OCTOBER 4, 2014
ANYA ULINICH belongs to a small but growing cohort of Russian-Jewish-American writers (think Gary Shteyngart, Lara Vapnyar, Sana Krasikov, Irina Reyn, Boris Fishman), who draw simultaneously on immigrant street cred and erudite literary tradition. Ulinich’s debut novel, Petropolis (now translated into 10 languages), was a coming-of-age immigration tale set between Asbestos 2, Siberia, and New York, USA. Her new book is, in a way, a radical departure — it’s a graphic novel about dating, sex, and self-discovery — but it remains, at the same time, a literary exploration of the immigrant experience.
The medium of graphic storytelling fits Ulinich’s talents like a glove. She was trained as an artist before becoming a writer with a succinct comedic punch. Like Spiegelman’s Maus and Bechdel’s Fun Home, Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel offers a sophisticated self-referential narrative, where the author speaks to us intimately from the pages, both telling the story and involving us in the act of telling. Ulinich juxtaposes hipster irony with raw pain, while citing a polyphony of other voices, from the newspeak of instant messages and official emails to classic Russian literature, from HBO shows to Bernard Malamud. In fact, anyone familiar with 20th-century American literature will recognize Ulinich’s title, and the name of her protagonist, as references to Malamud’s famous short story “A Magic Barrel.” Clearly named after Leo Finkle, a rabbinical student at the center of Malamud’s story, Lena Finkle is a Brooklyn-based writer and a recently divorced mother of two girls. Malamud’s Leo Finkle hires a marriage broker to help him find a wife, while Lena Finkle looks to internet dating in her romantic search. The other thing that Ulinich’s Lena and Malamud’s Leo have in common is that they both experience an existential crisis, throwing into question their callings and their ability to connect emotionally. But unlike Leo, who remains rather passive, Lena is frantically searching for a solution through action, conversation, and merciless self-analysis. Her internal voice becomes another character in the book, visually represented as a kind of a mini-me, a miniature version of Lena who pops up throughout the narrative, providing an argumentative commentary to the protagonist’s deliberations (“You can’t out-passive-aggressive your mother with earnestness,” the mini-me instructs Lena as she is talking on the phone with her mom.) The mini-Lena is a rational, mature foil to the reckless and impulsive protagonist, yet they are the same person. The result is a stereoscopic narrative, where commentary is built into the telling of the story.
Ulinich’s visual style is equally multi-dimensional. When the action takes place in the present, her panels depict sweeping, detailed landscapes, close-ups of faces, and vivid, photorealistic renditions of media — photographs, smartphone screens, book pages, and notes on crumpled napkins. But as the narrative flashes back into Lena Finkle’s early days as an illegal immigrant, or even further back to her Soviet childhood, the panels become more stylized: Lena’s family’s story is told cartoonishly, crudely scribbled on notebook paper. This pictorial switch doesn’t merely clarify the transition between the present and the flashbacks for the reader. It also represents the way memory works. Our recollections are full of cognitive shortcuts: we remember the essence of our experiences, reducing and condensing our pasts down to a set of tellable stories — essentially, stylizing them. Ulinich is aware of this process, and she embraces it in her drawings, which is especially effective when harrowing events are told in caricature.
The novel is funny and deadpan. It opens with the startling statement, “My sexual awakening was entirely the fault of the US State Department.” “Sex” and “State Department”: such juxtapositions highlight Ulinich’s comedic talents, reminiscent of Woody Allen’s quips (“My parents were very old world: their values in life are God and carpeting”). The US Embassy has invited Lena on a book tour to St. Petersburg, where an encounter with her high school flame sets in motion her sexual awakening. Lena’s sexual past is explored in a section of the book entitled The Glorious People’s Sex Education. In a series of panels on spiral-bound notebook paper, Ulinich unveils her character’s sexual history. It starts with the naiveté of a child’s question — “Mommy, where do babies come from?” — grows sinister as 10-year-old Lena becomes prey to a pedophile in her high-rise elevator, then swings back to comical, as a teenage Lena ponders the dangers of masturbation as a “terrible affliction” and takes an uninformative Soviet sex-ed class. Later, her two American marriages rid her of her virginity and net her a green card — but do not dispel the mysteries of love and sex. Lena arrives at her 30s, in her post-married life, still a sexual novice.
Back in leafy Brooklyn, Lena tries to come to terms with her romantic inexperience through online dating. She becomes a self-described “tourist in the country of men.” In a span of three weeks, she dates “a guy who grew up in a cult, a very sad psychotherapist who loves his boat, a hairy librarian, a blind clown, a guy who played a corpse on Law & Order … some guy in Yonkers, … and another L&O corpse.” As she dissects the language of OKCupid profiles and clichés of self-representation, Ulinich gives us a gallery-of-types-cum-comedy-of-manners that amounts to the most incisive satire of online dating in recent popular culture. The best part catalogs the men Lena refuses to date, such as a guy whose profile photo shows him “surrounded by little, poor, mercilessly objectified third world children,” or one posing “in a chainmail helmet … which he had made himself.” Lena Finkle is foremost a writer, and refused to “date anyone whose profile was so overpowered with cliché that it took on a physical manifestation in my mind.” Ulinich illustrates these physical manifestations, showing us a contorted figure of a man who is, literally, “laid back” and “down to earth.”
As she is looking for love, Lena Finkle remains a keen observer of the very process of online dating. “Dates were like deep friendships, filmed in time lapse,” she comments, “One-night stands were like express-marriages, from courtship to dissolution.” Ultimately, this is a book as much about writing as it is about love, and in the combination Ulinich shines. Her prose lives and breathes literature, and literary references become part of the story. Lena’s second novel is a rewrite of Wuthering Heights, except set in the present and featuring terrorists. Thinking through her love life, Lena reaches for Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and we get to read excerpts from it on the pages of the novel, as if through her eyes. Later, as she takes care of an injured lover, Lena thinks back to Chekhov’s short story “The Darling,” recasting it as “a play for children about gender roles.” Philip Roth — clearly Ulinich’s biggest influence — even becomes a character in her novel, when Lena has a nightmare about meeting him on a Greyhound bus. The dream Roth is a curmudgeon who sets her straight, “You are nothing like me! … You’re a perverse hybrid of Alexander Portnoy and his mother!” It is this deranged Roth of her dream that leads her to Malamud’s “A Magic Barrel.”
In Malamud’s story, Leo falls in love with a photograph of a girl named Stella, and hangs his hope of redemption on her. When they eventually meet, Leo is already in love, and the story ends there. Lena Finkle meets her own version of Stella, a man Ulinich calls The Orphan, who looks “like a child and an old man, at once … like Oscar from The Tin Drum.” The Orphan will complete the process of Lena Finkle’s sexual awakening, and then some. Thinking back to this relationship, Lena the writer comments on Malamud’s ending, “violins and lit candles revolved in the sky like in a Disney movie …” with the familiar self-referential irony: “If I were Leo Finkle, or Malamud himself, this would be the end of the story … But since the story is my own, this obfuscating fade out is unavailable to me. I am stuck with what happened after …” What happened after is a steamy love affair, its raw sexuality offset on the pages by cartoon flashbacks into The Orphan’s and Lena’s pasts. Predictably, a love story steeped in so many literary allusions does not end well.
Entire pages of the next chapter, “My Year of Unreasonable Grief (Abridged)” are backgrounded with black. Here Lena Finkle focuses on the mystery of the affair’s abrupt dissolution and on trying to understand The Orphan with a ferocious intensity of an investigator in a criminal trial. As details of The Orphan’s past become revealed, the novel gets a detective-story denouement, even though, paradoxically, Ulinich downplays the importance of factual resolution. As her protagonist concludes, “The ‘why’, and the ‘how’, and the story’s blunt psychological punchline no longer seemed significant.” This commentary on Lena’s last encounter with The Orphan also functions as commentary on the end of the novel. After such highs and lows, it ends, if not mid-sentence, then mid-panel, with end notes scribbled on Post-its, a cartoon on a torn paper, and half-drawn dialogue bubbles, with mini-Lena sitting in the midst of it. “No one ever truly arrives,” she tells Lena Finkle, the writer. “We just nudge each other along muddy ruts of suffering, occasionally peeking over the edges of our ruts in search of a better way.” In response, Lena accuses her mini-me of being “a caricature of a Russian soul,” offsetting pathos with irony. Scattered around the notes are the tools of the writer and illustrator — markers and erasers, pencil and paint — all evidence of as-if yet unfinished work. The love story might be over, but the writer’s work is never done.
This ending exemplifies Ulinich’s meta-narrative approach. She exposes and freely shares the craft of the artist, creating an absorbing world and then removing the fourth wall as she involves readers in her process of storytelling. In Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, with its polyphonic authorial voice and original visual style, Ulinich truly creates a language of her own.
Olga Gershenson has been Jewish in Russia, Russian in Israel, and finally became an academic in the US, where she is Professor of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.