(We’re always excited to run a rave review on the rare occasion that one is deserved. Here’s Garrett Kenyon on the latest work by a rising talent. — Levi)
In 2005, while Americans of every stripe anxiously watched distant lands suffer the disastrous whims of our previous president, a minor miracle occurred stateside, right under our noses. That year, a young Russian-American writer named Olga Grushin published that rarest of literary accomplishments: a debut novel bearing the undeniable redolence of a modern classic. The Dream Life of Sukhanov was everything a first-novel shouldn’t be: tight, timeless — confidently executed with the subtlety and depth of a seasoned master. Some critics were so stunned by Sukhanov, they jokingly questioned whether it could really be the work of a novice. Another admitted he “felt like buying 10 copies and sending them to friends.” He probably didn’t. Which is unfortunate, because, by 2005, the firmament of American lit had become so reliably unremarkable that too few sets of eyes were paying attention when Sukhanov punctured the darkness and streaked across the sky.
Among those who did catch it, comparisons to Eastern luminaries like Nikolai Gogol and Mikhail Bulgakov became de rigueur, exceeded only by references to Vladimir Nabokov, the still-reigning American writer from Russia. Inevitably, when gifted new writers with foreign roots make a splash, they’re automatically compared to the most renowned of their countrymen. In Grushin’s case, the comparisons were apt. Her mastery of English (her third language) recalled the playful acrobatics of Nabokov, her ability to mine drollery from dreariness recalled Gogol, and like Bulgakov, she vividly crafted a realistic world infused with magic that, while less overt, was nearly as dazzling. Grushin’s genius was most evident when she ushered us into the minds of outwardly dull characters, where layer upon layer of random thoughts and perceptions mingled with fragments of memories and dreams to weave a mystical tapestry from the most banal experiences.
Sukhanov was a privileged and wealthy man who’d forced himself to forget that he’d once been a promising painter, drunk on the possibilities of art and assured of its inevitable triumph over the repressive state. Long ago, when his art became dangerous, he’d made a Faustian bargain, renouncing his gift and avoiding the lonely existence of a true believer, choosing instead to marry the daughter of an influential party-hack and begin an important career as a state-sanctioned critic of the same “decadent Western art” he’d once been devoted to. We learn of this momentous decision through a series of dreams and flashbacks that force themselves into Sukhanov’s consciousness and eventually overcome reality, leading to his precipitous downfall and, arguably, his redemption. The transformative beauty of The Dream Life of Sukhanov left readers anxiously awaiting a second Grushin book — one that wouldn’t arrive for five long years.
It was worth the wait. The Line proves Olga Grushin to be the real thing. The novel was inspired by an odd incident in 1962 Leningrad, where a return concert of the previously-banned Igor Stravinsky caused such excitement that the line for tickets began a full year before the event. A book about waiting could prove to be a hard sell to Western readers likely to miss the significance of waiting in line as a defining, universal experience for those who lived through the Soviet-era. But Grushin invests the drearily uniform Post-Revolution (here, it’s called “The Change”) setting and the unhappy characters inhabiting it, with a blazing collage of colors, conflict, passion, sacrifice and suspense.
The drama unfolds in a city of ghosts. Everyone we meet is haunted, either by the past that was lost, the future that could have been, or both. They cling to conformity for dear life, while secretly cherishing colorful memories of life before The Change and bitterly imagining the experiences they were denied by the enforced drudgery of Post-Change life. Even inanimate objects share this fate. in one scene Grushin describes “Shadowy accumulations of bulky furniture meant for some other existence, herded into this shabby place by a violent contraction of history.”
The plot revolves around a family of four ostensibly normal citizens. There’s Anna, the selfless mother who desperately clings to childish notions of a picture-perfect family she’ll never have, while refusing to see her drab reality for what it is. Sergei, her self-obsessed husband, plays “turgid, State-sanctioned drivel that drowns his lungs” and regretfully dreams of the brilliant musician he might have been. Alexander, their son, brimming with youthful angst and visions of adventures on foreign shores, hates his city “where time is communal and worthless.” Finally, a nearly mute grandmother who drifts through the house like a mysterious apparition, stuck in a place and a time she can’t let go.
It begins when Anna encounters a short line, just forming in front of a closed kiosk. No one knows what they’re waiting for and an animated conversation revolves around what exactly “it” could be. Guesses are modest at first, basic necessities or trivial luxuries that might add a fleeting moment of color to their grim existence. But eventually, as their conjecture becomes a reflection of their innermost desires, Anna becomes enthralled. She tells herself it’s “silly” to waste time in a line without knowing what’s to be gained. But eventually, feeling “entitled to a surprise,” she gives in.
We meet Sergei heading to a exclusive party for wealthy VIPs and foreign dignitaries at which his band is engaged to provide music. The musicians are herded like cattle through secret hallways and left in dank, hidden rooms until they’re due to perform. In yet another moment-as-metaphor, the musicians are given tuxedos to wear and told that the stage is set so “nobody will be able to see your pants.” Sergei hopes they’ll be allowed to play something different on this occasion. Something like the music he half-remembers from his youth and yearns to play again. He’s been convinced by “whispered half-confidences” that “music from Over There” will be allowed on this special evening. Later, in the bathroom, his hopes predictably dashed, he has a strange encounter with a masked foreigner which eventually leads him to realize that the line his wife is devoting more and more time to is being formed for tickets to a once-in-a-lifetime return performance by “Igor Selinsky,” the banned composer he’d once idealized. Suddenly, securing a ticket becomes Sergei’s mission in life. He joins his wife, taking turns waiting in shifts, and eventually enlisting the help of Alexander to hold their place.
Early on, grandmother floats silently from her room and uses the first words she’s uttered in years to express her desire to attend the concert. Soon, the line has become an obsession to the other three. For Sergei, it represents a chance to recapture music that’s echoed through his mind for ages, growing fainter as its exquisite beauty is drowned out by the brash and soulless patriotic arrangements he’s required to play. For Alexander, who’s recently taken up with a series of shady underworld smugglers, thieves and drunks — the money he could earn selling the ticket would provide his sole opportunity to cast off from this “hateful city … where age erases identical, meaningless lives before they are even written.” Anna, of course, can’t imagine keeping the ticket for herself, alternatively planning to give it to each member of her family, deriving pleasure from imagining the moment she’ll hand it over. Grandmother’s desire to attend the concert is related to a brief, dreamlike affair she had long ago with the young composer when she was a ballerina in a foreign city. She reveals this story little by little each night, talking to herself in her room, while the others listen through thin walls, initially thinking they’re dreaming or hearing a radio program drifting through an open window.
This intense longing for something only one of them can have deconstructs their lives, bringing out the worst in Sergei and Alexander, opening their minds to deceptions and lies and repressed-passions that can never be fulfilled. Anna loses her job and undergoes an awakening that leads her through flights of fancy, but finally allows her to accept her less-than-perfect life, and find happiness in it. To reveal any more would be a crime. Suffice to say that this book about a long wait is one you’ll want to stretch out. Even the minor idiosyncracies in Sukhanov that some critics took issue with have been smoothed over. Her ability to render each person, setting and encounter pregnant with meaning and luminescence, her insightful ruminations on the significance of art and beauty, remain remarkably undimmed. If you missed her first book, this is your chance to catch a rising star as she establishes herself in the top ranks of American authors.