Autumn 2010: Of Note
Olga Grushin 93C’s second novel, The Line, is pure poetry
By Susan Carini 04G
Olga Grushin 93C is a fierce, disturbing, exhilarating poet.
I offer that lead as a gentle corrective to readers and critics receiving The Line as her second novel. In The Line, Grushin consciously tilts toward a looser construction than in The Dream Life of Sukhanov (2006), aiming toward fable. When one’s first novel has been a crackling success—Sukhanov won the 2007 Young Lions Fiction Award and a fistful more of literature’s top honors—modifying the style of that earlier work can bring a few moody jeers.
The Line, like Sukhanov, is based in Russia. Since the girl with the pink butterfly sunglasses made her media splashdown in Atlanta in 1989—the first Russian citizen to enter a four-year program at an American university—Grushin has made this country her home, even having typically American jobs both during and after her Emory years, working in a post office during Christmas season, at Victoria’s Secret, and as a waitress in a jazz bar.
But the dark-eyed woman who rang up your stamps or shouted over the music to hear your drink order is simultaneously a citizen of Russia, and her command of its dualities—the grinding mindlessness of state-sanctioned rules and the wild, rebellious imaginative lives of its citizens—is once again on brilliant display in her second novel.
The Line follows a Moscow family—Anna, the mother, a middle-aged schoolteacher; her husband Sergei, a frustrated classical musician now playing the tuba in a state-sponsored band; Alexander, their wild child, who shrugs off his classes, choosing education on the city streets; and Anna’s mother, a studiously silent resident of the small apartment they share. (Watch out for her; she’s got a secret.)
Early on, Anna shares the party line, saying: “Hers was a good life, a stable life. None of them ever went hungry, their apartment was warm in winter, they had their fair share of comforts and, too, more than a few accomplishments.” It takes but a few more lines for her to acknowledge that—both materially and emotionally—theirs is mere existence.
Grushin chronicles Anna’s flight to freedom with dazzling economy, turning to the question of what Anna would change if she could: “But as [Anna] thought it, her lips must have moved, or perhaps she even whispered it half audibly, for a few children stopped writing and now were staring at her with flat, incurious eyes resembling buttons and beetles. Looking down quickly, she found herself studying her hands, the weathered, naked hands of a woman no longer young, with blunt nails and fingers that were too short, their tips crumbling with pale chalk—and then she knew where she would go as soon as she was set free into the glittering white stretch of the afternoon.”
The “where she would go” initially will confound non-Russian readers, perhaps excepting those who have read Vladimir Sorokin’s The Queue (1985). Anna chooses to get in “the line.” The line is one of many kiosks around the city—kiosks that are familiar to Russian citizens, who have received food, medical services, and all manner of goods in this Waiting for Godot fashion.
For what is Anna standing in line? Everyone in the line speculates: will it be cakes, stockings, children’s coats, or oranges? Eventually, they learn their line is for tickets to the Igor Selinsky concert. Grushin loosely bases her plot on the return of the long-exiled Igor Stravinsky to Russia when he was eighty years old. As she notes, “The line for tickets began a year before the performance and evolved into a unique and complex social system. . . . After a year of waiting, an eighty-four-year-old cousin of Stravinsky was unable to attend, as the tickets had sold.”
For Grushin’s characters, mysterious notes appear tacked to the kiosk, explaining in “state-speak” the delays: “Closed for accounting.” “Back on Monday.” “Out with flu. Will reopen in January.” Naturally, these are “lines”—in other words, deceptions. But for Anna and the other characters seeking redemption, these are just the first of many deceptions. It is the self-deceptions of Anna’s family—their fluctuating thoughts about which of them deserves the concert ticket—that create the novel’s dreamlike fabric.
For some reviewers, Grushin’s rhapsodies create their own Soviet-style oppressions. Elif Batuman, in the New York Times (April 16, 2010), lamented: “No matter whose point of view we follow, we get the same uniformly whimsical impressions of the scenery. Normally stationary objects appear to turn into birds and fly out the window (a hat), to fall overripe to the ground and be swallowed by darkness (windows), to rear up like horses (a sidewalk) or to drift up to the sky like balloons (streetlamps).”
But here is the genius of Grushin: she is her father’s daughter. If her prose at times is overwrought, it may be that she is settling a few personal matters that transcend her characters’ struggles.
One could argue that The Line, which is dedicated to her father, is the novelistic equivalent of a public opinion poll. It begins with unidentified voices of Russian citizens talking and speculating freely as they stand in what will become Anna’s line. Boris Grushin—as his New York Times obituary notes—founded Vox Populi, the first freestanding, privately run opinion service in the Soviet Union. In 1976, her father found himself at odds with the regime, and the family had to move to Prague for five years.
The Stravinsky trope, then, works on a number of levels. Grushin and her own family have known exile. And though her twenty-one years in this country since her matriculation at Emory have been of her own choosing, it only takes reading her account of the Moscow subway bombings in the Wall Street Journal (April 5, 2010) to know that the heart of her has never left the city of her birth.
In the aftermath of those bombings, she describes making desperate calls to her mother and finally triumphing over the maddeningly inefficient Moscow phone system: “She tells me that she . . . had stood on the familiar Park Kultury platform the day before, waiting for her train. She tells me that the rest of our family are safe. . . . [P]eople are not panicking. Instead, they are buying flowers. . . . [B]oth stations are drowning in flowers. . . . Although I am not there—although I am here, in my suburban house on the outskirts of Washington—I think I understand what she means.”
As the Journal piece proves, the writer who still keeps a diary in Russian continues to think deeply about her heritage, which should make interesting her hints that her next novel will have an American setting. As the gorgeous writing of the Journal piece also reveals, poetry comes naturally to Grushin.
With all due respect for Elif Batuman, if the occasional hat flies or sidewalk rears up in an Olga Grushin novel, I’m okay with that. So much so that I already have formed the queue for novel number three.