His first novel, All The Sad Young Literary Men (2008), features three well-educated, navel-gazing college grads desperate to succeed in New York’s cutthroat literary world. Its plot and characters have been widely interpreted as autobiographical — the post-Harvard trajectory of the narrator, also named “Keith,” closely matches Gessen’s.
Ten years on, the journalist and n+1 co-founder returns to fiction with another narrator based loosely on his younger self. A Terrible Country follows Moscow-born American scholar Andrei Kaplan, who returns to his native land in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis because his self-made older brother has summoned him to care for their grandmother Seva, a spritely 89-year-old with accelerating dementia. Andrei struggles with culture shock in a country he thought he knew and with the responsibilities of being a full-time caregiver to an aging relative who no longer knows him. It’s a story line drawn directly from personal history: Gessen is a Moscow-born American writer and editor who once found himself in a similar predicament. Both men — author and literary avatar — hope to produce publishable material despite the circumstances.
Gessen’s familiarity with the quirks of his homeland and his often clumsy navigation of the country is one of the novel’s strengths: the inadequate ways in which Andrei tries to communicate his feelings in Russian, a language whose nuances elude him since he grew up speaking English in the States; the systems of bribery that dictate every level of public service, even treatment at state hospitals; the ingrained vestiges of anti-Semitism — in one poignant scene, the neighborhood babushka clique rejects Seva because of her Jewish patronymic, Efraimovna. Andrei’s story may be fiction, but its truth is born of Gessen’s reality.
JANE GAYDUK: Tell me a bit about what inspired this novel.
KEITH GESSEN: I had published my first novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men, and when you publish your first book, you think, “That’s going to alter my life now, so I can’t make any plans beyond the publication, it would be crazy.” But it turns out it didn’t change my life, so I didn’t have much to do in the months after my book came out. Then I had this opportunity to go to Moscow and take care of my grandmother, so that year of living with my grandmother was the basis for the book.
It’s very difficult to become the caretaker for a family member. The book does a good job of addressing Andrei’s guilt about having been away from her for so long, and the subsequent ups and downs of their relationship.
Andrei’s grandmother isn’t helpless: for the first half of his time there she can take care of herself, and even after that she can still bathe herself, so on the scale of how difficult that situation is, it’s not the most difficult. But certainly it’s hard to live with someone who doesn’t share your interests, can’t hear what you said, can’t remember what you said when they do hear what you’re saying, and, very understandably, wants you to be there all the time. As Andrei discovers, if you try to be there all the time, you start going crazy. You also have your own life to live, and people find that different balances work for them, but it depends on your tolerance for sitting there. It’s very hard, but you get better at just listening and figuring out a way to not become offended when a person doesn’t hear you, or doesn’t remember, or doesn’t care about what you’re saying.
The thing that I found challenging is you want to treat the person like a person — and obviously they are a person — and in an ordinary relationship if someone doesn’t care what you’re talking about, you would say, “Why don’t you care what I’m talking about,” or “Why don’t you remember what I said 10 minutes ago,” and a certain amount of that is okay, even helpful. But if you take all of these issues very personally, it becomes a problem. And I never became a great caretaker of my own grandmother.
Well, it’s even more complicated when a person begins to lose some of their mental capabilities as opposed to their physical ones and starts to become a stranger. In Andrei’s case, not only has he not seen his grandmother in years, but even her memories — the foundation that’s left of their relationship — are disappearing.
There’s been a lot written about this topic of: “What is a person?” A person is their memories of their experiences and what they did in certain situations, and the total of that makes their personality and their character. So when you start losing some of those memories, you start to strip away some of that personality and character, and yet they’re still a person under that.
At the beginning of the book, she can’t remember who he is because she hasn’t seen him in a while. By the end of the book, she can’t remember who he is because her mind is gone. But for him, it’s a very different experience because he knows she actually does know who he is. When my grandmother stopped remembering who I was it was heartbreaking. I wasn’t offended, though. That was the end.
As a Russian-American immigrant, how does it feel to write about a country that is both yours and not yours?
Going to Russia, Andrei expects — and I’ve gone through this many times — to return to the bosom of his homeland, and then it turns out he is much more American than Russian. In fact, you never feel so American as when you land in Russia and experience how foreign it feels.
I’ve been there many times over the years, but that specific year I was interested in writing another novel. Not all novelists are like this, but I usually look at my personal experience and think, “Is there something in here that I can make fiction out of?” But while I was in Russia, I turned that off in my mind because I felt like I couldn’t write about this place, I didn’t know it well enough, I didn’t know it deeply enough. I could do journalism about it because there’s this anchor in the facts, and you have to understand how those facts relate to one another. It’s very helpful to know a lot of stuff when you’re a journalist. But it takes a different level of knowledge to write fiction. With fiction, you really need to understand not just your characters’ biographies but also the different things that might have happened to them if they had made different choices.
Writing my first book, I felt like I knew everyone in the book really well. You could ask me about any of them and I could tell you all about them, and I thought I just didn’t know this [Russian] world well enough to write a novel about it. The experience of living with my grandmother and trying to go out into the world a little bit, that was very different from Andrei’s experience, but it was the same idea of making friends and meeting people and becoming involved in Russian life in a way that only happens over time. Only once it had ended did it strike me as a profound thing, and having to leave was very painful for me and my grandmother and my friends. So I realized, I definitely know that well enough and can use that as the basis for constructing a world that enters into Russia without making some kind of pretense to being an all-encompassing novel about Russian society.
The way I thought I might get around that was I would have this simple story about a guy who goes to take care of his grandmother, and then I would read 1,000 books. I spent a year at the Cullman Center at the New York Public Library. They have these fellowships where you go every day and you can order unlimited books. I would just sit there reading as many as I could and then try to synthesize everything I learned into mini-essays, some of them quite long. There’s a version of the book where it’s interspersed with these incredibly long essays on Russian history and literature. I read a draft of it, and it was unreadable. So I cut that stuff out, and some of these essays are now condensed to a sentence in A Terrible Country.
There are definitely instances of the narrator weaving in historical factoids, but he is a scholar so it’s believable.
Once I realized that wasn’t going to work as a way of describing Russian society, I had to focus more on what I could do with the grandmother. What could I do with her story and with these peripheral characters? Can they have a bit more of a role in the book?
Do you find yourself struggling between being an essayist/journalist and a fiction writer?
Kind of. One of the ideas with the essays I initially wrote was, “Oh, I write these essays and they get published in a magazine, and then a week goes by and the next issue comes out and my essay that I worked so hard on gets recycled.” That’s how it is, but I thought, “What if I could weave them in a narrative, and then they’ll be in a book and people will be stuck with them forever!” That was the other idea I had, and it didn’t work.
All of that context woven into the current iteration still works to enrich the novel.
But the lesson for me was: I’d known this, but I thought I could get around it. They’re just two very different forms of writing and reading. There are different expectations as a reader that you bring to each of the forms, too. That fantasy of melding these things did not work.
The novel also serves as a reminder of how protected American citizens are when they go abroad. You could do something stupid in another country virtually without consequence, whereas the citizens of that country could suffer for the rest of their lives after having done the same thing. Have you seen that dichotomy play out in your personal experience?
Something that I’ve seen a lot of is just [us Americans] going over there and having this weird dual reaction. On the one hand, if you hang out with expats in Moscow you constantly have conversations where people complain about Russia. And this culture of constant complaint about Russia goes hand-in-hand with a culture of telling the Russians what to do and how to live. Andrei’s eventual political involvement in Russia is a bit of an extreme case, but you often do see Americans who are pretty cynical become emotionally involved in whatever Russian sphere of life they are encountering.
And part of it is: Russia’s messed up, and people are like, “Why can’t this country fix itself?” They want to help, so people become emotionally involved — and then they leave. Every once in a while someone stays forever, but for the most part they leave. They get transferred, or they get a better job, or it’s time to go home. And there’s a type of unreflective person who’s like, “I went to Russia, I tried to fix it, and it didn’t work — fuck the Russians.” That kind of very unreflective person is maybe the American ambassador to Russia! Most people, though, experience it as personal failure. And that’s the story here.
Characters in the novel are constantly calling Russia a terrible country, but there’s a lot of relativity, and complexity, to that claim. Plenty of people benefit socioeconomically from a totalitarian regime and from the oppression of other people — and those same people may not consider Russia a terrible country. It’s a nuanced topic.
For a lot of people it’s okay. Often it’s actually the middle class that is the most vocal in their complaints about Putin, but objectively they’re doing okay. The broader point is, we live in a terrible country and yet we go about our lives. That process of continuing to live your life can be quasi-criminal — like, you’re ignoring all the horrible stuff that’s going on. But you also have to keep living your life, and protesting and doing what you can. The idea that everyone in Russia is constantly oppressed, personally, by Putin is incorrect, and that’s the shock of going to Russia. Like, I read in the paper about how everyone was oppressed, and here they are drinking their six-dollar cappuccinos — what’s going on?
You mention the Putinist people — the hockey guys in the book are kind of that. It’s not fully developed, but the guys on Andrei’s team are Russian people who are doing well but don’t like it. They’re businessmen who don’t like Putin, but they understand how the system works and they’re going to work in the system. As Andrei says about them, they’re Russian, and they don’t know of another place where they can go. They’re going to live here, and they’re going to make it work. Then there’s the white team, which is always beating Andrei’s team, and those guys are the same way but they actually kind of like Putin. Because they’re jerks.
When you see the media narrative vilifying Russia as a whole — or any country, really — do you lose track of what to believe? Especially going there and seeing their media coverage, then coming back and seeing ours, do you forget what’s real?
Sometimes I see stuff about Russia and Putin and it’s wrong, and I can explain to you why it’s wrong, but seeing that stuff over and over again — it’s very powerful. One especially recognizes that in Russia, because it’s much clearer that this is propaganda. I was in Russia in 2015, and it goes in waves, but there was a lot of fearmongering about NATO at that moment. I remember sitting in my aunt’s apartment watching TV, and they were talking about NATO flights that were coming close to the Russian border. I was like, “Oh my god, NATO is out to invade Russia! What a terrible time to come to Moscow!” And then you come back and realize that’s not actually happening. But it’s very powerful when you see it on TV and you’re like, “Why would they lie on TV? Why would they take the trouble to do that?”
And you’re a journalist, so you understand firsthand how a media narrative is created.
Yes, I’m very skeptical, but it’s very powerful. The effect that it has here is that you do start thinking of Russia as this house of horrors, which certainly for some people it is. If you get arrested in Russia and start going through the system, it is horrible. And it is happening right now more than it was during the time depicted in the novel. People are getting arrested for blog posts and Facebook posts. That really is happening. And yet what you lose sense of when you’re here is that most people are going about their lives. Of course, totalitarianism doesn’t just show up with its big scary fangs. In 1937, there were also people going about their lives as others were getting dragged off to the camps.
You don’t often read about the people who were just continuing to live their lives.
It’s tricky, because you had censorship. There are plenty of novels about Soviet life in the 1930s, but you know it’s censored. I do think there were people untouched by the arrests, even though they affected millions of people.
I think we’re all going through it now when we have these arguments about Trump. Is Trump a fascist? Are we living now under a quasi-fascist government? And I personally feel — I feel this way about Putin also — it could be worse.
That’s relative. It is worse for many people.
Oh, certainly. And that might be the fundamental argument between the right and left — I haven’t resolved it. But yes, you wonder: When do I know [that we’re living under a totalitarian regime]? Is somebody going to hit a gong?
Jane Gayduk is a writer based in New York City.