New Routes in Fiction:
KEITH GESSEN with Alec Niedenthal
Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country is a remarkably plotted novel. It proceeds in little twists and bends, gradually gaining scope, like a line that becomes a plane. Gessen’s second work of fiction, it reminds me of how—if I remember right—Tolstoy described War and Peace: not a novel but something else. Something, maybe more. Like in life, Gessen’s book builds, experience piling on itself, until the book tightens and locks into a plot, not a contrivance but a real conflict of ideas. Ideals, even. It has a slow build but a fast burn at the end. Yet it never reads slowly. Each mini-plot or set piece keeps the pages in "flip mode.” A Terrible Country is peppered with enough jokes to make it a solid satire, but it’s more. It is much more.
This novel’s about a lot of things. Andrew is a Russian-American, a PhD. teaching Russian Lit, his passion, for pennies. Broke, short on hope, he uproots to a Moscow he barely knows to care for his ailing grandma, who is equally alone. He gets swept up in Putin’s Russia, the politics of the age, the historical markers, the expensive caffeine, his grandma’s memories, a bit of love and lots of loss.
There are a few novels in here. There’s the thirty-something Bildungsroman—a funny voice-driven riff reminiscent of Lipsyte and others. There’s an archaeology, an exciting use of the realist form to dig at big historical, and of course political, questions. There’s the novel of family. There’s the immigrant’s novel turned in on itself: the Russian-American, moved stateside in his youth, exploring a Moscow that feels monolithic, strange and strangely—after a painful series of lessons—like home. There’s a novel talking to its forbears, the Russian novel of heart and soul and social thought; Bellow’s novels assessing the age and their protagonist’s place in it. There is a novel of deep beauty and longing. It also somehow escapes the (what seems to me) essentially American trap of “warm-heartedness,” treating its characters kindly but never rendering them precious. Gessen takes his creations seriously, and he uses his comic eye not to mock them but, mostly, to show them affection.
I’ve gone on too long, but that’s a testament to this novel. I spoke to Keith Gessen over the phone.
Alec Niedenthal (Rail): I was wondering about the genesis of the voice of the book. He can be so wry and self-deprecating but at the same time has a real sense of feeling for this country he’s in. As he’s there, the American layers of irony break down. How did you find that voice?
Keith Gessen: My first book was mostly in the third person, over the shoulder, and that’s a perspective that lends itself to a kind of natural irony. You can make fun of the character a little bit, even though the “narrator” basically takes his side. It’s a fun perspective to write from, because it’s almost automatically funny, but it can be a little glib.
So while that first book was mostly in the third person, there were two or three chapters written in the first person. When I finished it and reread the book, I was surprised by how much I liked that first-person voice. It was more direct and appealing. So I decided to write this book in the first person, to see if I could keep that directness.
But then it turned into a real problem. The voice seemed so flat. I felt trapped and miserable, but also like I’d gone too far to turn back. Ultimately, the thing that helped me get through it was to pretend to myself that I was writing a memoir. Not in the sense of making the book closer to my experience, but rather in asking myself, What would I say here if I were writing a memoir? What sort of commentary would I make on the actual progress of the narrative? Like if it were a little boring in parts, I’d apologize or make a joke and assure the reader that more compelling things were to come. And I’d be aware—more so than a “fictional” or what’s known as an “unreliable” narrator—of my own flaws. That may be what you mean by the American layers of irony. But I think it helped make the book more readable. This character, Andrei, the narrator, is a well-meaning person but he has put himself into a situation that while it is at times ridiculous, at other times it is not. There are dangerous people around him. I wanted to communicate that.
The other thing about the voice—I had this idea that the book would be a kind of compendium of all Russian literature and history, presented in the form of essays that interrupted the narrative. It would be this giant book. In order to do this, I would need a narrator who knows his stuff, who is an academic, so that it would make some sense for him to digress into literature, history, whatever. And so I got one of those wonderful fellowships with the New York Public Library, and I started doing the research for those essays. I did a draft like that, a very long draft. And to my dismay, it was unreadable.
Gessen: I don’t know. I think—you have a book like Herzog that has these kind of delightful digressions. In my first book, I don’t know whether they were delightful, but it had the ability to carry forward a certain amount of digression. But only in the third person. Somehow the first person makes it that much harder to pull off. I forget who said this, maybe Gore Vidal, that it’s only okay to have a twenty-page digression about history in a novel if a bomb is about to go off. Right? Only if the reader is waiting to find something out. Whereas this novel is pretty mundane at first. It just doesn’t have the kind of narrative momentum to carry a reader through those digressions. So I ended up cutting all those digressions—there are remnants of them in the book, but they appear kind of not because Andrew knows about them but because we encounter them. They go to a movie, he meets the socialists. That stuff is probably still a little trying on the reader’s patience, but they at least fit into the fabric of the book. And I think that may account for your sense that Andrei knows about Russia—he does know about it, to a certain extent, but he kind of finds out about it at about the same time as the reader.
Rail: You can tell these digressions aren’t the author showing off or trying to disrupt the reading experience. It felt like an emotionally weighty historical reference. And something that helped me, the reader, understand the situation of contemporary Russia.
Gessen: There are brief digressions in the book that at one point were twenty pages long. I cut them to ten and found they were still unreadable. Went down to five pages. And so on. There was one long essay about the history of oil in Russia, which I got down to two paragraphs; I showed it to my editor and she was like, ‘Oh, you know, that’s a little boring.’ So it got even shorter. But once I realized I couldn’t have these twenty-page essays in the book, it was much easier to have those observations really be part of what a character in actual, real life might think.
Rail: Did you ever chafe against that? Did you ever think, ‘Well, it’s okay if the reader is bored for a couple pages. It’s important that he or she knows this stuff’?
Gessen: Sure. I did. But the willingness to bore a reader is an act of great courage, which I found I did not possess. I mean, it’s not a mile-a-minute book, but I did try to keep it moving along. Maybe it’s a failure of nerve.
Rail: I remember reading a couple pieces of yours in the earlier part of this decade. One on the rebels in Eastern Ukraine, and another in n+1 on a Russian anti-Putin political figure and changes in Moscow. I found a lot of overlap between the observations you were making on Russia in those pieces and this novel. What could the novel form give to you as a writer that journalism could not?
Gessen: You know, I did this whole book, It’s No Good, which is a collection of poems, essays, and manifestoes by the Russian socialist poet Kirill Medvedev. He was a person who really influenced my thinking about the Soviet Union and Russian politics and—well, about everything. I love that book. But ultimately, the audience for a book like that is pretty limited. I felt like that was the closest I got to getting into English some of these ideas. With journalism, you’re always limited by the occasion. The day-to-day experience of living somewhere: that’s not what journalism is for.
I recently went to a talk by Isabel Wilkerson, who wrote The Warmth of Other Suns, about the Great Migration. She said when she started interviewing people, people who moved from the South very courageously North, when she first started putting out these calls for people to participate, she realized that none of them knew the term Great Migration. Right? They were not aware they were part of this Great Migration. She was both telling them something new and then describing it for others. Journalism can take the ordinary lives and put them in a narrative of historical significance. I guess the novel can do that too, but that’s not really its job. The novel is ultimately just about life, on a day to day level, and on an emotional level, whether or not that intersects with history. That’s what the novel can do.
In this instance, the novel form allowed me to really dwell on some of the more mundane aspects of Russian existence—food shopping, where to find slippers, how to get into a pickup hockey game. There was also just the fact that I could make stuff up. Like, a lot of the work of journalism is just finding someone to whom a certain set of things has happened. With fiction you can skip that work entirely: you just have those things go ahead and happen! And that frees you up to do a different kind of work—I guess emotional work. I don’t need to spend all this time finding a person out in the world to embody this story, I can just invent that person. But then I need to spend the time I have saved figuring out what all this means.
The ambition that I had to have this book be a compendium of Russian history and literature, which also made a political point about post-Soviet capitalism—I don’t think that ambition went away, but once I started thinking of it as a more traditional novel, with plot and characters, I knew I would have to embed those larger political ideas in a narrative that was more or less readable. And that’s something that I haven’t managed to do as a journalist. It’s possible to do it, but I just haven’t managed.
Rail: But your narrator is sort of in a journalist’s role, isn’t he? He’s a Russian-American, a slight outsider, giving the American reader news about Russia.
Gessen: Yes, exactly. That was kind of the trick of the narrator for me: I wanted Andrew to be able to notice things that to a Russian would be unnoticeable. I had spent more time in Russia than he had, so I had to create some elements of his mindset, some aspects of his life story, where he did not know certain things, so he could encounter those things for the first time. I don’t know whether you felt some resistance, like, ‘Shouldn’t he know this stuff already?’ But I’m a person who’s always surprised by everything that he doesn’t know, so for me, I think it would be pretty believable.
Rail: There’s a sense of him being the innocent American abroad. Which is funny because he is, in fact, Russian. But there is that sense in the book, we the reader are discovering these things with him. There are moments where the reader might think, sure, he should know X or Y already, I’m willing to suspend that judgment because I don’t know it. And I’m seeing through his eyes.
Gessen: I shouldn’t speak for readers, but I know from talking to people who are more Russian than I am about the kind of speed with which one accustoms oneself to being an American, and then returns to Russia and is surprised. One of my students this part semester wrote a journalistic piece about recent Russian immigrants who talked about how strange it is in America that people smile all the time and expect you to smile back. It turns out that Russian immigrants find this very trying, this constant expectation, especially for women, that they should be smiling all the time. But then these same people talked about how, when they go back to Russia, they are surprised at how dour everyone seems. That acculturation, I think, happens very quickly, so it’s possible even for someone born and raised in Russia to be surprised by many aspects of it when they return.
Rail: Even if I’m a Russian immigrant who understands very quickly that everyone in America smiles, it’s still going to take me a while to adjust corporeally to that state of affairs.
Gessen: But after a certain point, you do adjust. And likewise, after a certain point, Andrew realizes he’s gotten used to Russia.
Rail: It’s what one of your bedraggled Marxists in the book might call a “dialectic.” Where you know, as the book goes on, he feels more at home, there’s more stuff that sticks out at him—then at the end he leaves the home he’s spent the entire book making. This strikes me, actually, as the very first big, clear-eyed Marxist novel of the twenty-first century. In America. Published by a major publishing house. The ideas that the people in October are preaching are tested in the narrative at the end. And it turns out they’re pretty much right. When you were planning the book, it seems, you wanted it to be more a panegyric, more of a collection of literary essays, and this is very different, it’s a critique of a certain kind of capitalism, among other things. But we’re so often told as fiction writers that the best books don’t take a stance, are kind of agnostic when it comes to politics, to capitalism versus socialism, you have to be focused on the “human being.” There are all sorts of little shibboleths like that. It seemed brave to me to say, no, I’m going to focus on the human, but I’m also going to focus on the way that capitalism works. I felt like I had a question about this, but maybe I just wanted to talk to you about it. Was there some fear around that process?
Gessen: It’s certainly the way we think of novels now, or have thought of them, in this country; but the European tradition, and in particular the Russian tradition, has always been very hospitable to the novel of ideas or the “message” novel. And there are currents within the American tradition that are more political than I think we give them credit for being. Like no one would say that a novel should be agnostic on the question of chattel slavery, or Jim Crow. At least no one would say that now. I guess in general calls for the apolitical novel tend to come from certain subject positions and are themselves obviously political.
The book’s analysis of Russian capitalism is not mine. It’s Kirill Medvedev’s. But I agree with him. The Marxist character in the book is not him, but those ideas are his. And the fact that the book was going to make this argument was very important to me. From the start. And in a way, writing those essayistic things helped me clarify the plot—you have a grandmother who’s dispossessed, and her story becomes clear to the narrator over time. The narrator doesn’t have a frame, at first, for how to talk about it, how to think about it. So, yes, it would be wonderful if people read it and came away angry about capitalism.
Rail: And with a different view of Putinism than you get in the Times. I thought that was well done. The way at the beginning, you recognize the liberal commentators in Russia, the opposition, as the only counter-voice to the regime. And then you raise the curtain on this other possibility later on. I thought that was well done.
Gessen: That’s very much my own experience of going to Russia for the past twenty-plus years. Of being dissatisfied with this liberal alternative and feeling like there was something missing from its critique of the Russian state, but unable to articulate it. Medvedev was one of the first people to elaborate on this more radical point of view, and he was definitely the first one I encountered.
ALEC NIEDENTHAL is a recent graduate of Brown University's MFA program in Literary Arts. He has published fiction in the Brooklyn Rail, The Toast, Agriculture Reader, Vol 1. Brooklyn, and other venues. He is currently working on a novel about anti-Semitism and sex.Keith Gessen
Keith A. Gessen is a Russian-born American novelist, journalist, literary translator, and co-editor of n+1, a thrice-yearly magazine of literature, politics, and culture based in New York City.