A man returns to Moscow to care for his grandmother and learns much about Putin’s Russia, its new prosperity and old problems.
Gessen (All the Sad Young Literary Men, 2008) opens his second novel where his first ended, in 2008. The new work’s central figure, Andrei Kaplan, recalls the feckless, at times unlikable young men of Gessen’s debut. After eight years of grad school and a Ph.D. in Russian literature and “modernity,” Andrei, at 33, is struggling to live in New York on a meager salary from online teaching. So when his older brother calls to say he must leave Moscow—his business schemes have brought legal woes—and asks Andrei to come care for their grandmother, it seems like a promising alternative that might even bolster his resume. Grandma Seva is 89 and physically healthy but suffering “medium-stage dementia.” As Andrei settles in to a daily routine, he comes to know her past and the new Moscow, a place he left at age 6 with his parents and brother. He’s accepted by a group of socialists who show him the pricey city’s cheaper side while they discuss Putin’s form of capitalism, the “dictatorship of the market.” They stage political demonstrations and share a strange sort of nostalgia for Soviet times. Small crises arise, but nothing like the chilling developments of the last 30 pages. Gessen’s prose is generally unembellished and lends itself to deadpan humor, though it can be repetitious. The plain style does suit the muted action of Andrei’s mostly mundane existence, and understatement helps to highlight the real hardship and peril that other lives confront.
The themes are timely and engaging, and Moscow-born Gessen displays an affecting sympathy for the smaller players on history’s stage.