Living and Struggling In Moscow

Set in contemporary Russia, Keith Gessen's new novel captures the cost of modern life.

Dorogomilovo District, Moscow, Russia. Gennady Grachev / Flickr

The title of Keith Gessen’s new novel is A Terrible Country, but the novel is less about a country than a city: Moscow. Not just Moscow as a city in its own right, though the city is very much a character in the novel, but the experience of Moscow by an American millennial, Andrei Kaplan, a thirty-something academic in flight from his failures in Brooklyn, failures of love and work, family and friends. A Terrible Country, in other words, is the anti-Brooklyn novel.

If the Brooklyn of the public imagination is the place where young intellectuals move to make their lives among writers, journalists, academics, and artists, public lives that happen out of doors, in parks and readings and rallies and talks (now in election campaigns, too), Kaplan’s Moscow is the opposite. Everything of interest happens inside. In part by necessity.

For most of the novel, the city is so damn cold. Even spring is haunted by the cold: as the rooftop snows begin melting during the ever so slightly warming days, the sub-zero nights freeze the droplets into murderous icicles, which then fall on the heads of unlucky passersby the next morning.

The cold is one barrier. The vast tracts of Moscow’s thoroughfares — avenues, plazas, ring roads, highways — are another. The entire city seems as if it was dreamed up by Robert Moses in the late stages of his hubris, with no constraining hand of Jane Jacobs.

A master artist of physical desolation, Gessen gives us a city that can’t be lived in public. As the narrator observes near the novel’s end, “The city was closing itself off from itself.” That becomes not only a through line of the novel (even in springtime, even in love, Andrei is constrained by the sprawl) but a symptom of the neoliberal world that we slowly begin to realize Gessen has been sketching for us, without our noticing it. Every road, every sidewalk, every street, courtyard, cab, bus, train, subway — everything that’s out of doors is a conveyance to somewhere else, somewhere inside.

I don’t know of another urban novel that devotes so much of itself to the getting of places. One thinks of A Hazard of New Fortunes, but instead of the Marches’ epic quest to find the perfect home, we have an equally epic quest, rendered in exquisite detail, to get from home to home, place to place. Or Notes from the Underground, where Nevsky Prospect is the setting of the Underground Man’s struggle for public recognition.

Gessen offers a wonderful little homage to that famous moment of Dostoevskian struggle, where the Underground Man confronts his tormentor, a haughty officer who scarcely notices him: only this time the settings are a bar and a hockey rink, and the tormentor is a lowlife without a cause. An urban novel of interiors, A Terrible Country serves as an unexpected comment on not only the St Petersburg of Dostoevsky but also Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts Into Air.

A Terrible Country is the anti-Brooklyn novel in a second sense. Though Andrei develops a circles of friends, and even a girlfriend, the central relationship in the book is between him and his grandmother, with whom he returns to Moscow to live. She’s frail and failing, slowly slipping into dementia, and through his care-taking of her, Andrei becomes a grownup. Capable of not only the greatest gentleness — some of the most tender passages in contemporary fiction have Andrei cooking for his grandmother, walking her to and from the market, shopping for her, and playing anagrams or reading to her — but also terrible betrayal.

It is through his grandmother that Andrew gets drawn out of his cramped and claustrophobic world of online teaching, cafe internetting, and the like. It’s telling that the world of this novel opens up in this tiniest of spaces, the grandmother’s apartment. (“Inside that circle,” says the narrator, “and inside the city that the circle had created within the larger city, was a whole other world.”) Gessen renders its window sills, medicine cabinets, even plumbing, with great care. There’s a memorable scene involving a clogged drain that recalls the opening passages of The Wealth of Nations and chapter fifteen of Capital: two books about the worlds nested within worlds that is modern capitalism.

But it is the relationship itself, between Andrei and his grandmother, that love across the generations, that is the real motor of the novel, which adds to the sense of its disruptions of the canons of contemporary urban fiction.

There is one sense, however, in which A Terrible Country is not the anti-Brooklyn novel, in which it becomes a novel of something larger than urban matter and anti-matter. And that is the emphasis it places on money. There’s not a bowl of soup that’s purchased, not a bottle of vodka that’s drunk, not a coffee that’s consumed, not a cab ride that’s taken, not an hour on the internet that’s used, that we don’t know the price of. That’s how much of an obsessive theme money is in this novel. It’s been a while since I’ve read a novel of such detailed and deliberate attention to the cost of living, in both senses of the word. Virtually every experience involves a commodity; virtually every experience has a price.

Gessen captures, like few other contemporary writers, the cost of modern life. Whether through his own experience, study, or intuitive sympathy, he seems to know that terrible feeling of material deprivation and anxiety, where the cost of commodities is less a subject of academic abstraction than a real constraint on what we can and cannot do. “She needed to make money,” says Andrei of his girlfriend. “Yulia was trapped.” If Andrei’s love for his grandmother is the motor of the book, money is its gasoline. Once it runs out, the motor stops.

That nexus of finance and freedom, of cash and capability, is a central motif of the novel, making its sense of constraint and grim proportion, of money and measure — so evocative of the nineteenth-century novel — a resonant and necessary new key of contemporary fiction.