- Of Exile and Anxiety
Mikhail Iossel founded the Summer Literary Seminars program, which used to be housed in St. Petersburg, the former Leningrad of his childhood and young adulthood. I found his book of stories because I was invited to teach there, and I wanted to read his writing to find out more about Russia. The stories in Every Hunter Wants to Know are centered in the Soviet Union until this last one, “Insomnia,” which documents the narrator’s move to Boston after having been denied exit from the USSR for years.
What I recall most clearly about the collection is how Russia is drawn like a member of the family. That to leave the USSR was to leave not just one’s actual family and actual friends, but also a country that digs itself into a person in both a beautiful and painful way. This story made the ideal closing piece for the book because it seemed to address both leavings at once—of people and place. How to find one’s footing outside a country like that? One that has smothered the narrator while also embracing him closely. The motherland. [End Page 84]
When I read “Insomnia” years ago, I felt wrapped in it, the actualness of it. Anxiety. I knew what he was talking about. I had never been in the narrator’s exilelike situation, but I had felt that kind of claustrophobic paralysis. There’s a critical mass of isolation and displacement that builds in the story—in the flat and true statements and in the details: the terror of leaving his apartment, the piranha silently eating in a tank at night, the crowded streets of New York City, of Harvard Square, the unsettling pamphlets, the menacing homeless man, that redeeming roast-beef sandwich.
The story felt, and still feels, so real to me. Something genuine is captured about fear of the new. What’s more, it’s captured messily. The paragraphs are often one sentence long. The details in those sentences are often told, not shown. The statements are sometimes really specific, sometimes not. But it is honest and alive; a reader is right there with the narrator, and no sentence feels false or invented or like it’s hiding. It has the feeling of a diary but it isn’t circular like most diaries—somehow the narration pushes forward, despite the ruminatory quality of the narrator’s worries. I move along with great interest, able to imagine what it would be like to find myself in a new country, surrounded by a new language, away from all loved ones, in a way I have not experienced through reading before. This is a Salinger-style I, who brings us in so close to his experience that he is saying lines like “I called a Russian friend of a good Russian friend of mine from home”—a detail that isn’t necessary, is too much detail if we’re going for only tight-knit crafty choices, but also is exactly what people say and hurls me into that moment.
Sometimes I’m on a panel and the topic is: What is a short story? And we bat around some rules and beliefs about arc and movement and page length and characters changing or not changing. This story doesn’t follow standard ideas of what might make a short story work. The movement is looser and more capacious than many of our super-crafted workshop-style tales. This is a nomadic walk through a man’s experience, from inside out. It wanders, but there’s urgency in the words. Maybe that’s what they mean by immediacy. The words tremble a little, these fresh new words, these English words. [End Page 85]
aimee bender is the author of five books. The most recent, The Color Master, was a New York Times Notable Book of 2013. Her fiction has been translated into sixteen languages.