Love and Money: On Keith Gessen’s “A Terrible Country”

The title of Keith Gessen’s new novel is A Terrible Country, but the novel is less about a country than a city: Moscow. Not just Moscow as a city in its own right, though the city is very much a character in the novel, but the experience of Moscow by an American millennial, Andrei Kaplan, a 30-something academic in flight from his failures in Brooklyn, failures of love and work, family and friends. A Terrible Country, in other words, is the anti-Brooklyn novel.

If the Brooklyn of the public imagination is the place where young intellectuals move to make their lives among writers, journalists, academics, and artists, public lives that happen out of doors, in parks and readings and rallies and talks (now in election campaigns, too), Kaplan’s Moscow is the opposite. Everything of interest happens inside. In part by necessity.

For most of the novel, the city is so damn cold. Even spring is haunted by the cold: as the rooftop snows begin melting during the ever so slightly warming days, the sub-zero nights freeze the droplets into murderous icicles, which then fall on the heads of unlucky passersby the next morning.

The cold is one barrier. The vast tracts of Moscow’s thoroughfares—avenues, plazas, ring roads, highways—are another. The entire city seems as if it was dreamed up by Robert Moses in the late stages of his hubris, with no constraining hand of Jane Jacobs.

A master artist of physical desolation, Gessen gives us a city that can’t be lived in public. As the narrator observes near the novel’s end, “The city was closing itself off from itself.” That becomes not only a through line of the novel (even in springtime, even in love, Andrei is constrained by the sprawl) but a symptom of the neoliberal world that we slowly begin to realize Gessen has been sketching for us, without our noticing it. Every road, every sidewalk, every street, courtyard, cab, bus, train, subway—everything that’s out of doors is a conveyance to somewhere else, somewhere inside.

I don’t know of another urban novel that devotes so much of itself to the getting of places. One thinks of A Hazard of New Fortunes, but instead of the Marches’ epic quest to find the perfect home, we have an equally epic quest, rendered in exquisite detail, to get from home to home, place to place. Or Notes from the Underground, where Nevsky Prospect is the setting of the Underground Man’s struggle for public recognition. Gessen offers a wonderful little homage to that famous moment of Dostoevskian struggle, where the Underground Man confronts his tormentor, a haughty officer who scarcely notices him: only this time the settings are a bar and a hockey rink, and the tormentor is a lowlife without a cause. An urban novel of interiors, A Terrible Country serves as an unexpected comment on not only the St. Petersburg of Dostoevsky but also Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts Into Air.

A Terrible Country is the anti-Brooklyn novel in a second sense. Though Andrei develops a circles of friends, and even a girlfriend, the central relationship in the book is between him and his grandmother, with whom he returns to Moscow to live. She’s frail and failing, slowly slipping into dementia, and through his care-taking of her, Andrei becomes a grownup. Capable of not only the greatest gentleness—some of the most tender passages in contemporary fiction have Andrei cooking for his grandmother, walking her to and from the market, shopping for her, and playing anagrams or reading to her—but also terrible betrayal.

It is through his grandmother that Andrew gets drawn out of his cramped and claustrophobic world of online teaching, cafe internetting, and the like. It’s telling that the world of this novel opens up in this tiniest of spaces, the grandmother’s apartment. (“Inside that circle,” says the narrator, “and inside the city that the circle had created within the larger city, was a whole other world.”) Gessen renders its window sills, medicine cabinets, even plumbing, with great care. There’s a memorable scene involving a clogged drain that recalls the opening passages of The Wealth of Nations and chapter 15 of Capital: two books about the worlds nested within worlds that is modern capitalism.

But it is the relationship itself, between Andrei and his grandmother, that love across the generations, that is the real motor of the novel, which adds to the sense of its disruptions of the canons of contemporary urban fiction.

There is one sense, however, in which A Terrible Country is not the anti-Brooklyn novel, in which it becomes a novel of something larger than urban matter and anti-matter. And that is the emphasis it places on money. There’s not a bowl of soup that’s purchased, not a bottle of vodka that’s drunk, not a coffee that’s consumed, not a cab ride that’s taken, not an hour on the internet that’s used, that we don’t know the price of. That’s how much of an obsessive theme money is in this novel. It’s been a while since I’ve read a novel of such detailed and deliberate attention to the cost of living, in both senses of the word. Virtually every experience involves a commodity; virtually every experience has a price.

Gessen captures, like few other contemporary writers, the cost of modern life. Whether through his own experience, study, or intuitive sympathy, he seems to know that terrible feeling of material deprivation and anxiety, where the cost of commodities is less a subject of academic abstraction than a real constraint on what we can and cannot do. “She needed to make money,” says Andrei of his girlfriend. “Yulia was trapped.” If Andrei’s love for his grandmother is the motor of the book, money is its gasoline. Once it runs out, the motor stops.

That nexus of finance and freedom, of cash and capability, is a central motif of the novel, making its sense of constraint and grim proportion, of money and measure—so evocative of the nineteenth-century novel—a resonant and necessary new key of contemporary fiction.

8 Comments

  1. Ellen September 19, 2018 at 10:37 pm | #

    Ulysses, about a wandering Jew, is a novel in which getting from one place to another in one city—Dublin—is itself both subject and object.

    • Dan Knauss October 12, 2018 at 12:55 pm | #

      The price of a plate of peas — that’s one thing that stands out in my memory of Dubliners.

  2. Joanna Bujes September 19, 2018 at 10:45 pm | #

    Another example of the centrality of money: a movie, “Lorna’s Silence” by the Dardenne brothers.

  3. Lichanos September 20, 2018 at 12:40 am | #

    When I read the scene with the clogged drain, I thought of Winston Smith fixing his neighbor’s, and getting slingshotted by a bratty kid who calls him a thought criminal.

  4. John Haskell September 20, 2018 at 9:31 am | #

    It’s changing, but Moscow is Jane Jacobs with no constraining hand of Robert Moses. Imagine NYC with no freeways in it. Then you’ll understand how there could be a novel just about the difficulties of getting around the city.

  5. Glenn September 21, 2018 at 11:21 am | #

    Money is that which overcomes the separation from property owned (claimed by lawful violence) by another.

    When living at a precarious level of available money, every choice is a choice between which of the many “violences of separation” (a separation that brings into focus that which gives money its immediate value) one can risk enduring on any given day.

    Do I buy a new tire to prevent an accident, or insurance to pay for medical care perhaps needed after an accident caused by a blown tire? Do I not risk driving at all (perhaps to work) and endure the greater precarity that will follow? What other violence of separation will I then be exposed to?

    The beast of burden needs to go to the pasture to get what it has been separated from, what it needs to live. The beast’s owner can fix a cart to the beast so as to take a share of the value of the beast’s labor in its going to the pasture.

    The beast never needed man for millions of years. Now, owned by man, it can’t live without laboring in service of man.

  6. Pam Ozaroff September 24, 2018 at 12:21 pm | #

    Beautifully written analysis.

  7. Glenn October 6, 2018 at 5:29 pm | #

    Just finished reading “A terrible Country” minutes ago.

    It’s a wonderful novel that will bang around in my memory for a long time.

    Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

Leave a Reply to Lichanos Cancel reply