The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol
261 pages. W. W. Norton & Company. $24.95.
review by Erica Wagner
“Listen,” says Tomás to his daughter, Daniela. “I know what you wrote.” Tomás is an academic, a Czech, who got out of Prague before the fall of communism, along with his wife, Katka, and baby Daniela. Now, he’s teaching at a two-bit college in Maine, divorced from Katka when their little girl was only two, and nearly estranged from his grown daughter, now a playwright. As “The Quietest Man” begins, Daniela has sold her very first play—and her father, the tale’s narrator, is determined to use her good fortune to reconnect with her. But the manner in which he does so has an eerie resonance with the interrogations he himself suffered back in Prague; it’s as if he feels a kind of nostalgia for the bad old days. How was he to know that communism would collapse “and the work I’d dedicated my life to would be done?”
The UnAmericans who people this set of stories find themselves in Prague, in Belarus, in Tel Aviv—and in the postwar United States, when the House Un-American Activities Committee persecuted suspected communists. Nearly every character in this collection is a person of divided allegiance—immigrants, or children and grandchildren of immigrants, who find themselves between cultures, whatever those cultures may be. This is Antopol’s debut—she was recently a recipient of the “5 Under 35 Award” from the National Book Foundation — and yet she crafts her work with striking emotional maturity and with a compelling breadth of imagination.
In the opening story, “The Old World,” Howard Siegel runs a small New York City chain of dry cleaners and still works behind the counter in one of them, which is where he meets Sveta, a Ukrainian with a pinstriped skirt that needs cleaning. His wife left him four months before; and before long, well, Howard and Sveta are married. It’s a late-blooming, unexpected romance—and they head off for their honeymoon in Ukraine. Howard’s forebears are Ukrainian, and, as she tells him: “I know your life in U.S. I want my husband to know place that make me.”
But how we can ever know each other truly is the dark undercurrent that runs beneath this story, as it runs beneath many of the fractured or difficult relationships that mark human interaction in Antopol’s world. In “My Grandmother Tells Me This Story,” the grandmother, Raya, is the narrator—though the title has an elegant, filtering effect, as the story is told to “you,” the grand-daughter—recounting her escape from the old world to the new. She is only 13 when she escapes from oppression through a series of sewer tunnels which run “from Poland to Belarus to Lithuania,” and meets the girl’s grandfather in the process. Specifics of time and place are kept to a minimum here, as they often are in family stories; the vivid and terrifying world of a young girl’s flight is countered with the narrator’s awareness of just what kind of story the grand-daughter wants to hear. “This is the part of the story where I know you want to hear how we fell in love.” But it’s not that simple: and when Raya says that in the filth and cold of a life lived on the run in the forest, she had become “a creature from the forests of a fairy tale,” it’s the dark truth of the ancient stories she has in mind, not their sanitized modern versions. The grandmother resists the story even as she tells it, wondering why her grand-daughter wants to hear of the “ugly things that have nothing to do with you.”
Because those ugly things affect us all, is the answer we get from Antopol’s work, for all each story is shot through with a dry, appealing wit. In “Minor Heroics,” Oren saves his brother Asaaf after the latter is very badly injured in a farming accident—having escaped intact from the Israeli army—but his rescue doesn’t heal their relationship. In “Duck and Cover,” Judy tries to live the ordinary life of a teenage girl—having a crush on a boy, making out with him—while communists, like her father, are being hunted down, and people are building nuclear fallout shelters in their backyards. One of the most affecting and complex stories is “A Difficult Phase,” in which a young woman, Talia, trying to make her way in journalism in Tel Aviv, falls for an older man, Tomer, whose wife has died in a tragic skiing accident, leaving him to raise their daughter, Gali. This is a story with a true humanity, one where each character who appears seems to have a rounded, believable life, and where the destination of the tale seems far from pre-ordained.
For if Antopol’s book has a weakness, it’s that she sometimes fails to wear her learning lightly. As her Author’s Note acknowledges, there are thoughtfully researched stories; but just occasionally she seems too eager to prove a point, and she will end up treading over what feels like old ground. But Talia’s life in Tel Aviv is beautifully, freshly rendered, from the line for coffee at Café Noah, to Tomer’s awkward advances and Gali’s recalcitrant, 14-year-old charm. This is the kind of story it’s possible to read and wonder whether it might have made a novel: but that is not the weakness of the story, it’s its strength. Short stories, at their best, contain worlds as fully realized as any novel; we simply encounter those worlds in a different form. At the end of the story Talia has “no real words of comfort, no guarantee things would ever get easier”—but that is the readers’ guarantee of a fictional world that offers a fine mirror for our own.
Erica Wagner is an American author and critic, living in London. She is former literary editor of The Times.