Coming to America
By SUSAN COMNINOS
THERE ARE JEWS IN MY HOUSE
By Lara Vapnyar
149 pages. Pantheon. $17.95.
Consider the Jewish coming-of-age tale recently popularized
by Gary Shteyngart’s hipster-slacker novel The
Russian Debutante's Handbook and Jonathan Safran Foer’s semi-magical look
at Ukraine in Everything is Illuminated.
In it, a Western boychik triumphs in Eastern Europe, where he bilks the
benighted locals or forces anti-Semites to do a paradigm shift. Money is made,
women are laid, and the former Soviet bloc is left a better—or at least
chastened—place by the American-Jewish hero.
That fantasy is challenged in the first book by Russian-Jewish
émigré writer Lara Vapnyar, There Are
Jews in My House. A slim volume of six tales, it offers quiet prose about
modest souls: Slavic Jews trying to stay afloat in 20th century Russia and
Vapnyar, 32, left Moscow for Brooklyn in 1994. Yet most of
her tales recall her hostile motherland, where Jews have faced systemic
oppression, even violence. Having lived for 23 years in Russia, Vapnyar can be
considered informed about the place—and her clearheaded tales about it to
counterweigh the wish-filled bildungsromans about Eastern Europe penned by
Not her sex, Vapnyar says, but her Russian credentials
distinguish her fiction from that of the Soviet émigré Shteyngart, who moved to
the U.S. when he was seven, and the American-born Foer. “I went to college in
Russia,” says Vapnyar, where she earned a master’s degree in Russian
Literature. “I grew up reading Russian books: Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky,
Chekhov. This is what makes my style and my writing so different—and not the
fact that I am a woman.”
Bluntly, she adds, “I grew up reading more serious
literature” than did Shteyngart or Foer—or even the rising Latvian-Jewish short
story writer David Bezmozgis, who emigrated to Canada at 11 (and debuted in the
New Yorker magazine shortly before
Vapnyar's pointed style helps to make her stories memorable,
even when her settings are banal. “Question for Vera” unfolds in a Soviet
kindergarten, where a Jewish child is belittled for her Semitic looks. In turn,
the child mocks a one-eyed doll: “Look at your eyes! Sorry, at your eye. Look
how big and round it is. Do you think this is normal? No, it’s not.” A verdict
follows: “You know what, Vera? There is a very good chance that you are Jewish
From childhood on, Vapnyar’s Jews realize that there is
little for them in Russia. Yet those lucky enough to leave it suffer new aches.
In the fine story “Mistress,” Russians in America struggle with language,
loneliness and loss—their troubles told by a boy whose home disintegrates under
the stress of emigration, as his grandmother embraces hypochondria and his
grandfather an affair.
Vapnyar’s stories set in the present show off her acuity and
narrative flair, but she falters in her Holocaust-era title story. Meant to
show Jews betrayed by a gentile in Ukraine, the tale sits atop a jerrybuilt
Russia-of-the-mind, one composed of Soviet stereotypes (drunkenness and endless
meals of potatoes) and, oddly, American brand names. Characters patronize a
café called “Meat Patties,” where one buys a “coffee beverage.” And to its
hiding place, a Jewish family takes a doll whose Teutonic looks and hard plastic
body, with limbs of “some other, softer kind,” conjure up Barbie.
Clearly, Vapnyar is no Holocaust scholar. But does she need
to be? Her modern-day stories bespeak a burgeoning talent. More, they almost
assure her a place among noted Jewish émigré authors—those offering a real
picture of Jews' lives in contemporary Russia and its former outrigger states.