By Anya Ulinich
GUEST REVIEW BY STEPHAN CLARK
Marx and Engels asked the workers of the world to unite; Anya Ulinich shows us what happens when they do.
In her promising debut novel, Petropolis, Anya Ulinich tells the story of a young biracial woman who can trace her ancestry back to the Sixth International Youth Festival, when Khrushchev opened Russia's doors to the world and the citizens of a hundred countries came to Moscow under the banner of peace and friendship. As one character notes, "the guests from Friendly Africa were especially popular with the girls." One result of this "internationalist impulse" was a baby abandoned at Moscow Birthing House Number 8. Upon adoption, he became Victor Semyonovich Goldberg.
Victor is not the main character of Petropolis, but his fleeing late-soviet Russia for America does allow his young daughter to assume that role. When the novel opens, during the fall of 1992, 14-year-old Sasha Goldberg is living in Asbestos 2, a small Siberian town named in honor of "a larger town in the Ural Mountains, where asbestos was also mined, the weather was milder, and one could occasionally buy beef in stores." Asbestos 2 is populated equally by felons released from a nearby labor camp and those members of the intelligentsia who first arrived here in cattle cars when the town, then known as Stalinsk, served as the administrative center for the Gulag.
Because Sasha is descended on her mother's side from Leningrad intellectuals, she is urged at the beginning of the novel to find an extra-curricular activity. "Children of the intelligentisia don't just come home in the afternoon and engage in idiocy," her mother declares. But more than anything, Sasha feels like an exile within a population of exiles. Her wonderfully drawn mother is ethnic Russian, but Sasha has "a face the color of wood stain," like her father; and though Sasha has a Jewish last name, the only link to the religion and culture it represents was lost with her father's adoptive parents, who died in a car crash while Victor was still a young boy living amongst the intelligentsia in Moscow. "Perhaps," Sasha realizes, "her parents gave her a Jewish name to take the focus off black-skinned."
Sashsa is guided into art school by her overbearing mother, but it is the young girl's growing sense of alienation, not painting or drawing, that becomes her true extra-curricular activity. This serves as the basis for the novel's extended opening in Siberia, which reads like a beautiful coming-of-age novel that is equal parts absurdist and realist – real-absurist, you could say. Unfortunately, the uninterrupted beauty of this hundred-page section is not matched elsewhere in the book.
The remaining three sections of the novel relate Sasha's experiences in Phoenix (as a "mail-order bride"), Chicago (as "a prisoner of the Talmud") and Brooklyn, the default final destination of so many immigrant stories, where Sasha makes peace with her past and moves off into the future. Increasingly, the story loses its focus as it skips from one point on the map to another. Initially, Ulinich establishes that her character wants to go to America to find her father and learn more about why he left her at the age of ten, but this aim is forgotten for long stretches at a time, and near the end it's abandoned with little struggle and viewed as unimportant.
This leaves the book feeling episodic. In addition to a coming of age story and a quest for father, Ulinich gives us a mother-daughter struggle, a story of Sasha's young motherhood, and then a handful of love stories, along with weighty narrative threads concerning issues of identity, class, religion, and the immigrant experience. The book either needed to be narrowed considerably, or allowed to expand to Tolstoy-like dimensions.
Certainly, the author's ambition is to be commended, as Ulinich shows many of the talents needed to write a great "big book" in the future. Like Zadie Smith or John Irving, other novelists who work on a large canvas, the author of Petropolis moves through and credibly evokes many locales and times, and often interests the reader most when she goes on a narrative detour that takes us into the consciousness of someone other than the main character. She's got a controlled voice that can hit the notes between tragedy and comedy, many of her characters have lives as full as those found in a history book, and her background as a painter can be seen in the precise arrangements of her verbal imagery.
But too often Petropolis struggles in the present. Contemporary Asbestos 2 and Sasha's first love affair is rendered beautifully ("Sasha felt weightless and light-headed, a metal shaving next to a huge magnet"). But when Ulinich takes Sasha to America, the narrative is either reluctant to stay in a place that appears full of narrative possibility (as is the case in Phoenix, where Sasha's fiancé, a man in search of a "mail-order bride," is nothing more than a passing cardboard figure) or it gets bogged down (as is the case in Chicago and Brooklyn) in plot-lines that are less than inspiring and with characters and relationships that fail to emerge as fully drawn as those seen in Siberia.
It's sad that the one relationship that is the least convincing, a love affair between Sasha and a young man in a wheelchair, is given such a place of importance at the novel's end. This leaves this reader wishing for a return to the high notes of the novel's first one-hundred pages. But then again, when an author sends so many fireworks up into the sky, a few are bound to fizzle, and you should be happy to remember those that lit up the night.
Stephan Clark's fiction be found online at The Cincinnati Review, Night Train, The Portland Review, and Drunken Boat. He has an essay in the current issue of Swink based on his experiences as a Fulbright Fellow in Ukraine, and a short story in the forthcoming spring/summer issue of Ninth Letter. He blogs about issues relating to the "mail-order bride" industry, and currently lives in Los Angeles with his Russian wife. No, that's not how they met.