The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko: A Novel

The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko: A Novel

by Scott Stambach


$23.39 $25.99 Save 10% Current price is $23.39, Original price is $25.99. You Save 10%. View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Thursday, February 21

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250081865
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 08/09/2016
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 1,282,586
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

SCOTT STAMBACH lives in San Diego where he teaches physics and astronomy at Grossmont and Mesa colleges. He also collaborates with Science for Monks, a group of educators and monastics working to establish science programs in Tibetan Monasteries throughout India. He has written about his experiences working with monks of Sera Jey monastery and has published short fiction in several literary journals including Ecclectica, Stirring, and Convergence. He is the author of The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko.

Read an Excerpt

The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko

By Scott Stambach

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2016 Scott Stambach
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-08186-5


The Anesthetization of Ivan Isaenko

Dear Reader, whom I do not know, who may never be, I write not for you but for me. I write because I can't sleep. I write because Polina is dead.

Currently, I'm drunk from three capfuls of vodka on a three-day-empty stomach. I have Nurse Natalya to thank for this. She is the only one who knows what I've lost. She is the closest thing I've ever had to a mother, and I know she thinks of me as a son. Like any good mother, she watches over me. For the last two days, she's checked on me every fifteen minutes. She checked on me seven times tonight, and every time I was wide awake. On the eighth time, she discreetly entered my room with a bottle of Stoli.

"Open your mouth, Ivan," she said. "It'll help you sleep."

She poured a capful into my mouth, and I coughed and heaved. As she pulled away, I grabbed her arm and asked for another. Hesitantly, she produced another capful and emptied it down my throat.

"One more," I demanded.

She glanced at me menacingly as if to terrify me from asking again, but nevertheless sympathetically poured one last capful down my throat. Now I feel right. It's not enough to get me to sleep, but it is enough to help me write.

I need to share this place with you, Reader. I need to share my friends who I would never admit were friends. I need to share with you my beloved, whom I would never admit I loved. For if I don't document our world right now, on this ambiguously stained paper, with my fading pen, in my delirious left-handed penmanship, we will risk fading into the foam of history without mention. Reader, I hope after this you understand that we are entitled to more than that.



I'm seventeen years old, approximately male, and I live in an asylum for mutant children. I first learned of the name of this hospital — the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children — from spying on random documents lying around the Main Room, but I wouldn't be able to find it on a map if you asked me. I only know it is somewhere in southern Belarus in a city that is most likely called Mazyr.

I've never met my parents, but as far as I know, when I squirmed out of my mother's nether parts, she took one look at the abomination that had been cooking inside of her and dropped it onto the doorstep of the nearest church in fear that she had fallen victim to the Soviet curse that she had heard so much about on the radio. Incidentally, this was the same curse that resulted in the random explosions of horse thyroids and in Eastern European fauna enduring more hair loss than Gorbachev.

I, for one, am hideous, and consequently, I've developed a crippling phobia of reflective surfaces (and anything else that reminds me of what I look like). But I will bravely face this fact for the sake of my story and describe to you what nature dealt me. My body is horribly incomplete. I only have one arm (my left), and the hand attached to the end of it is deficient in digits (I have two fingers and a thumb). The rest of my appendages are short, asymmetrical nubs that wiggle with fantastic effort. My skin is nearly transparent, revealing the intricate tapestry of my underutilized veins. The muscles in my face are only loosely connected to my brain, resulting in a droopy, flat affect, which makes me look like an idiot, especially when I talk. Of all my privations, this one has come as an advantage, since it helps me to feign a comatose state, which has allowed me to remain largely undisturbed by my doctors and peers whenever I'm uninterested in interaction (which is most of the time). Mostly, I choose to leave the hell of my surroundings in favor of the slightly more palatable hell of my mind. At least there I can create fantasies of the lives I'd rather have lived, such as King Leonidas, the Dalai Lama, Miles Davis, Oskar Schindler, Wilt Chamberlain, astrophysicist Carl Sagan, Larry Flynt (pre-wheelchair), any Russian who's ever written a book, and Confucius, to name just a few.


The Day I Came Online

Not many people have the luxury of recalling their first memory. I know this because I've asked Nurse Natalya, Ridick, and my eleventh therapist, Dr. Dubov, but none of them can remember. My first memory, however, is like glass — I came online with a swift slap across the face, which resulted in at least one tooth flying across the room, which I never found. I was four years old, so luckily it would grow back. Before that, there was nothing. Not even blackness. Just nothing. Nothing and blackness are different. Most people don't understand. I, for one, prefer nothing over blackness.

"Take them, Ivan! Take them now!" she hollered while squeezing my cheeks so hard my mouth popped open like an origami change purse. Into it she tossed a few white Soviet-mandated pills, which I spit back into her face.

"Ivan, you little hui morzhovy! Take your medicine!"

Apparently, I was a menace even before I was old enough to choose to be one. I don't remember what kind of pills she was trying to feed me or why I resisted (it was my first memory). I only remember the look on the face of the nurse, which spoke so many things.

It said, "I hate menstruating."

It said, "I've come to hate other things too, but I can't draw a line between what I really hate and you."

It said, "What the fuck is the meaning of all this?"

It said, "I wasn't born this way."

It said other things too, but you probably get the point.

I hated that nurse. In my opinion, no one with all her parts in all the right places deserves to have any of those thoughts. Before I even got to know her name (I nicknamed her chernyypukh after the hairy mole on her upper lip), she died after falling off the hospital roof in near-hurricane-like weather during a smoke break.


Coma Boy

Most of what I know about the world outside of these walls comes from the images that flicker across the antique black-and-white TV mounted in the Main Room. However, when I'm not watching TV or gazing through the barred windows scattered throughout the institution, my favorite pastime is to act catatonic and eavesdrop on conversations among nurses and doctors. This feigned obliviousness disarms the adults into lengthy streams of uncensored talk; it's the only way I can get accurate news and information. Anything they speak directly to us or around us is either nonsensical baby talk or lies crafted for the purpose of making things appear better than they really are. Despite the smallness of my world, I'm able to mix my observations with a bit of imagination into compelling story lines in which I star. I will play anything from the hero to the villain, but at no time am I the observer, because that is what I already am, every minute of every day. I appreciate the freedom; I learned a long time ago that there are no consequences to the things that happen inside my mind.

Early on, Nurse Natalya caught on that I was faking my comas and gently made me aware of her acuity in a way that resonated perfectly with her. She put a picture of a famous (and very naked) Belarusian actress in my field of vision and said tauntingly:

"Pretty girl, huh, Ivan? Such a beautiful naked woman, eh?"

And then while my attention was firmly embedded in that picture, glued by every ounce of my helplessly horny, adolescent, sex-deprived being, she yanked it out into my peripheral. Inevitably, my supposedly comatose eyes lustfully followed the image, and my game was revealed. But, before I even tried to explain myself, Nurse Natalya understood the psychology behind my game. So instead of shaming me, as any of the other nurses would have, she sat me down and interrogated me as to my interests. When I told her I had none, she flapped her hand and walked out. The next day she returned with an old paperback copy of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. I devoured it in three days and asked her for more. Since then, Nurse Natalya has scoured libraries and used-book sales to feed my habit. On the days in which I'm too sick or overmedicated to read, she tells me stories on a variety of esoteric topics ranging from Tollund Man's peat bog to Saint Ursula's cathedral of bones to Cleopatra's seduction techniques. I once asked her how she knew so much about the world despite being almost as stuck in this place as I am.

"I'm a few chapters away from a Ph.D., Ivan," she said. "But it turns out universities are even lonelier than hospitals."

One day, Nurse Natalya gently suggested that I should try writing down the scripts that played through my pseudocatatonic head. She thought that it would amount to some sort of therapy.

"Where are you when you leave the hospital and go into your head?" she asked me.

I smiled asymmetrically, shook my head one and a half times, and looked away.

"Sometimes the stories play right in your eyes, Ivan," she continued. "You should write them down."

She paused for a second and smirked.

"If you wrote your stories with the same chutzpah you use with the nurses, I'd give you two years before you're the world's most despised Nobel laureate."

"My stories are for me," I replied.

"You say that now, Ivan."

And then she smiled, and when she smiles, it means that she knows that we both know.

She would revisit the topic once or twice a week every week for the next few years. As always, she was right. Actually, I'm not sure Nurse Natalya has ever been wrong about anything.

One day she asked me, "Do you know how the Buddha became enlightened?"

"I don't believe in enlightenment."

"Perfect, Ivan. The Buddha wouldn't want you to believe in enlightenment."

"Aren't you Orthodox?"

"The Buddha makes me a better Christian."

"So how?"

"How what?"

"How did he become enlightened?"

"He sat under the Bodhi Tree and promised himself not to move until he solved the whole puzzle of human suffering."

I suppose I currently bear a striking resemblance to that Buddha under the Bodhi Tree.

Currently the clock reads 1:55 in the A.M. I've been writing for two hours. It is the third day of December. The year is 2005.

I closed my eyes and fell asleep for the first time in three days. But it only lasted for three minutes. I saw you, Polina. But I saw the you of three days ago, not the you of three months ago.


One Day in the Life of Ivan Isaenko

Every day is exactly the same. The episodes on the antique TV in the Main Room may change. The nurses' moods may oscillate according to the details of their lives and synchronized menstrual cycles. The menus might switch up by an ingredient or two. But, in every other way, every day is exactly the same.

My experience of the first sixty seconds of every day depends entirely on whether I wake up in one of the months between April and October. During the summer months, the sun rises at 4:00 in the A.M., so when the internal alarm clock I've honed through the years starts trumpeting, my eyes open to the soft sunlight flowing through the black iron bars covering my window and onto the cold linoleum tiles, which incidentally warm just enough to make the crawl to the bathroom tolerable (the urge to urinate is too urgent to take the time to get into my wheelchair).

In the winter, however, the sun rises as late as 9:00 in the A.M., so I wake into a dark, cold room, which feels like being born into the primordial loneliness from which I originally came. Waking up in the dark fills me with existential dread, and it isn't just because of the cold crawl to the bathroom. There is something deeper and darker to it, something that comes from a place that I'm not sure I will, or could ever, understand. But someplace familiar all the same.

After my mentally programmed alarm clamors, the first thing I do is pull off the covers in the hopes of finding all my body parts are actually in all the right spots and that the last seventeen years have all been a dream. When I realize that I'm still incomplete, I empty the contents of my freakishly small bladder and then move on to dressing myself, which includes some combination of the three T-shirts, three sweatshirts, three shorts, and three sweatpants I have on rotation.

When I turned four, the nurses became irritated with the obstinance I displayed during my dressing ritual. After several futile consultations, they transferred the responsibility of dressing to me. One day, Nurse Greta, the nurse formerly tasked with concealing my naked body every morning, simply dropped a bag of clothes onto the linoleum and said, "Well, then, have at it, Ivan." For the next year, my dressing ritual turned out to be the most frustrating part of my day. Reader, if you care to step into my shoes, please put down the papers in your hand and try to put a shirt on with one arm and two nubs for legs. I'll wait before moving on ...

Now that you understand, I will reveal that after a year of flubbing through my ritual, I eventually discovered a new technology that I affectionately call "the worm." It involves laying my shirt facedown on my bed and squirming my body through the bottom until my head emerges from the top. Once in this configuration, I'm free to pop all my truncated parts through their respective holes. Dressing like a grub allows me to conceal my God-given nudity in under a minute.

If all goes well, I'm prepared for the two-minute wheelchair ride to the cafeteria for breakfast hour, which is from 8:00 in the A.M. to 9:00 in the A.M. Once there, I take my spot at the long table, which is the same spot I've eaten at three times a day, every day, for the last seventeen years. At any given time there are between fifteen and twenty-five patients living at the asylum, and they all have their regular seats, not because they were assigned but because that's just how things are. I've held mine the longest, so far as I know.

As we assemble, the nurses drop plates in front of us with food that I'm not sure I've ever tasted. This is because I rush through my plate too fast to taste anything, mostly due to the eating habits of more than half of my comrades, which make me physically ill, as does the sloppy way the nurses feed the other half. That said, I'm not entirely sure I would be able to taste the food even if I made an effort to taste each bite. A typical breakfast invariably involves some combination of bread and cabbage. The taste and texture of the bread most closely resemble those of plywood. Not only are the loaves not baked fresh but they are shipped in from remote wholesale bakeries in countries like Greece and Tajikistan. According to our director, Mikhail Kruk, this is because most of our local state bread-and-cabbage facilities are either defunct or run by gavnoyeds since the year 1991.

After I finish my breakfast, with sweaty cabbage juice still running down my face, I return to my room to read until TV hour. To this day, no nurse or doctor employed at the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children has ever been able to explain to me why TV hour is only an hour long. I spent three months lobbying Nurse Natalya to have the TV on all day. I provided written documentation to help promote my position. In the end, she returned with a one-sentence-long written memoranda from the Director, Mikhail Kruk:

At the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children, there is one hour of TV in the morning after breakfast, one hour of TV in the afternoon after lunch, and one hour of TV in the evening after dinner.

So, until further notice, I get to watch TV for an hour every morning. When the hour is up, I return to my room, where I read some more and fantasize about ways to leave. Options for escape include slipping outside the front doors of the hospital when no one is looking or, in the middle of the night, squeezing my tiny body through the bars that line my bedroom window. But all of these options end with me slithering away at an embarrassingly slow clip, followed by someone catching me with grass stains and mud all up and down my nubs and dried tears caked to the side of my otherwise transparent face. After years of thinking it through, there is no viable plan for escape. Even if I managed to get to a major road, they'd look me up and down and take me straight to the nearest hospital, which is, of course, the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children.

That's when I begin to think of other, more permanent methods of escape. I've gotten as close as breaking a jar of mayonnaise and picking up one of the jagged pieces, only to realize that I hadn't thought through the fact that I only have one wrist, which, incidentally, is connected to my only hand, making wrist-cutting a violation of the laws of physics. Also, I'm terrified of blood, which makes throat-slicing impossible. The thought of my last sight in this life being two to five violent red spurts leaping out of my neck is simply too horrifying to entertain. And sadly, using other, more obscure, entry points would be difficult due to my limited knowledge of human anatomy. So, in the end, I usually just masturbate for the first of what is usually twice daily.


Excerpted from The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko by Scott Stambach. Copyright © 2016 Scott Stambach. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Part One: The Count Up,
I. The Anesthetization of Ivan Isaenko,
II. Spectrophobia,
III. The Day I Came Online,
IV. Coma Boy,
V. One Day in the Life of Ivan Isaenko,
VI. The Children of the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children,
VII. The Bleeders, the Non-Bleeders, and Polina the Interloper,
VIII. The Three-Monthers,
IX. The Staff of the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children,
X. The Jungian Archetypes,
XI. Dr. Mikhail Kruk, the Director,
XII. My Therapist, Dr. Arkady Yakovlev, M.D.,
XIII. My Mother,
XIV. The Early Days,
XV. Polina's Chemo Hair,
XVI. My Hui,
XVII. The Sarcophagus,
XVIII. Ivanism,
XIX. Polina's Journal,
XX. The Case for Diacetylmorphine,
Part Two: The Count Down,
Day 21. Hazing and Initiation,
Day 20. The Day We Contributed to Max's Rearing,
Day 19. Game Night,
Day 18. The Nothing Day,
Day 17. Stars and Stairwells,
Day 16. The Retroactive Biography of Ivan Isaenko,
Day 15. Polina's Magic School Bus,
Day 14. The Janis Joplin Day,
Day 13. The Day I Conversed with the Director,
Day 12. A Day of Sleep,
Days 11 and 10. Crying with Nabokov,
Day 9. Blood Brothers,
Day 8. The Organic Wonderland (and Other Conversations),
Day 6. The Little Green Folders,
Day 5. Conversion Disorder,
Day 4. Good-Bye, Yellow Brick Road,
Day 3. The Suitcase Day,
Day 2. The Day of Delirium,
Day 1. The Death of Polina Pushkin,
Part Three: Farewell Song,
I. The Aftermath,
II. The Funeral,
III. The Drive Back,
About the Author,

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Tracey_L More than 1 year ago
The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko was an intense read that grabs you at the very start and doesn't let go until you are completely wrung out from laughter and tears. I must admit, it was not the story I expected, having formed a different idea of what it might involve from reading a small blurb, but I have no regrets about how it actually presented itself. Ivan is far too real, despite what the critics say about his perceived cruelty. Life has taught him to be as he is, and I appreciated the reality, no matter how brutal it appeared. This is a story to be approached with an open heart and mind, but cautiously and with respect. As I said, not the story I expected, but well worth the time.
IoanaN More than 1 year ago
It read like a coming of age novel. I liked it, I was curious most of the time where the story will lead. I expected for the character to be emotionally destroyed, but this is because I read about the novel likened to "The Fault in Our Stars". I read this with the expectancy of someone who was drawn in the story early on. I liked the main character, Ivan, but I didn't like Polina. She comes as a breath of fresh air for Ivan, sure, but reading about her and her personality - meh. Of course she had to be bubbly and go over the top in everything she did. I see how this was a good thing for Ivan and for the redundant life of the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children, but looking back I realize I didn't like her that much as a character. As for a "love" between them - I think Ivan was the one in love, while Polina clung to Ivan in her desperate few last months. Ivan, on the other hand, was a person with many drawers. He looked for ways to make his life bearable at the hospital, and managed to somewhat come to terms with his physical deformity. He was funny and normal, which is always a good thing, if you ask me. I am so glad the author chose to write about a teenage boy, and not about a teenage girl. I was clear he knew the ins and outs of a boy's mind. However, one thing I though was not necessary was Ivan and Polina's sexual... moment, should I call it? For some reason it seemed cliche and gave their relationship an ordinary feel, like something that Ivan thought was important to cross off his bucket list. The writing of this novel is pretty good, I liked how the author made you feel the grayness of the communist hospital with its seclusion from the world. There were a few characters that didn't stand out to me, but they had their place in the world of the hospital. Some developments in the novel's action were unexpected and I liked them. I also liked how the novel ended. It was a nice read. At the time I was very interested in reading it, but a few weeks after I finished reading it I am no longer that impressed, although I can't say for sure why. I received a free ebook copy of this book from the publisher via Net Galley. All thoughts and opinions expressed in this review are my own.
Myndia More than 1 year ago
The Fault in Our Stars this is not. Both YA? Ok. Sick kids? Yeah. Outside of that, I see little else in common. But, The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko is just as good, for totally different reasons. There is so much more to this story than the feelings of two sick teenagers. Ivan’s whole life has essentially been one big disappointment. Physically, he’s a mess. Emotionally, probably even more so. He’s lived his whole life in a hospital, with no parents, and very little affection outside of his relationship with his beloved nurse Natalya. His access to the world has been vastly limited, so he lives a lot in his own head and makes a game out of everything. When Polina comes into his life, he finds a smattering of hope, and he begins to experience things he never thought he would. He learns more about himself, gets a taste of what love could be like, and his life is changed in ways he never could have expected. I loved Ivan, even when he didn’t seem so lovable. I love that this book made me think about my own feelings about the sick and disabled and how they are often dehumanized, how those with physical deformities that make society uncomfortable are often hidden in the shadows, sometimes by choice, sometimes not, and treated as other by everyone around them. Although a lot of this book deals with death and loss, the isolation and disability aspects screamed at me, probably because I have two children with autism. Of course, autism isn't as visible as Ivan's physical deformities, but I spend a lot of time thinking about how my children experience the world, and how other people treat them. Because of my own personal experience, I felt particularly drawn in to this story, sucked in and then wrung out. There is a lot in this book that is unsettling, that shakes your foundation a little, that makes you uncomfortable and then makes you question why it makes you uncomfortable, and I think that’s what I love most about it. It is sometimes a bit raw, and very revealing, and emotional, and painful, and it is a book that needs to be read. I received this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review.
BrennaP More than 1 year ago
Very rarely does a book speak to me to the point where I will start recommending before I finish it. I have finished this and believe it fully deserves the 5 stars I'm giving it. This is an uncorrected proof, so the printing wasn't perfect, and was only slightly irritating, but not enough to take away the stars. A final print copy would not have that as an issue. I loved Ivan. At times acting like a spoiled brat, other times trying to find his place in life as he knows it. The setting is an asylum for children with disabilities and illnesses, set in Belarus after it separated from Russia. The theme is universal, though; simply by being born different he is separated from being treated like a full human being. Scott Stambach brought Ivan to life beautifly, with an intelligent, independence hungry teen personality looking to be accepted by the outside world. Wonderfully written. ****I received this uncorrected bound manuscript from St. Martin's Press in exchange for a fair review.****
bookluvr35SL More than 1 year ago
This is the story of seventeen-year-old Ivan Isaenko a resident at the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children in Belarus. The book is told as the journal of Ivan, in his boring and all too predictable life, until Polina enters his world. He is entranced by her, then he begins to fall in love. This book will make you cry... a lot. It will also make you laugh a lot. This is definitely a must-read Just make sure you have a box of tissues nearby!
Deb-Krenzer More than 1 year ago
What a beautiful story. Not necessarily for the characters but for the readers. This story hit every emotion that I had. I felt so much just reading this story. Apparently this was a true story and I felt so much just living life through Ivan's eyes. We sometimes forget how much we have to be thankful for and this story so opened my eyes to so much that I have that others don't. I loved this story. It was both funny, sad and poignant and I loved every minute. Ivan is my hero and I so much want others to read to read about him. It's such a great story! Thanks St. Martins's Press and Net Gallery for giving me a free e-galley in exchange for an honest review. This book has truly made a huge impression on me.