Marcus’ debut novel depicts the aimless life of a third-rate Russian artist.
The author states on the book’s back cover that he was inspired by a visit to a museum that contained a great deal of very bad art; the artworks’ only notable characteristic was their enormous size. Vladimir Daniilovich Myukis, nicknamed Volodya, appears to be Marcus’ imagining of the sort of artist who would create such work. Volodya, orphaned in World War II, is rescued from gang life by a policeman who notices his skill at drawing and maneuvers him into an art school run by the Soviet NKVD police agency. Volodya later spends most of his adult life working in the art department of an auto manufacturer—a front for the KGB—but eventually he makes his way to Brooklyn, N.Y., after the fall of the Soviet Union. He ends his days there working in a Jewish delicatessen. The high point of his life is a love affair, brutally cut short when his ex-KGB fiancee is transferred to parts unknown just two weeks before their planned wedding. In the end, virtually all his paintings are destroyed. Whenever he paints a mural, the building is inevitably razed or shelled, and when he stores his paintings in a garage, its Pakistani owner is mistakenly picked up for “extraordinary rendition” and his property confiscated. When he makes a major sale of animal paintings, they’re used for target practice by hunters impressed by their realism. There’s little in the way of drama here; the story is told in a mock-documentary style, and its nonlinear structure forces the narrative into discrete episodes. The author ably depicts the hopelessness of life in the Soviet Union, but in the end, he doesn’t clarify Volodya’s relationship to his art—is he a bad artist because he has little talent, because he has no muse, or because his bureaucratic superiors thwart him?
Fans of Russian absurdist satire will most enjoy this offbeat, if uneven, debut.