Spring Break for Existentialists

It's expats gone wild in the old eastern bloc

Boris Fishman, Editor
Wild East: Stories From The Last Frontier
Justin, Charles &Amp; Co.

Katherine Shonk
The Red Passport
Farrar Straus Giroux

More and more, Eastern Europe seems to be becoming the émigré-lit capital of the decade. Like Paris in the '20s, it hosts endless variations on the classic themes of innocent new world vs. jaded old world. The Wild East is your turf for indulging in consequence-free substance abuse and sexual investigation--dangerous but necessary paths to self-discovery. And, of course, there's the underlying theme of Those Crazy Europeans and Their Unfathomable Ways.

Like the Paris of the '50s, Eastern Europe gives pilgrims distinctive angles to view the triumphal United States, just inaugurating its dominance. The difference between escapist realms past and present comes in the knowingness any smart young person carries to college these days: No self-respecting American abroad would be caught dead rhapsodizing as guilelessly about Prague or Moscow as Hemingway and Fitzgerald did about Paris. Instead, we get winks and nods, two parts American dollars and senselessness, one part post-Communist tristesse.

Arthur Phillips's Prague taught us how to play Sincerity in 1990 Budapest; John Beckman's The Winter Zoo turned Poland into an orgy of roulette and, well, orgies; Gary Shteyngart's The Russian Debutante's Handbook escorted us into the grimy subconscious of the partly-assimilated Russian-American. This burgeoning genre ironized its own nostalgia on first appearance, mocking its craving for a world vanished in the mists of half a decade ago: "Five young émigrés hunch around an undersized café table," Phillips writes early in his book, "a moment of total insignificance, and not without a powerful whiff of cliché."

Two new collections explore this somewhat weary universe from different emotional directions, with that divergence pointing out how appealing, and also how irritating, the worldview of self-conscious expat lit can be. The writers gathered in Boris Fishman's anthology, Wild East: Stories from the Last Frontier, tend to sound like young, well-off smart alecks. And as such their stories treat visits to the region as opportunities for serious-minded young people to behave badly, in large part as conscious acts of negation--a sort of spring break for existentialists. Though there's some variation, in the main these authors, many of whom have published their first novels, write as committed outsiders who have discarded any hope of truly knowing either their host country or its people. Their protagonists are vague young men in quest of gravitas and some indefinable purpose.

The eternally frat-boyish Dan Quayle in Beckman's snotty "Babylon Revisited Redux" falls into a scam involving fellow Dekes in Poland. The aimless protagonist in Tom Bissell's "The Ambassador's Son" encapsulates the spirit of spiritlessness:

 

I was bored. Usually I holed up in my bedroom, listening toLet it Bleed on my headphones, sometimes putting in an appearance at my job. I don't know if I had one friend in the Capital I'd ever seen while the sun was up.

 

Attitude is everything here. The tone is knowing, beyond illusion, as if only a fool would venture East without packing his (and I do mean his: these are almost all boys' tales) irony. Which is a good thing, because the plotting trots out the oldest standbys with what can only be called pride--twist endings (Bissell), absurdism (Charlotte Hobson's Gogol pastiche "The Bottle"), Le Carré moral ambiguity (Phillips).

Fortunately, the snip and snarl of this prose frequently makes up for those lapses of originality. From sentence to sentence, snarkiness is its own reward. Bissell's leading man describes his nameless central Asian republic as "the kind of place that was so corrupt you had to bribe yourself to get out of bed in the morning." For Phillips's narrator, spying late in the Cold War is "incremental fidgeting with illusory gains, a game of arthritic cat and limping mouse."

At its best, that mood scores political points, warping national traditions and styles of feeling with eager perversity. What better way to convey a proud cultural heritage pimped for a passel of McDonald's? In Shteyngart's engagingly grotesque "Shylock on the Neva," the money-laundering protagonist pays off a struggling painter between assassination attempts: "Chartkov turned away from me, buried his face in his hands, brushed aside his tears, and sighed in a heartbreaking fashion--in other words, did everything possible to avoid thanking me for my generosity." Aleksandar Hemon's second-generation immigrant turns away from his Ukrainian father, ashamed of him for being "displaced, cheap, and always angry."

For the most part, these are witty pieces by smart, observant tourists. But only the actual Eastern Europeans--Shteyngart, Hemon, Vladimir Sorokin--venture into the heads of the natives. The rest loiter in Red Square, swilling vodka and sneering. That attitude can be wearing, which makes the gentleness and quiet empathy of Katherine Shonk's collection The Red Passport so tonic. She examines much the same world, but does so from inside, with protagonists young and old, male and female, Russian and American. Dissipation occasionally sours the air in her stories, but she focuses on calm moments: the anguish of a daughter displaced from her childhood home by Chernobyl, a younger brother both enticed and scared by his older brother's experiences in Chechnya, an old proletarian poet reduced to shilling his social-realist volumes in an underpass.

Shonk's great subject is the enticing puzzlement of cross-cultural relations. A privileged Chicagoan learns "a tolerance for indignity" with her grad-student husband in Moscow. A man whose wife has left him visits the Russian couple with whom the two once stayed, only to find that they, too, are splitting. "You think we should share everything with you because we are Russian?" the wife growls. A feckless, out-of-work scientist greets his wife's gregarious American co-workers and their new baby, noting that it "was fat and pink, like any other baby. [He] wondered when it would begin to look American."

Call them Chekhovian if you must: These are confident, lovely stories, attuned to the music of longing and the riddle of connection amid the blare and neon of casino Moscow. Perhaps the greatest compliment one can pay Shonk is that she doesn't sound American at all.

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