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By Anya Ulinich
Viking / ISBN: 978-0-670-03819-0
It's no secret that I'm a fan of novels that use international travel as the core of their story; and one of the reasons I like such books, as is the case with a lot of other fans of the genre, is that it gives a smart author a great opportunity to examine the various cultures that exist around the world, the various sets of societal norms and traditions that exist from place to place and that profoundly make us who we are. What does it say about us, then, when we choose to pack up and move out of the environment in which we grew up, to move halfway across the world into a culture we barely understand? How does that inform you and make you a better citizen of that new place, and how does that clash with the normalization process and make you a worser citizen? And, especially important in the case of those to emigrate to America, can you really make such a move and retain 100 percent of what your "old self" was? Must you take on some of the bad traits that exist about Americans when you choose to live here, when you choose to take advantage of the benefits of being an American?
And pow, out of left field it seems, we have out now one of the better books I've ever read on the subject, the supremely funny and horrifying Petropolis, by Russian-American smartypants immigrant Anya Ulinich. It is not just a detailed look at what most travel novels are about, which is the specific culture our hero is leaving behind (small-town Siberia in this case), but also a laser-precise look at America as well -- from desolate Arizona to the working-class neighborhoods of Chicago, to the Jewish retirement communities of low-rent Brooklyn -- told with a vicious realism that only someone from another country can even see, much less get away with. It will make you laugh uproariously, and it will make you weep uncontrollably; not only a bleak look at what exactly "survival" means to so many people around the world, but also how a person can manage to maintain a sense of fun and awe about the world at the same time. And surprisingly enough, it's more American as well than a lot of books written by native-born Americans; a book full of sophisticated humor concerning the American culture and spirit, jokes that you have to have lived in America your whole life to even get.
More specifically, it's the story of Sasha Goldberg, an overweight, clumsy, black Russian Jew (yeah, I know), living in the rural Siberian city of "Asbestos 2," a leftover shantytown from Russia's Soviet days, which is now becoming a desolate ghost town devoid most times of even electricity and running water. It is one of hundreds of towns and villages in the rural wilds of Russia that most of Russia has forgotten; towns deliberately set up by the Soviet structure during the height of the Industrial Age for specific purposes (with Asbestos 2 being a mining town for...yeah, you guessed it, asbestos), but that are now literally being abandoned by the central government at Moscow in the wake of that country's post-Soviet destabilization. Asbestos 2 is basically a town where everyone who is left (all couple of dozen of them, that is) are either making plans so they can move, or waiting to die; a place where a teen either gets a scholarship to go to college in a big city, or gets TB with no doctors around and basically keels over at 18 anyway.
This is an odd enough environment, of course, for most spoiled middle-class Americans to get their heads around to begin with, but then Ulinich makes Sasha's situation even stranger than that; her dad is an African war refugee, adopted by a Russian Jewish couple which is how he ended up there, her mom a woman who had been getting groomed to join the Moscow intelligentsia until falling in love with Victor and suddenly consigning herself to a life in Asbestos. As a result, then, Sasha grows up knowing almost nothing about Judaism itself, but with her identity being closely tied to it by her parents to avoid attention to her being the only black kid in town; and this in a city that is rapidly dying, a town so inconsequential that only a handful of streets were even bothered to be named by the old Soviet system that created them.
And really, that's what continues to fuel the storyline propelling Petropolis, as Sasha eventually grows into a teen, indeed leaves to attend art school in Moscow, realizes that she's just no good, and ends up in desperation joining a mail-order-bride service catering to wealthy, creepy Americans; that Sasha tackles all these odd situations and more while still being a frustratingly unique individual, someone who oftentimes reacts in ways that are the opposite of the stereotype, sometimes to her detriment and sometimes to our delight. In fact, the more and more I read of deep character studies like this one, ever since opening CCLaP last June, the more I'm realizing that the key to a good one is whatever flaws the main character possesses -- not the ways they act nobly and good as the story continues, but the ways they act selfish and scared and immature, ways they eventually learn from and become better people because of.
Now, like I said, all this I've been talking about that's been set in Russia is all well and good; but before too long, Sasha has touched down in culture-shock-headquarters Phoenix, the newest bride of the latest sociopath middle manager to take advantage of Kupid's Korner. And this is where the book really starts to shine, to tell you the truth; because it turns out that Ulinich is such an amazing observer of foreign culture (i.e. ours -- she's been here herself since the '90s), she ends up explaining America to us in a much more profound way than even most American writers can. Just watch with fascination as Sasha makes a grand and always-chaotic trek across America -- from the suburban hell and fake lawns of Arizona, to the dumpy low-rises of southwest Chicago, to the Modernist showcases of the North Shore, to the run-down concrete retirement communities of old-skool New York. No matter where she goes, in fact, Sasha seemingly always has fascinating company, from bored Americanized Russian teens to haughty and scared intellectual cerebral-palsy victims, from rebellious half-retarded art-school dropouts to guilt-racked plastic-surgery-obsessed suburban Jewish mothers.
In effect, Ulinich gets something just so incredibly right here in Petropolis, that most international travel stories concerning America don't, which is that the immigrant experience in the US is as large and varied as the US itself; that not every story of moving here has to do with either the red-tape hell of New York or the bandito frontier of illegal Mexicans. As Sasha makes her way from one environment to the next, we see how both the single travelers and immigrant families of the world help shape whatever American destinations they end up at, and how in fact the cultures of a hundred other nations have pervaded America in a deeper way most of us even realize; just witness the informal network seen in Petropolis, for example, that manages to ship Sasha several thousand miles and keep her housed and fed, without her barely having a cent to her name nor any marketable skills.
Perhaps the best compliment I can give Petropolis is this; that I am rapidly reaching the self-imposed word-count limit I keep for myself here at CCLaP (around 1,500 words, that is), and still have lots of stuff that I could talk about and that in fact I wish I could talk about -- of why Sasha tends to fall in love with only the weirdest boys around, of the complex neurosis that exists in Sasha's mom by being raised a self-styled intellectual, of the surprising similarities between the small-town peasant Siberia and the small-town redneck Midwest. It's one of those books with untold pleasures that keep unfolding and unfolding; a book with yet another witty observation or language-based joke or ironic hipster Soviet reference around every corner, barely before you've had time to enjoy the last one. It was a real treat, a definite high point of 2008 that's come so early in the year; it's a book I definitely recommend to anyone interested in international travel, or in understanding America in a better way than they did before.
Out of 10:
Overall: 9.6, or 10 for fans of international travel stories
P.S. For an extra special treat, make sure to stop by the official website to see actual home photos from Ulinich's real '80s Soviet youth, something that will help you envision the first third of this novel more quickly than anything else.