Say What You Mean

‘A Terrible Country’

The first issue of the literary journal n+1 began, in 2004, with these words: “We are living in an era of demented self-censorship.” I have often wondered why this sentence should have struck me at the time, and still today, with such force. In one sense, the sentence seems obviously false, for the censored truths that the n+1 editors—speaking, as they often did then, as a kind of shadowy collective—went on to outline (the Iraq War was a massacre; the occupation of the West Bank an undeclared war; liberalism could function as an invisible prison) were ones that millions of us had marched for, had taught or been taught, had reduced to chants and hollered in city squares. Some of my friends, God bless them, did more than march. And yet the sentence mattered greatly to me; it named something real.

In the post-9/11 moment, you could, if you had some level of privilege (white skin, a college education), say the excruciatingly obvious without too much risk to life and limb. You had to be careful in smaller towns, of course, or around drunk soldiers (though it’s striking how often the most cogent critiques of U.S. imperialism come from those made to risk death implementing it). But the manifest stupidity of the Iraq War was denied so loudly, with such foot-stamping impatience and childish petulance, such brazenness in the face of undeniable evidence, by so many influential people, that you could never get beyond screaming that two plus two equaled four. Perhaps you were doing it wrong? Perhaps they’d be convinced if you threw in the words “Shia” and “Sunni” more often, or proposed sending more troops to that “good” war in Afghanistan (even if you didn’t really believe this)? Something had to work. Thus conversation, the unfolding of ideas in an atmosphere of mutual good faith, seemed to die; even when you were among the like-minded, all you could do was vent, or moot new and equally futile communication strategies. Keith Gessen, one of n+1’s founding editors, had written in that first issue, “It is time to say what you mean.” But in the emergency of the early aughts, “what you mean” constantly threatened to morph into something else under the pressure of trying to make yourself heard by those you needed to persuade.

And in the meantime, there was plenty of actual self-censorship. Everybody from that era knows somebody who lost friends or a job for speaking up, and keeping silent was treated as evidence of wisdom. Our aging national conscience, Johnny Cash, refused to say what he thought when asked about the war. In any other period this would have seemed an act of cowardice, but in 2003 and 2004, it merely added to Cash’s aura of unimpeachability. The national discourse about the war was itself like one of our imperial wars, a quagmire best avoided.

A lovely novel, telling a complex tale, and expressing as it does so an actual human personality.

The n+1 founders, in their opening salvo, named another, more insidious form of self-censorship: the tendency not to publish, or even attempt, writing that said anything “in a complex way, at some length, expressing…an actual human personality.” Here they took aim at the phenomenon that we refer to with the dumb phrase “dumbing-down”—the suppression of complexity and beauty and even simple accuracy from the cultural conversation in the names of Joe and Jane Sixpack. The n+1 group opposed this at least as stoutly as they did the Bush administration. (Marilynne Robinson and Geoffrey Hill were making similar critiques, from completely different angles.) As a result, the magazine suffered, in its early years, from that odd and pervasive form of backlash in which a writer’s belief in the reader’s intelligence is taken by some readers, for no reason in the world, as proof that the writer thinks she’s smarter than they are. The magazine also faced the more justified criticism that it was largely written and produced by white male Ivy League graduates. No one then anticipated that the founders would respond to success by turning the magazine over to a cadre of brilliant women, who, in turn, promptly reshaped it into the world’s least boring journal of feminist theory.

No one, in fact, would have anticipated much of anything about n+1’s actual trajectory in 2004. Swift cancellation seemed its likeliest fate. But the “n+1 writers”—a more or less stable and identifiable group, consisting in the first instance of cofounders Benjamin Kunkel, Mark Greif, Marco Roth, Alison Lorentzen, Chad Harbach, and Gessen, and broadening to include Elif Batuman, Caleb Crain, Dayna Tortorici, Emily Witt, Rebecca Schiff, and Kristin Dombek among others—generated excitement, even if it was merely the excitement of envy or hatred. They gave the appearance of being, in a general way, up to something. But what? Reviewers turned to Kunkel’s 2005 novel Indecision, the first book published by one of the original n+1 Five, to see whether these cultured ironists would finally say what they meant. Most reviewers were bemused to find that Kunkel resolved the internal struggle of his hero, Dwight Wilmerding, by having him become…a socialist. In 2005, fifteen-odd years after the End of History, this landed very oddly, and some readers thought Kunkel was joking. A 2006 n+1 piece confirmed that he wasn’t. Titled “Gut-Level Legislation, or, Redistribution,” and written by Greif, it acknowledged the pressure the new magazine faced to toe an editorial line—Greif wrote of “detractors” who “demanded to know What and Wherefore and Whether and How.” His answer to these detractors was, as he himself parenthetically acknowledged, a long and highly entertaining restatement of Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man Under Socialism. To declare oneself pro-socialism in that moment was so odd that even Greif had to label the magazine’s own position a form of “political surrealism.” It was as though they had promised us a glimpse at the human being of the distant future, and presented us with Piltdown Man.

 

Now, all these mostly terrible years later, comes Keith Gessen’s second novel, A Terrible Country, which involves among other things the socialist awakening of its main character. That this no longer feels like a joke or a provocation is due to many things that have happened between 2006 and 2018: to the financial crisis and the ensuing Great Recession; to President Barack Obama’s decision to stand between the banksters and the torch-wielding mob rather than at the mob’s head; to the Occupy movement; to Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, and the resurgence of the DSA in this country; to the Movement for Black Lives; to Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But n+1 played its role. And Gessen, the writer often singled out in the early years as the group’s preppiest, has written a smart and moving novel about what it means to commit to a shared political vision.

Mostly it means failure. But Andrei Kaplan, Gessen’s hero, is used to failure by the time he hooks up with a bravely retro group of Russian post-Soviet Communists in the 2008 of this novel. Having finished a PhD in Russian literature at the worst possible world-historical moment, Andrei moves across the world to Moscow to take care of his ailing grandmother, partly in hopes of using her memories to write an academic article. No dice: she is senile. (Gessen is very convincing on the poignant tedium of caring for an elderly relative, the guilt and the repetitive routines, the fraying tempers and little blow-ups.) So instead Andrei plays hockey, broods about his ex, avoids gangsters, gets lost in the impossibly large city. For money, Andrei teaches online courses for his old university. (Gessen, like Balzac, always tells us how much stuff costs—one of his n+1 essays calculates exactly how much a novelist needs to live in New York for a year). Andrei tries to meet women, and mostly fails. He sits in coffeehouses and sometimes goes days without talking to anyone but his grandmother. For about its first half, A Terrible Country believably captures the lostness of the young American who goes halfway around the world to escape boredom, only to find more boredom waiting for him.

Then, at a party, Andrei meets Yulia, who invites him to speak to her socialist cell about the perils of graduate study in an age of neoliberalism. Yulia is beautiful, so he obliges. Gessen then reproduces in full—two pages—the speech of the meeting’s second speaker, and, in context, it makes so much sense of Andrei’s Russian experiences that the novel momentarily becomes its own interpreter. It is a quintessential n+1 burst of sincerity amid nicely wrought ironies. “[T]here is a dictator,” announces the speaker, “that is as tough as Stalin and as brutal as Stalin but is also more acceptable than Stalin, more popular than Stalin ever was. It’s called the market.” Andrei buys it. He becomes a committed activist, and remains one up until the novel’s clever and convincing ending, in which he makes an entirely sincere, totally honest, utterly fateful mistake.

A Terrible Country is a lovely novel, telling a complex tale, and expressing as it does so an actual human personality. But time moves fast these days, and 2008 feels like a lifetime ago. Contemporary readers may scratch their heads. What can they learn from a story set in a country where the market is god, the guy in charge is a crude thug, the official resistance is deeply implicated in the problems that created the conditions for the thug’s rise, and the unofficial resistance is brave but utterly overwhelmed? Who can relate to a hero who is constantly asking himself whether he’s in 1933 Germany or just 1932 Germany, who is forced to weigh the necessity of revolution against the very real moral claims of everyday life? A lovely novel, but surely far removed from our reality. If only Gessen would say what he means.

 

A Terrible Country
Keith Gessen
Viking, $26, 352 pp.

Published in the November 9, 2018 issue: 

Phil Christman is a writer living in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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