This inordinately ambitious novel by the Russian ÇmigrÇ author (The Winter's Hero, 1996, etc.) flies off in so many directions that few readers will be able to focus clearly on its intermittent considerable strengths. It's the picaresque history of singer-actor Alexander "Sasha" Korbach's 13-year (1982—95) odyssey in and out of favor with Soviet authorities, pursuit of the good life in America, and lifelong search for a personal aesthetic—a "new sweet style" compounded of abstract universal and mundane specific elements, as was the dolce stil nuovo Dante created for his Vita Nuova. Aksyonov tells Sasha's often beguiling story in a distractingly avuncular voice that addresses the reader directly and indulges in arch metafictional play with fractured allusions to his own early novels. And the story is heavily laden with commentary: on Soviet paranoia and deceitfulness and the (not dissimilar) rot at the core of American culture, more specifically on the breakup of the Soviet Union (clearly paralleling Korbach's own travail) in the 1990s. Still, Aksyonov's ego-driven antihero is an engaging bundle of sexual and creative energies, and the parade of characters orbiting around him—his enthusiastically Americanized ex- wife Anisia, fellow Russian-Americans like Bellovian hustler Tikhomir Barevyatnikov and sexual gameswoman Lenore Yablonsky (who compiles an "impressive record of missions behind the lines in the American sexual revolution"), and especially Sasha's American mistress Nora Mansour (note the surname) and her father, his "fourth cousin," department-store millionaire philanthropist Stanley Korbach. They all have their own unruly reality, and help broaden the novel's scope. The details of Sasha's several careers—as filmmaker, professor, and "chairman of the Moscow branch of the Korbach Fund"—are also cunningly manipulated to bring the story to an absolutely stunning comic-apocalyptic conclusion in Jerusalem. Not an easy read, or a fully successful novel, but a piquant, flinty book brimming with provocative ideas and characters. Aksyonov's fiction is well worth the effort it demands.
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