Title: Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel.
Author: Anya Ulinich.
Genre: Fiction, graphic novel, romance, immigration, hu.
Publication Date: 2014.
Summary: The author turns her sharp eye toward the strange, often unmooring world of "grow-up" dating in this darkly comic graphic novel. After her 15-year marriage ends, Russian immigrant Lena Finkle gets an eye-opening education in love, sex, and loss when she embarks on a string of online dates, all while raising her two teenage daughters. The Vampire of Bensonhurst, Disaster Man, and the Diamond Psychiatrist are just a few of the unforgettable characters she meets along the way. Evoking Louis C.K.'s humor and Amy Winehouse's longing and anguish, and paying homage to Malamud and Checkov, the graphic novel is a enticing exploration of immigration and adult romances, single parenthood and online dating, and immigration and the reconciliation of cultural differences.
My rating: 8/10.
♥ I am an immigrant, not an expatriate.
I never managed to have a bi-continental life, like some of my Russian friends. My grandparents were dead, my parents lived in Arizona, and I no longer had close family in Russia. I'd spent half my life being married to Josh, an Arizona native, and our kids didn't speak Russian.
I'd gone back to Moscow just twice in the last twenty years. No matter how much the city changed between my visits, some things stayed the same. The sound of subway announcements. The overgrown courtyards and concrete apartment towers of my childhood neighborhood. The smell of diesel exhaust in the rain. My highschool boyfriend, Alik, who remained something more than a penpal over the years.
Every time I returned home, Moscow wedged itself between me and my life. This was a feeling stronger than nostalgia, closer to depression. I felt untethered and dissociated—even from people I loved. Everything seemed arbitrary. It wasn't entirely coincidental that after each trip to Russia I talked Josh into having a baby. Babies are excellent tethers, as well as powerful, if temporary, antidotes to Finkle-style existential crises.
♥ A consulate driver brought us to our hotel. After we checked in, Eloise and I decided to go for a walk—we needed to stay awake to readjust to local time. I was scheduled to do a talk at a university the next morning.
We walked down Nevsky Prospect, leaning into the wind. The pictures in Eloise's guidebook didn't prepare us for the scale of the city; failed to convey its proportions. St. Petersburg lay under its enormous, grey sky like a carefully posed, regal creature. The ice had started to break on the smaller rivers, but the Neva was still frozen under a rough lead-colored shell. Compared with this vastness, New York looked like a magnified bodega shelf - all haphazard vertical stacks.
♥ And so we walked... As we have walked, off and on, for over twenty years, through three marriages and the births of three children between us.
♥ At 12 years old, your mind and body begin to scan their environment for turn-ons. It never occurs to you to think of men, with their "elevator parts," in this context. Also, there is nothing remotely sexual, or human-body-related, in the media. It's not like you're some American kid, who always finds a stack of porn mags in the woods. There are no mags. There are no woods. Instead, the most random things begin to turn you on.*
*Those famously confused American teens have nothing on you.
♥ When I got back to the hotel, the reception area was empty. Though I had my key card, I felt, once again, as if I was sneaking in. I remembered Eloise's stories about teaching at a fancy private art college—how the scholarship kids never quite seemed to fit in, even though they often were the only native New Yorkers in their classes.
Like a kid from Brownsville made uncomfortable by Manhattan, I felt that I belonged in Alik's Russia. In tower blocks and multi-generational apartments, not in a hotel on Nevsky.
When will this country stop making me feel like a time traveler? Like a visitor to my earlier self rather than to a place?
♥ "Is this any way to treat your soul? Your conscience? She dumped me in the hallway because she really doesn't like it when I point out that she's being a goddamned cliché... like now. I know exactly what will happen in that room. For example:
1. She'll ask him about a bump on his knuckle.
2. He'll tell her how he hit a wall in frustration. He'll tell her about how he never gets to paint anymore with everyone wanting something from him all the time, and there being so little space in the apartment.
3. She will touch his knuckles with her lips. It'll feel so good to feel sorry for poor Alik.* (Poor Finkle! 37 years old and only now getting to play around with the erotic potential of compassion!)
4. Then they'll do what they should have done decades ago.
*Briefly, she'll think of the time Josh punched a wall—they were living in a trailer park in California. Dasha had been up all night before, crying. All Josh got from Lena was a designation of "Psycho!" and a can of wall compound to patch the hole."
♥ Eloise had natural beauty and style that reminded me of some people I went to art school with - people who looked and acted as if they themselves had been works of art. I realized that, had Eloise and I been the same age, our paths would have never crossed. I'd judge her shallow and superficial, and she'd probably not even notice me, a passing nebbish. But I think being a parent makes one better able to appreciate different types of courage.
♥ Gradually, I learned to confide in Eloise, to have the kind of conversations that commonly occurred between close friends in American chick-flicks. Confiding in a friend may not seem like such a big deal, but, before Eloise, I'd never exposed myself to anyone from a position of weakness. The Finkles didn't "do" failure, or doubt, or unhappiness. (If a Finkle failed in some personal matter, the policy was to carry on as usual and ignore the disturbance. The Finkles didn't air their dirty laundry. Nor, as the Russian expression went, did they "Take the trash out of their log cabin"—the Russian idiom better demonstrating the unsustainability of emotional stoicism. Because, once your cabin filled with garbage, what were you supposed to do—evacuate?)
♥ "You may be an "adult and an American," but for the past few days, I've been watching you fall down a rabbit hole... into your past. It happens to me sometimes, when I go back to Iowa and see the people who never left our town. And I think—what if I stayed... You begin to see a possibility of this whole alternative life. Also, it seems like, at this place (and only at this place), you can actually start over."
"Haha! I don't think that!"
"No, but you must feel it. It's very powerful. God, I can only imagine what it must be like if you add language and sex! The depth of that rabbit hole!"
"I see what you mean. But ugh, I hate your Alice in Wonderland metaphors. I can't stand that book. What kind of a story is that—"a bunch of random shit happening randomly"? There is no rabbit hole. Alik is real. Even as a kid, I used to hate fairy tales—they're so arbitrary."
"What you hate, Finkle, is ambiguity. You're terrified of complexity. You're a believer, but your belief is a dorm of fear. You'd rather slam the "love" word, like a lid, on this thing with Alik, and get busy using your insane drive to devise ways for the two of you to be together than pay attention to what you're actually feeling. You're an excellent survivor, but a willfully stunted thinker. What are you afraid of?"
"I mean, I'm afraid of feeling nothing."
♥ He often writes about my return. I have no idea how to tell him that I can't go back, that I'll never return for good. All I know is that going back would feel like trying to un-think a thought... impossible. I think of a picture of my mom holding Crybaby in our Moscow kitchen, and imagine an identical photo of myself, holding mine and Alik's future baby, same towers in the background.
It's not a matter of novel experiences, or triple cheeseburgers or desert sunsets. It isn't even about the new language. It's just that I can't go back to what I know, even if it's also what I love... The ideas of returning to Moscow for good feels counterintuitive, like time travel. My strongest desire is not for Alik, nor is it for some narrowly defined "American dream." What I want the most, is to keep moving—forward, toward the unknown...
♥ Right around the time I meet Josh (over some small talk about Dostoevsky) I get a letter from Alik. He writes that he's getting married. He's never mentioned Nina before, and I feel some odd mix of shock and relief. He talks of his marriage as if it's some required rite of passage, and says that nothing will change between us. Basically, it's exactly like the letter I sent him four months earlier—it's a contract of sorts, an anti-marriage: "We shall be both everything and nothing to each other, til death do part." I think: I got what I wanted. And the word I most readily reach for is freedom.
"Not to mention that you lacked the experience and imagination to know what this freedom was from, or what it was for. You'd hurled your body against the locked door to the "American dream." You tore the door off its hinges! But then you panicked: 'Now what?' Just as you now think you love Alik, thanks to his Healthcliff schtick, you stayed with Josh for years on the strength of evidence you could grasp (Josh was nice; Josh wasn't in the campus crusade for Christ; Josh preferred e.e. cummings to Ren and Stimpy) even though something was missing. What is it with your immigrants? Why are you so afraid of yourselves? Things that gave you real pleasure were small and arbitrary: a perfectly translated poem; hairdryer heat of desert nights; the smell of creosote; a stretch of smooth pavement under the wheels of your skateboard... They had nothing to do with the milestones of your quest - with Jack, or Alik, or immigration, or success... This disconnect embarrassed and threatened you. It still scares you now."
♥ I used to feel pangs of conscience about teaching at the writing place.
"I feel like I'm participating in a scam. People take these classes to learn how to write a novel! But I think the most honest advice I can give to most of them is "stop wasting your money!" I can't teach them how to write."
Each eight-week session, the students varied. The illiterate and the insane were the nicest, but also the poorest, and I felt terrible for being complicit in the taking of their money. The brilliant ones were few, and, sometimes, insane. The angry and ambitious ones had it in for me from the start, as they were smart enough to realize that I was powerless to nudge their vampires and diamond heists into print. The only student who got his tuition's worth at the writing place was the jerk-off. He was always a man, and there was one in every class. The jerk-off wrote rape porn disguised as mystery, or sci-fi, or historical fiction. While his classmates and I remained hostage to workshop rules—"Don't question content; make constructive comments." I wasn't paid enough to "teach" the jerk-off.
♥ And also, I just noticed that Russian word for "single" is "lonely". Trust the Russians to put a positive spin on things.
♥ Of course, my guy-search wasn't entirely like a random point-and-drive. First the guys had to pass a picture test.
Apart from the obvious Nos, like the headless people with usernames like "LovesToSpank" or "Dominant_Broker," I didn't want to date a guy in a wet suit, or a guy scaling a cliff, or a guy posing with little, mercilessly objectified third world children. Or a guy offering the photographer a beer, or a cocktail, or a dead fish. I wouldn't date a computer programmer posing in a loincloth on the playa, or any of the boys showing off their toys. Not to mention the guy in a chainmail suit... that he'd made himself.
...Finally, if a man was a decent writer (or, at least, laconic enough for me to imagine that he might be):
Q: On a typical Friday night, I am...
A: ...out on bail.
And if his book list didn't appear to have been swiped from some hipster taste shop. (The site did a good job filtering out readers of Dan Brown, Coelho, and Seven Habits of Most Effective...)
Favorite book:The Master and the Margarita.
"The" Margarita? And how on earth has a novel about Satan's struggle against the Moscow writers' union become a hipster shibboleth?
And if he didn't use "creative" as a noun, and wasn't in a wonderful open marriage with my wife of ten years, burlesque_moon.
♥ It's sad and pretty amazing how many over-educated, canvas-bag-toting, Bon Iver-listening Jewish hipsters are wannabe eugenicists! How many cute doctors would take away preschools and food stamps from the poor. How many rugged war photographers faint at the sight of a fat lady!
♥ People who get together young and stay together a long time are like two Bonsai trees planted in the same pot... they don't grow much.
Back in ancient times, when Kurt Cobain was still alive, Josh and I sat in the back yard of an adobe house we shared with some A.S.U. dropouts and graduate students, and agreed about a few arbitrary things. Like that sports, television, and pop music were for idiots, that my hair was too curly for bangs, that one either dressed in black or in plaid flannel, that the only acceptable music was the music Josh liked (I was too F.O.B. to have a say in music)...
We were simply agreeing. We had no idea that we were writing the constitution of our relationship. That, in coming decades, we'd become constitutional absolutists, who wore mostly black, never changed their hair style, stayed away from T.V. and listened to way too much throbbing gristle. We didn't speak of the rules... we'd internalized them, the way we;d internalized our tasks on the assembly line of cohabitation, where one person was always responsible for food, and the other for, say, computers, until buying, say, a pair of red shoes wouldn't constitute a punishable offense, but would certainly invite questions, which would load the shoes with too much significance to every actually wear. Maybe that's why married people in Brooklyn are stuck in horrible moccasins and fleece sweaters they order online.
♥ I told myself that what I was doing wasn't any different from what Eloise and Lisa had done in their twenties, but this was only superficially true. My friends may have dated multiple men, but their encounters with these men hadn't started with an implied expectation of intimacy. There was an urgency, an exploratory drive behind internet dates. Both people knew what they were after - the interest, the desire to know each other was self-evident. Conversations moved fast. Things that would take us months to reveal to a new friend were disclosed to a stranger within an hour of meeting.
Dates were like deep friendships filmed in time lapse; one-night stands were like express-marriages, from courtship to dissolution.
♥ "Whoa, Alik! Are you still talking about me moving to Russia? It's not going to happen. Ever. This is home."
"Moscow used to be your home, but you left!"
"I didn't exactly think through stuff at seventeen. I think I pictured myself leaving, and everything else staying and waiting for me, unchanged: mine and Crybaby's room, exactly as we'd left it; my grandparents, alive; you... I don't like leaving a home and returning to find it... gone. I won't do that again. This is all in addition to ordinary human reasons I don't want to live in Moscow, and would rather live in New York."
"But don't you always feel like something is missing? Your motherland..."
"Haha. I don't have a motherland, Alik! It's all just... land."
♥ In childhood, the gutter was said to be teeming with horrors, such as glue sniffing, passing out drunk in the snow, poor aptitude for math, sex, vocational school, death... So many people worked so hard to get you to better pastures, it's ungrateful and wasteful to wade back into trouble. With a father at a sweatshop, one doesn't quit college and join the circus. One does what one is supposed to do, and settles into a life of a "what-if?"-tinged comfort, taking vacations in countries where public toilets are clean.
It's this conservative ethic based on the hyper-awareness of the fundamental precariousness of everything... It's very threatened by an urge to search, a desire to self-exploration - all the stuff that's your regular fuel, Orphan. (Depression is judged as selfishness because you don't just go slack "for no good reason" at the edge of a gutter). These things are so scary that we avoid naming them, let alone acting on them. That's why my mom calls what's happening with my father "Belorussian bureaucracy." What's why it took me so long to leave Josh.
♥ What I really meant to say to the Orphan was "I love you," but I knew that this was not the time to mess with the cultural peculiarities of American courtship.
When I'd begun my last relationship, nearly two decades ago, I'd been unaware of the rule that new lovers must hoard the "L word" the way atomic nations hoard their explosives, like something that, once detonated, would change their world forever. I'd come from a place that was much more free-wheeling with declarations of affection, and I blurted the word to Josh two days after we met, the minute he leaned over the gear shift of his parents' Subaru wagon and kissed me on the mouth for the first time.
Later, I'd come to appreciate the taboo. It began to seem rather wise, since, as soon as the phrase escaped my lips, it began to fade and wear out and soon weighed no more than a friendly "Hello" or "Dude, thank you for replacing that ink cartridge."
But the Orphan had gotten to me the way Josh never had, entering me like he seemed to enter every point of his journey—gently nudging aside the Not Allowed and Forbidden and Stop here! signs, just because he wanted to, or because the signs were written in a language he couldn't read, so he just kept going.
♥ "I'm just thinking about how I never wanted to have sex with my husband. Especially after we had kids."
"That's common, no? I know married couples who don't fuck at all."
But that's the thing! See, Josh and I kept doing it. At least once a week... It was like another chore. Toward the end, we were fighting all the time. There was no affection left between us, so the fact that we were still "doing it" because an important reassurance that we still had a marriage. Josh used to say, 'You're nothing but a shitty roommate. If you left tomorrow, I'd hire a cleaning lady and a nanny for the kids, and it would be cheaper and more efficient than keeping you around.' But as long as we had sex, we were more than just roommates. Except there was something that I just couldn't figure out, and it kept bugging me. Where was the difference between what I was doing and prostitution? I mean, if you have sex for reasons other than just wanting to, if you do it in exchange—for saving a marriage, or for a respite from fighting—doesn't that make you a whore?"
♥ "Come, Lena, I'll teach you to make Borscht! Or how will you survive in the world? You don't want to end up like aunt Inna!"
Don't teach me how to make Borscht, mom! Teach me how to resign my membership in the "fair sex".
♥ "What you don't know is that I kept seeing him for two years after I told all my friends that I'd broken up with him."
"Oh Yvonne! I had no idea!"
"All the while, he kept sleeping with undergrads. But I felt something so... special with him, I didn't care who else he was fucking as long as he made time for me."
"That's exactly how I feel, too. I wouldn't care if the Orphan had another woman..."
"But it wasn't."
"It wasn't special. It was all in my head. I was feeling on top of the world, I was making a new start. I was ready for something great to happen. Professor Undergrad-Noodler just happened to be there at the right time. I felt as if he taught me everything about love and sex but in fact he was rather passive. It was all me. I needed a great love, and I made it happen."
"The thing with Alik may have been like that, but how the Orphan made me feel was unexpected and real. I wasn't even attracted to him at first. I'm not Leo Finkle!"
"I know that me telling this to you now is useless. It's like telling the dude with the albatross around his neck, 'Hey, there were no slimy creatures and no death ship! You were just dehydrated.' You don't have to believe me. But try to stay away from the Orphan."
♥ The only thing Yvonne would have said was something I could have asked myself: "You got involved with a 46-year-old man who'd never had a relationship that lasted longer than five months. What did you expect?"
I guess I just... wasn't doing any expecting.
I used to be an expert at looking ahead. An addict of looking ahead. Calculating the future had been a reassuring compulsion when I was unhappy:
1993 - "As soon as I get my green-card..."
2000 - "After we move to New York..."
2010 - "As soon as Josh gives me the divorce..."
The future had always looked better than the present, until the Orphan, who made me feel as if the future had finally showed up!
Happiness distracted me from statistics.* I thought no more about the Orphan's picture frame of ex-girlfriends than I did about the other stuff he kept piled in that corner—an air nailer, some sheets of plexiglass, blocks of insulation foam... When the Orphan spoke of them, it took me no time to set myself apart. I thought I was different for a million little reasons: I was younger; I was the Orphan's first immigrant; my name didn't end in a diminutive "Y"... But mostly I was different because these women were just sentences in the Orphan's story, while I was present—naked, breathing, and—haha!—so damn brave—in the room with him. Even now, after I got dumped, the Orphan's record didn't offer a true explanation.
The whole thing was a little like being run over at the Murder Intersection. The Murder Intersection was a place near my building where a parkway became an expressway and also crossed a major street. A pedestrian died every few months at the Murder Intersection, and while it remained an official crosswalk, community activists often stood on its corners distributing fliers. The fliers warned the people in Bengali, Polish, Russian, Spanish, Kreyol, and English, that if they wished to avoid death, they should use an overpass two blocks away... People crumpled and tossed the fliers—they had things to do on the other side and couldn't be bothered with the detour. And when one of them got run over, the obvious answer to "Why" was "Because she crossed at the Murder Intersection."
But this statistical explanation did nothing for people who knew the victim. Their "Why?" was more of a "How?" Was playing with her phone and didn't see the van rushing to turn left after the light had turned red? Was the driver late to his kid's parent-teacher conference? Or sleepy? Or texting? Did she jaywalk? Did she run to beat the light? Did she trip because her shopping car wheel got stuck again? Would she still be alive if she got a new shopping cart?
*I'd never thought I could ignore statistics, be guided entirely by emotion, like those people who cancel travel plans in the wake of a random air disaster... To be like that was exciting to me.
♥ I was an emotional assimilationist. I couldn't wrap my mind around intimacy as sport. The more I thought about it, the less I understood.
♥ On my way to the pharmacy, I thought about what it would be like to write about the Orphan:
A class story - a rich man-child breaks the heart of a hardscrabble Brooklyn mother... Blech! Write that and die of boredom! The second most obvious take is something like Stephen King's Misery—an injured man, a creepy, obsessed woman... The third possibility is to go Nabokovian on the intimate minutiae. To put all my love into the precision of saying exactly what I loved. His smell and his sound and his dick and his reading glasses and his kneecaps and... But readers are people, and most people don't like women. If the subject is a man and the narrator is a woman, Nabokovian sensual forensics are sure to kick a story back into the second category—creepy. Or worse, get it pink-handcuffed and deported to the dreadful erotica ghetto!
♥ We did touristy things for most of our stay in Moscow. Finally, on our last day, I took the kids to see my old neighborhood, an hour and a half away from the Kremlin and the museums.
It was disorienting to be looking at these tower blocks with the Orphan's screwdriver stuck in my heart, and although not surprising, it was disorienting that a place so essential to me held so little meaning to my most essential people. And it was strange and sad, but also freeing, to feel that I really had no reason to come back here again.
♥ I'd never met Mike, but I'd heard a lot about him. When Mike was just out of college, and Yvonne was in high school, he'd been her social studies teacher. He'd started a Mexican-American program in her grade, which Yvonne credited with saving her life and sending her to college. She'd kept up with Mike through the years and through his two wives. Mike was, to Yvonne, what Alik had been to me...
What did it mean, to marry one's Alik, a creature that was half man, half nostalgia?... Or maybe, he was the only man for her, since she's loved him since before she really knew the rules of the war?