Immigration Novel 'Panic in a Suitcase' Unravels the American Dream

In Yelena Akhtiorskaya's clever debut novel, life in the U.S. for the Ukrainian-Jewish immigrant Nasmertov family isn’t exactly the fulfillment of a fantasy.

Natan Dvir

“Panic in a Suitcase,” by Yelena Akhtiorskaya, Riverhead Books, 307 pages, $27.95

At a recent panel discussion in New York featuring debut novelists, Yelena Akhtiorskaya, born in Ukraine and raised in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, expressed concern that her wise and funny first book, “Panic in a Suitcase,” which centers on a Jewish immigrant family from Odessa, would be pigeonholed by editors and publishers as a “Russian novel.”

Most writers (maybe all?) would rather not have their work defined by their country of origin, race or gender. Even Saul Bellow, the progenitor of modern Jewish-American fiction, when asked whether he was a Jewish-American writer said – not so simply – that he was a writer, an American and a Jew (note the order in which he listed these categories). Yet the labels – Jewish writer, black writer, woman writer – are still interesting and useful, at least until the category becomes the whole point.

Yelena Akhtiorskaya, 28, is a Russian-Jewish writer, as are Gary Shteyngart, Lara Vapnyar and David Bezmogzis, but she, like them, is also so much more than that. In “Panic in a Suitcase,” for example, the word “Jew” first appears on page 172, then again on page 218, and only three more times in the entire novel. And there is little here to distinguish her main characters from non-Jewish Russian immigrants in America.

The story, told in the third person, begins in 1993, two years after Esther and Robert Nasmertov, once highly respected Jewish doctors in the Old World, have left the anti-Semitism and genteel poverty of Odessa behind, and settled into a Russian and Ukrainian enclave in Brighton Beach. Their medical practices have diminished radically, and they have health problems of their own. They live with their grown daughter, Marina, a nurse wannabe who cleans houses for wealthy Jews; her husband Levik, an entry-level computer programmer who “works” at home; and their 9-year-old granddaughter, Frida.

Sarah Shatz

The Nasmertovs’ 37-year-old son, Pasha, moderately successful as a poet, but otherwise generally incompetent at ordinary living, remained in Odessa. To coax him to come to America and join the family, Marina informs Pasha that Esther has developed cancer (the truth) and pays her brother’s airfare so that he can visit. The Nasmertovs hope to persuade Pasha to stay, even beginning the process of applying for a residence visa for him. But although he is attracted, indeed mesmerized, by the immaculateness of the many bookstores in Brighton (more than in all of Ukraine), these neat, intellectually stimulating and climate-controlled places can’t quite compensate for the “raging chaos” in other spheres of Russian immigrant life, nor can the custom-made tie shops or the faux-Italian lingerie boutiques. Pasha quickly sours on Brighton Beach.

And no wonder. For although one senses some compassion in Akhtiorskaya’s depiction of Russian-Jewish émigrés in Brighton, her descriptions of life and relationships in the neighborhood, while quite often hilarious, emphasize the superficiality, slovenliness and sadness that suffuse the territory – conditions that she and some of her characters see as a second-rate imitation of Odessa.

Pasha realizes that except for the expat literati (whose social life in Manhattan he enjoys), his countrymen have not really “ventured bravely into a new land,” but instead have nearly replicated “the messy, imperfect original they’d gone through so many hurdles to escape.” They buy, from Russian-owned stores, furniture and other household goods strikingly similar to what they had in Ukraine. They eat the same foods, often in greater quantities, and the women in particular fail to avoid the obesity that plagues their sisters in the “homeland.” Frida, for example, comes to have “jutting globular knees” and a “sumaesque” stance.

Akhtiorskaya has an unfortunate tendency to describe even some of the figures central to her story by their physical traits, neglecting emotional depth in favor of bleak comedy. Esther, for example, gives off a “postmenstrual odor like overripe apricot flesh,” while Robert possesses an “innate shabbiness” and a chin that resembles “a root vegetable that had been partially grated.” The novel is laced with less offensive, funnier humor, but it sometimes limps along without drama or development of either plot or character.

Still, the author appears to have affection for Esther and Frida, and throughout, provides shrewd insights about immigrants as well as universal family dynamics. Here her sharp eye for the absurd serves her well. We find, for example, a hapless Pasha on the beach in the midst of a storm that has a “Slavic temperament,” coming on suddenly with full force, but soon slackening off. Still, it traps the poet in a wild sea. The descriptions of Pasha’s resultant disorientation and the impact of his behavior on his relatives demonstrate the author’s confidence in her powers of observation and imagination. There are other episodes equally entertaining, including an uproarious deconstruction of a literary party worthy of British author David Lodge. “Panic in a Suitcase” may be worth reading for these scenes alone.

Vaporous dream-world

Akhtiorskaya’s protagonists, except for the poets among them, are either seeking a fast-track to the American Dream, or are living the kind of life they have run from only recently – thin, hassled and generally unfulfilling. There is some yearning for an Odessa that never was, and there is, of course, Pasha, who journeys to America but doesn’t stay to permanently reunite with his family.

And it is with Pasha that Akhtiorskaya goes deeper than a surface presentation. We are privy to some of his reflections and get to “know” the reasons for some of his choices. To the consternation of his relatives, Pasha has converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, because he wanted to be “tied to a belief system and other souls.” In that way, he thought, he would have “no choice but to care, to be affected, to be a part” of something rooted and larger, and not always threatened with the real possibility of floating off into some vaporous dream-world.

Esther, too, has her moment of introspection. “Things call out to her in the night. Things? There were no distinctions such as animate/inanimate, living/dead, past/present.” The ordinary instability of family life and quotidian struggles exacerbated by the incomplete transplantation, misunderstandings and miscommunications inherent in immigrant life had gotten things “jumbled into one mass, and at night this tumor of concerns called out to her in its indistinct voice.”

We also get a glimpse of the inner life of Pasha’s friend Misha, an émigré who came to the U.S. “too young for the usual immigrant dance step of struggle and settle, sweat blood for two years, then fall into a respectable career,” and too old “to attempt camouflage.” Misha’s artistic aspirations and pretensions are on full display, as is his continuing infatuation with Pasha’s sister, Marina, and his forlorn hunger to retain his status as Pasha’s “best friend.”

But it is with Frida, a mostly neglected and emotionally confused child that we get as she matures the most profound look into a mind and soul. In the second half of the novel, which takes a 15-year jump to 2008, Frida, now 24, enrolled in what looks like a fly-by-night medical school, suffers a chronic inability to relax, and experiences a devastating loneliness each time she confronts the utter indifference of the universe. After stumbling to adulthood in America, she returns to Odessa to attend her uncle Pasha’s son’s wedding – and in search of lost time. Pursuing the American Dream may once have meant jettisoning the past (even if not entirely); but is the process of acculturation or assimilation necessary if with a mere plane ticket, the past is within reach?

This is a question Akhtiorskaya has in mind, I think, as she brings her novel to a close. Frida, who had emigrated at a young age, imagines her country of birth as part of her identity. Her parents think she has no connection to Russia at all, but she is determined to find one. She knows that Pasha, whose poetry she never read, had become something of a literary lion, based on the work he published (we never get a sample) shortly after his visit to America in 1993 – and she’s aware that his reputation within his American family had taken on fantastic proportions.

Still sullenly unhappy, Frida is not welcomed to Odessa with particular warmth. She also soon discovers that her uncle’s reputation in Ukraine is pretty much in tatters. Pasha’s work of the past half-dozen years or so is never mentioned at poetry readings or parties, and she overhears him referred to as a “royal asshole suffering from a Jesus complex.” Frida realizes with some amazement that Pasha has actually become more alienated and excluded in his native city than his family in their new land.

To the American Nasmertovs, however, it had become clear over time that they would benefit by keeping a relative in Odessa. Watching the households around them in Brighton Beach, they come to see that when an entire family is uprooted and all ties to the motherland cut, “the psychological burden” that follows could only be managed “to the detriment of mental integrity.” So far, however, the Nasmertovs had avoided this burden. Their ace in the hole was that no strangers lived in their Odessa “digs.” The old apartment belonged to Pasha. And Pasha belonged to them. “This sense of retention, of not having exchanged or betrayed but simply enlarged in scope, kept virulent mania at bay.”

Frida tries to find another way. Although her experience in Odessa, at least at the start, consists of variations on a quartet of dreariness, disappointment, despair and disgust, she seems in the end to be contemplating remaining in the city. Odessa’s chaos and its mix of the traditional and the bizarre may be enticing her to make her family’s historic journey in reverse.

Obviously, “Panic in a Suitcase” is not your typical American immigration story, but perhaps it is closer to the truth. It would harm neither the author nor her readers, I think, if the book were shelved under “Immigrant Fiction” or even “Russian Fiction.”

Gerald Sorin, who reviews books frequently for Haaretz, is a professor of American and Jewish studies at the State University of New York, New Paltz. His most recent book, “Howard Fast: Life and Literature in the Left Lane” (Indiana University Press), won a National Jewish Book Award.