I’m going to kick off with an admission: I loved A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018), but had I recognised the author’s name before I left home for the airport with no other books, I wouldn’t have read it. I wouldn’t have brought it with me, certainly, though maybe the novel’s general acclaim might have lured me back to it in the short term future.
The reason is as petty as they come, and one I didn’t realise until too late, i.e. when I entered four hours of prime reading time with no other books.
Many years ago, in late 2010 or early 2011, I read Keith Gessen’s previous novel, All the Sad, Young, Literary Men and I remember finding it incredibly underwhelming, particularly given the personal allure that title had for me and my depressed, though literary, ambitions. Maybe my younger self was harsher than I am now (I don’t think he was) or maybe Gessen’s debut novel genuinely was much worse than this, because my lapse in memory was fucking serendipitous: I am lucky for forgetting to ignore this, because I thought Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country was the most exciting novel-length piece of new fiction I’ve read all year (though – to be fair – I haven’t read either of the Sally Rooney or Rachel Cusk books that everyone keeps telling me are wonderful).
It is now about a week since I finished reading A Terrible Country, and far from it having withered in my mind to a long-lost memory, the novel (its structures and characters (though not their names)) remain strong in my mind.
A Terrible Country is about a mediocre academic who, in his early thirties, returns to live in his native Russia, which his parents emigrated from in the 1980s. He speaks fluent Russian and he “is” Russian, but also he is not, because legally he is American. His speciality in his academic field only really came about due to his in-built linguistic advantage, and his career is conspicuously stalling. When his elder brother calls him up to request he goes and looks after their ageing grandmother in Moscow, he quickly accepts because he doesn’t really have much going on in New York. So, here he is as the novel begins, an Americanised Russian, a Russified American, an expert yet not an expert, going nowhere but travelling still.
The novel is set about a decade ago, during the brief period when Putin was Prime Minister (rather than President) of Russia. What follows is a novel that manages to be both great fun and vividly political, that is able to combine artfully constructed scenes of raucous comedy alongside a deeply human narrative about the uncomfortable feelings of someone who can’t work out what the hell their purpose in life is meant to be.
The reader is dragged into fringe political activism and the amateur ice hockey leagues of the Moscow suburbs… Gessen transports us on buses and taxis and the metro and we live alongside his protagonist as the floundering academic teaches over the Internet, bonds with his ever-more-senile grandmother, tries dating, tries making friends and tries to – semi-successfully – make the life for himself that he’d always kinda wanted in the US.
The ending is marvellous and painfully – though subtly – devastating, and Gessen had me weeping not just at the inevitable flashforward to the grandmother’s death, but at the way his protagonist’s life in Moscow ends. It is terrible and simple, it is dangerous but unthreatening, it is intelligent and thoughtful and a simple, though effective, dramatisation of a naive, but not ignorant, person’s encounter with a hostile state, even though it is a state that he expects to be unwelcoming.
There is so much thoughtful and important writing in this novel, but key is Gessen’s explorations of the unnoticed – but unignorable – cultural differences that arise from everyone’s innate inability to ever shed the values and ideologies of the place or places they spent their formative years. For the academic, the formative place is America, for his elder brother – a wannabe oligarch who has made the wrong political connections – it is Russia. The men think differently, expect different things from life and approach risky behaviours in completely different ways: the expectation of fairness and equality in the eyes of the state are American ideals (even though they’re obviously not American realities), but in Russia they are not even that. The powerful are the powerful, and everybody knows that. Is it a terrible country, or is it some ways, instead, just a more honest one than our Western countries that feign freedom and equality and un-backed-up hippyish togetherness? I dunno. I do not know. The reality of violence and its use in societal repression is also important… it is a privilege to not fear being tortured by the police, it is a privilege that has been hard and slowly won, and one that probably won’t last forever, even in the few places when it still does exist. Ahhh.
Anyway… A Terrible Country is about sex and money, class and corruption… it’s about power and the gulfs between people’s private and personal lives. It’s fucking brilliant. In his novel, Gessen weaves a moving portrait of a city (Moscow) and decorates it with intelligent digressions and keen observations, and also includes “some real laugh out loud moments”. A highlight of my reading year, to be honest. Excellent.
Maybe I’ll reread Gessen’s first novel… Maybe not, though…
On November 14th 2018, I launched my first book, Bad Boy Poet, in the basement of Burley Fisher Books, Dalston. Here are some of the songs and poems I performed:
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