice. "If you'readmitted, you'll be going three days a week, after school."
"District 7 is all the way up the devil's horns,"replied Sasha, trying hard to hide her relief. "Are you sure the place is fitfor the intelligentsia?"
"Don't sneer, detka," sighed Mrs. Goldberg. "Youdon't need another tic."
They got off the streetcar and walked along the fence, pulling thegranny cart with rolledup drawings over icy acne on the sidewalk; Mrs.Goldberg, slim and graceful, in camel spike heels she wore for the occasion,and Sasha, a brown lump in her babyish synthetic fur coat. A notquiterightcounterfeit Mickey Mouse smiled his toothy, savage smile from the coat's back.
Soon they saw a row of apartment buildings, and Mrs. Goldbergstopped to pull a scrap of paper with directions out of her glove. Sasha wascareful to keep her face frozen in a mask of aloof defiance, but inside she wasmore apprehensive. According to the directions, the District 7 Evening ArtStudio for Children was located in the basement of the after eatin building, and Sasha considered that to be a good omen.
That morning, Mrs. Goldberg had offered Sasha someof her precious coffeein exchange for the promise that during the interview Sasha would not:
stare at the wall with her mouth open like a carp
twirl her hair
bite her nails
and that she would:
keep her knees closed
keep her tongue in her mouth
"Please, bunny, I want you to try," Mrs. Goldberg had said sweetly,putting her manicured fingers on Sasha's hand.
They walked past gloryto the, soviet army and brush teeth and turned left. Sasha pushed open the heavy steel door, steppeddown, and felt moisture seeping through the zipper of her boot. Looking down,she saw that the front of the basement was flooded. A plank led to a seconddoor. With the outside door shut, Sasha and Mrs. Goldberg walked the plank inairless darkness, balancing the granny cart between them like a couple ofsuddenly dexterous sleepwalkers.
"What a nightmare," mouthed Mrs. Goldberg, slidingher fingers along the dripping wall for support. Sasha sneered.
Someone opened the second door, and Sasha smelledplaster dust. She pushed past a thick curtain, and when her eyes adjusted tothe light, she realized that she'd just stepped into her own dream. In themessy entryway, plaster busts were haphazardly scattered among easels and spaceheaters. In the next room, Sasha saw a clawfoot tub filled with wet clay, astuffed fox, and a basket of wax fruit. It was as if everything old, ornate,and intricate, every shred of Western Civilization ever found in the vicinityof Asbestos 2 were stored in the basement of after eatin. Sasha would keep her knees closed, keep her tongue in her mouth,not bite her nails, and, if necessary, also lick boots, eat rocks, cry, and begto be allowed to stay in this place.
A dour ponytailed man helped Mrs. Goldberg unroll Sasha'sdrawings on an antique tabletop. Sasha noticed a concrete torso in the corner.The torso must have belonged to Lenin, because it wore a suit and held arolledup cap in one of its fisted hands. Someone had stuck a bent aluminumfork into the other. Two ancient anatomy textbooks rested on top, where thehead should have been.
The ponytailed man gave Sasha a pencil, a sheet ofpaper, and four rusted pushpins. She was to draw a still life, he explained,leading her down a narrow hallway into the classroom.
The five kids in the room looked up in anticipationas the man took an eraser out of his pants pocket and started making therounds, erasing parts of their drawings. Halfway through the room, his erasergummed up and Sasha watched him make greasy graphite smudges over drawings thatseemed perfect to her.
"You can start now, Goldberg. See you in twohours." The man patted Sashaon the shoulder and disappeared, leaving behind a waft of tobacco smell.
Sasha pinned upher paper and stared at the still life. It consisted of an egg, a butter knife, and a whiteenameled bowl, three minutes' worth of work. Why did the man give hertwo hours? Maybe she misunderstood the assignment.
"Okay, let's see the damage," said one of the boys.
"Oh, fucking Bedbug with his petrified eraser. Whowants to take up a collection for a new eraser for Bedbug? Hey, what's yourname?" A small longhaired boy was leaning over the top of Sasha's easel."Donate money to get Bedbug a nice soft eraser?"
Sasha mutely pointed to the corner of her paper,where her name was written.
"I'm Katia Kotelnikova," said a tall girl with abraid. She unpinned her drawing and folded it in half. "Sasha, did you bringany extra paper? I have to start this over."
"No," said Sasha, staring at the girl's unusualcostume. Katia wore felt boots with rubber galoshes and a vintage Soviet schooluniform: a brown wool dress with a black apron. Sasha wondered if she was sopoor that she had to wear it, or whether she was trying for a certain look.
"Why aren't you starting?" Katia asked. "Youhaven't got all day."
Sasha Goldberg looked around the room. The kidswere still carrying on about the eraser, and she sensed that in this particulargroup even the beautiful ones didn't mean her any harm. It was a pleasantsurprise, this feeling.
"I don't know what he expects from me. I've neverdone this before," she muttered, putting her pencil down.
"A comrade in trouble should never be afraid to askfor help," the longhaired boy said with a smirk. "In this basement, it's fromeach according to his abilities, to each according to his incompetence."
Sasha allowed herself a thin smile. These peoplewere clearly harmless. Only the harmless and the old still made jokes aboutcommunism.
Apparently happy about the distraction, the kidsnudged Sasha aside and took over her drawing. From a corner of the room, shewatched them do her work. First, the boy with long hair constructed thegeometric skeleton of the composition. He took into account the deep shadow ofthe bowl, shifting the whole setup to the right to make space for it. A fatgirl with a bureaucrat's haircut drew the contours of the egg and the bowl, andthen it was Katia's turn to work on the shading.
For a while the room was quiet. Katia perchedupright on the edge of Sasha's stool, deftly filling the still life's contourswith swatches of crosshatching. Biting her nails, Sasha watched withfascination as the egg in the drawing acquired illusory volume, growing out ofthe paper's surface like an exceptionally healthy mushroom.
"It seems that Evgeny Mikhailovich has been bittenby a whiteonwhite bug," explained Katia. "Last week we spent six hours on aplaster cube and a dish rag, and the week before it was this big,dry"—she laughed a short, sneezelike laugh—"bone. By the time I gothere, all the good spots were taken, and I had to draw the damn bone endon.There was no way it was going to look like anything."
"It looked like a giant belly button," the boydisagreed.
"Shut up!" Katia laughed, squinting at the drawing.Katia, squinting at the drawing. Both the egg and the bowl now lookedthreedimensional, firmly planted on the horizontal plane of the tabletop, withthe dark table edge decisively in front. "Sasha, finish it. It needs yourpersonal touch."
Back at her easel, Sasha lamely dragged her pencilalong the contour of the bowl and the edge of the butter knife. Every line shemade, no matter how light, looked entirely out of place and threatened todisturb the illusion, to flatten out the little pocket of space. Sasha wasrelieved to see that she was almost out of time. She chewed the cool aluminumtube at the end of her pencil and waited for Bedbug to return. Instead, an oldman with a wooden leg hobbled into the classroom. The end of his nose twitchednervously and whatever was left of his hair flew around his head like a pair ofpoorly designed wings. There was a war hero medal on the lapel of his greasysuit.
"Goldberg?" the old man said. "Let's see."
Sasha felt every one of her muscles ball up intorocks and blood rush up to her face.
The old man stood behind her back for a smalleternity. He smelled like acetone. Sasha could feel his every twitch reverberatingin the rotten floorboards and her rickety stool.
"Aha," he said finally, and then, thunderously,"You are all expelled! Out! And never come back! You are all a bunch ofungrateful pigs..." he paused,surveying the room, "Cows!"
The old man seemed to be at a loss for words. Heturned around sharply and left, the clicks and scrapes of his wooden legreceding down the hall. Sasha was mortified. Without taking her eyes off thefloor, she got up and followed the man out of the classroom.
"Moo," Katia said behind her back, "Welcome to thecollective farm!"
The classroom exploded with laughter.
Idiots, thought Sasha Goldberg, blinking away tears.
She didn't see her mother right away, only herboots, propped up on top of a cracked glass coffee table next to a bottle ofcognac and a plate of thinsliced lemons. She followed the direction of theboots and found Mrs. Goldberg, sprawled out on a dirty little sofa behind adrape.
Sasha never suspected that her mother was capableof being sprawled out. This was the same mother who, Sasha was convinced, wasborn wearing a starched shirt and a string of pearls. Sasha suspected that theworld would have to turn ninety degrees to force Lubov Goldberg to put her feetup on a coffee table. She stood, grim and disbelieving, and watched Bedbugrefill her mother's glass.
Mrs. Goldberg was laughing. Her cheeks glowed red,and her one gold canine caught the light, making her look like a vampire. Wasthis all it took, two glasses of cognac? Sasha waited for the onelegged man totell her mother what had happened in the classroom, but he seemed to have forgottenall about it.
"Will you allow me the pleasure of painting yourportrait someday?" he asked Mrs. Goldberg.
"We'll have to see about that, EvgenyMikhailovich," she warbled, noticing Sasha.
Sasha struggled into her coat, and Bedbug helpedMrs. Goldberg into hers. The air outside was cold and clear. At four o'clock itwas completely dark. The nearest streetlight was down by glory to the, and Sasha was able to see the moon and some stars. She stared hard,and when she looked ahead into the dark street, she saw an afterimage of blackpinholes.
She looked sideways at her mother, waiting for thefirst hiss, but Mrs. Goldberg didn't say anything. In the absence of anassault, Sasha was left face to face with her own despair. Walking alongsideMrs. Goldberg, she felt selfpity so pure it bordered on ecstasy. If somebodysaid, "Sasha Goldberg, give up five years of your life to be admitted to theDistrict 7 Evening Art Studio for Children," she would. She wished she hadn'tcheated. If she had done her own work, her effort might have counted forsomething.
"Hope the streetcar will be here soon," Mrs.Goldberg said when they got to the tram stop. "I'm tired. Are you cold?"
Sasha was surprised at her peaceful tone. "Aren'tyou mad at me?" she asked flatly.
The tram came clanging around the corner, carryinga promise of warmth inits oldfashioned streamlined shape and incandescent yellow light. The lightwas deceptive; it was as cold inside the streetcar as outside. Mrs. Goldbergstuck the tickets into the hole puncher and sat down on a torn vinyl seat.
"You've been accepted. You start next week."
"Are you happy?"
"But I thought I..."
"They liked your drawings. Evgeny Mikhailovich saidthey had an unspoiled quality." Mrs. Goldberg laughed, a melodic, relaxedlaugh.
Speechless, Sasha caught her mother's small goldenhead in a fake fur embrace.
Mrs. Goldberg liberated herself and adjusted herhair.
"Pay attention to the route, now. I won't be takingyou every day." She put her leather glove on Sasha's sleeve and laughed again."You know what else Evgeny Mikhailovich told me? He said that you look like me,only diluted with something stronger."
"Something stronger" was her father, and Sashathought her mother must still be drunk because normally she never mentionedhim, even obliquely. Sasha knew she didn't look anything like her mother, whowas an archetypal Russian beauty. Thanks to "something stronger," SashaGoldberg had yellow freckled skin, frizzy auburn hair, and eyes like chocolateeggs.
"You can't dilute with something stronger," she said.
"That's the smartest thing that's ever come out ofyour mouth, detka," agreed Mrs. Goldberg.
What People are Saying About This
"Audacious, clever, and lively . . . a nervy social satire in the spirit of Tom Wolfe, Aleksandar Hemon, Gish Jen, Gary Shteyngart, and Lara Vapnyar."
"Ulinich has a knack for the tragicomic. . . . Petropolis is engaging, funny, and genuinely moving in all the right places."
-Los Angeles Times Book Review
"A moving account of a perpetual outsider's desire to belong, both to her family and to the wide, weird world she encounters with a sometimes weary heart and plenty of chutzpah."
"A beautiful far-ranging voice equally at home on both sides of the Atlantic . . . Anya Ulinich's satiric romp gives new meaning to the word 'bittersweet.'"
-Gary Shteyngart, author of Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante's Handbook
A beautiful far-ranging voice equally at home on both sides of the Atlantic . . . Anya Ulinich's satiric romp gives new meaning to the word ‘bittersweet.' (Gary Shteyngart, author of Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante's Handbook)
Reading Group Guide
In her stellar debut novel, Russian émigré Anya Ulinich paints a vivid, beguiling, and funny portrait of post-Soviet Russia and turn-of-the-century America.
Growing up in a Dickensian apartment block in a bleak Siberian town, Asbestos 2, Sasha Goldberg has more than one strike against her in the blond, blue-eyed Russian north: chubby, biracial, and Jewish, she consistently disappoints her overbearing mother with academic and extracurricular failures. Mrs. Goldberg is on a feverish quest to shape Sasha into a proper “member of the intelligentsia,” but Sasha finds love in the arms of an art school dropout living in the town dump, and Mrs. Goldberg’s plans for Sasha unravel.
Petropolis is a richly layered and luminous emotional epic in the mode of great Russian novels. From perpetually gray Asbestos 2 to the shocking green lawns of Paradise Valley, Arizona, where Sasha lands as a mail-order bride; from wealthy suburban Chicago to the streets of Brooklyn, New York, Petropolis takes on motherhood, religion, the promise of love, and cross-cultural perplexity, all set against Sasha’s harrowing yet hilarious search for a place to call home. The result is a magnificent work that will stand alongside the likes of Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Gish Jen’sTypical American in scope, immediacy, and sheer talent.
ABOUT ANYA ULINICH
Anya Ulinich was seventeen when her family left Moscow and immigrated to the United States. She attended the Art Institute of Chicago and received an MFA in painting from the University of California. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
A CONVERSATION WITH ANYA ULINICH
What inspired you to write Petropolis?
Writing Petropolis was a way of dealing with the overflow of stories and ideas that I was unable to contain and address in my paintings.
I’ve studied art all my life. As a child in Soviet Russia, I was subjected to the kind of merciless academic training that Sasha Goldberg goes through at her art school in Asbestos 2. When I came to the United States, I discovered greater freedom in terms of both the media and the content of my works. At the same time, I was struggling to survive in this country as a new immigrant, and my experiences were yielding many stories and observations. For a while, I existed at the bottom of the social hierarchy in America, and I was suddenly thinking about language, culture, and class stratification in a way that I never had to before. So I began to cram all this information into my paintings, trying to figure out my new identity as an immigrant and my relationship with my Russian past, through them. In retrospect, I see that I went about it in a totally ham-fisted, straightforward manner, suffocating my paintings with text and allusive imagery, and sacrificing the visual for the narrative.
Right around the time when I was finally coming to terms with the fact that painting was ill equipped to do what I wanted it to do, I had a daughter. During the first few months of her life, I had a lot of time to think, but since my hands were busy with the baby, I had no opportunity to turn my thought process into another painting. At the same time, the fact that I was capable of making and raising another human being gave me the sense of authority and self-assurance necessary to get over my fear of writing in English. So, I began to write down some of the characters and stories that my paintings could address only obliquely. That was the beginning of Petropolis.
At first, I had no idea that what I was writing would turn into a novel. Later, a central theme began to come through. As a new mother, I began to wonder what it would be like to have my child taken away from me. I began to think about how larger social events invade families, and cause people’s lives to take certain turns. So I created Sasha Goldberg, whose life is through and through a product of the Soviet regime and its dissolution—from the circumstances of her father’s birth to the circumstances of Sasha’s own upbringing. Instead of rejecting that history or becoming a victim of it, she uses it as a foundation for her own humanity.
Can you describe how your own experiences coming from Russia to America influenced the novel? Are there specific differences between the life you led in Russia and your life in America that are reflected in the novel?
There are three differences that immediately come to mind. The main difference is that I was a child in Russia, and when I came to the United States, I had to grow up very quickly. I had to make money to help support my family. Also, my younger brother and I became proficient in English much faster than our parents, which oddly reversed the roles in the family.Petropolis is essentially about growing up. Sasha Goldberg is growing up alone and in the aftermath of a trauma. It was different for me because I still had my parents to lean on. Still, just like Sasha, I experienced a very steep learning curve and became an adult much faster than I would had we stayed in Russia or had I been born in the United States.
Although social class existed in Soviet Russia, it was defined not so much by material wealth, but by a person’s place of residence and education level. The class differences were much less pronounced than they are in the United States. I grew up middle class on the outskirts of Moscow. Everyone I knew lived in a small apartment, and I didn’t know anyone who hired domestic help. There were no servants, maids, or nannies. Then, when we moved to Arizona, my family ended up at the absolute bottom of the social hierarchy. We were doing menial labor for cash and eating donated food. So I wanted to write about class disparity and how it defines certain relationships.
Like many Soviet people, I grew up without religion. In Soviet Russia “Jewish” meant solely ethnicity, a race. Everyone’s ethnicity was recorded in his or her passport for discrimination purposes. So if both of the person’s parents were Jewish, the person would be marked Jewish on the “nationality” line of their passport. My Jewish identity consisted of tales about the history of discrimination and extermination, certain foods we ate, and certain Yiddish words my grandparents used at home. I was very aware of my family history and especially of the Holocaust that my grandmother had narrowly escaped when she lived in Kiev. Being Jewish also meant that I looked different from my Nordic classmates.
When I came to America, I received a rather confusing, intense, and not entirely voluntary crash course in religion, similar to the one Sasha Goldberg gets at the Tarakans’. I was expected to pick up Jewish religious traditions that were interrupted, in my family’s case, nearly one hundred years before. Here, my cultural identity—that of a secular person who wants nothing to do with, say, religious holidays, is frequently considered almost a tragedy perpetrated upon my people by the Soviet regime.
Your work seems to draw on themes found in the classic novels of the literary giants. There is the furtive social humor typical of the English nineteenth-century novelists as well as the stark and often desolate reality of the Russian romantics and realists. What impact did these types of literature—specifically, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century literature—have on your writing of Petropolis?
I read Russian novels in Russian, and when I write in English, I almost feel as if I’m using a different part of my brain. The humor is different somehow, too. I think the most obvious influence, in terms of satire, would be Mikhail Bulgakov (The Master and Margarita and Dog’s Heart). He is neither a romantic nor a realist, and he’s a twentieth-century writer.
I grew up reading Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and I still reread them pretty regularly, so obviously they have an impact on my writing. As Petropolis became more and more crowded with characters, I sometimes worried, “Can I handle all these people? Where did they all come from?” It seemed immodest and formally sloppy, for example, to have Mr. Tarakan pop up, drive through the forest, catch a cold, and disappear. Then I would reread War and Peace or Anna Karenina and be inspired and reassured. Those books are such expansive messes of characters, events, and ideas (War and Peace even has a lecture tacked on at the end), yet they’re great, and entirely absorbing.
What books or writers have had a powerful influence on you and your writing?
Every book I read in English influences my writing. While I was writing the part where Sasha lives with the Tarakans, I reread Lolita, and then had to go back and iron out certain faux-Nabokovian passages in Petropolis, because, obviously, Nabokov’s style is wholly inappropriate for my book. So with me it’s more of a matter of having to fight influences.
Apart from this, there are books that I love and that I wish I had written. They don’t have very much in common with each other. Among them are Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan, which I admire for its uncompromising ruthlessness.
I love most everything that Alice Munro has written. In her stories, relationships are defined and destroyed by power imbalances within them. Love is shadowed by violence; sexual attraction is tied up with class guilt.
I love Jonathan Lethem for his beautiful language and imagery, and for how unabashedly romantic he is when writing about the city. I love Zadie Smith’s novels for their scope and energy. I love short stories by Grace Paley, Jhumpa Lahiri, Lorrie Moore, David Bezmozgis, and Katherine Shonk.
I certainly wish I had Lev Tolstoy’s brain. The man is so incredibly persuasive. He can have the most absurd idea and be utterly convincing about it. Take his novella The Kreutzer Sonata, a deranged argument against sexual love delivered by a not-really-repentant wife killer. For how entirely backward its premise is, The Kreutzer Sonata is like a hammer to the reader’s head. It’s a wonder abstinence educators haven’t discovered it.
I love Russian poetry. I especially love Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, Pasternak, and Brodsky. I have recently reread and was in awe of Pushkin’s Evgeniy Onegin. Unfortunately, I needed fifteen years to forget the way Pushkin was taught to me in Russian secondary school.
Sasha is by turns joyful and joyless. How does she maintain her optimism—and gain her strength—in the face of such apparent bleakness?
When I think of Sasha, the Russian folk archetype Ivan the Fool comes to mind. In fairy tales, Ivan the Fool is usually the youngest and the dumbest of three brothers. He is absurdly naïve, he does everything wrong, but he always comes out on top and gets to marry the princess, because he is lucky and pure at heart. Ivan the Fool–type characters are often used in Russian satirical writing. Because Ivan the Fool is wide-eyed, thick-skinned, ignorant of the rules of the surrounding culture, and has no internal point of reference save for his own internal moral compass, it’s a lot of fun to see society through his eyes.
Sasha channels Ivan the Fool in several ways. By nature not terribly introspective, Sasha is a typical romantic, self-centered teenager before the birth of Nadia. The bleakness of her existence doesn’t upset her. Her life in Asbestos 2 is the only life she’s known. Although insane, Mrs. Goldberg is a caring mother in her own way, and Sasha has a stable home life that helps her survive the abuse at school. She is also rescued, just in time, by the Art Studio, where she finds friendship and teachers who care about her and whom she respects despite their flaws.
After the birth of Nadia and during her time in the United States, Sasha exists in a state where her entire being is focused, exclusively, on survival. This intense focus becomes the source of her strength. She can’t afford to become depressed, at least not for very long. Sasha is often irritated with the emotional turmoil of people who exist in the higher reaches of the Maslow hierarchy of needs, like Heidi. It is also the reason why she and Jake get along—they both face severe limitations and have a kind of uncluttered understanding of life and of each other.
Your writing is visually rich. Given that you are a painter as well as a writer, how do you feel that painting and visual art are connected to your writing and the creation of three-dimensional characters? Does one medium influence the other?
Definitely. Some characters and places I wrote have appeared in my paintings before. I’m not sure how much my art experience has to do with the three-dimensionality of my characters, but I do look at the world as a painter, and I naturally pay attention to color and light. There used to be passages in Petropolis where I described things in terms of the empty space between them, what in drawing is called “negative space.” I would talk about the shape of the space, but then people who read these descriptions had no idea what was going on, and I had to change the text.
What are you working on now?
I’m thinking once again about combining visuals with writing. The obvious answer seems to be to do a graphic novel, but I never read comics as a child and I have no innate sense of the format, the relationship between text and pictures. So I’m just trying to figure this out. I’m also trying to learn how to write a good short story. In a way it’s harder than writing a novel because I can’t just let the narrative sprawl to get my point across. I’m also raising two young children, which means trying to carve out some time to occasionally feed them and read to them.
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