Plumbing the Depth of Our Differences

By Michael Paulson '94 / May / June 2002
June 30th, 2007
Leaving Katya by Paul Greenberg '90 (Penguin Putnam, 247 pages, $24.95). Consent by Ben Schrank '91 (Random House, 272 pages, $24.95). Stealing the Ambassador by Sameer Parekh '96 (Free Press, 288 pages, $23).

One of america's oldest national myths is that of the melting pot, brimming with ethnicities, languages, and customs, and happily dissolving our differences. But proximity can breed conflict as well as understanding. Three new novels by Brown authors take on the challenges multiculturalism poses for ordinary citizens - both immigrant and American-born.

In Leaving Katya, Paul Greenberg's protagonist, Daniel, navigates first the newly independent Russia and then the Russian immigrant community in Brooklyn. A recent college graduate on a foreign exchange in St. Petersburg, he engages in an almost painful affair with the enigmatic Katya. Frightened amid the breakup of the Soviet Union, he returns home to New York City, and then impulsively invites Katya to join him. Fleeing real deprivation in Russia, Katya finds herself living an almost-hip brand of poverty familiar to recent college graduates in New York City: she and Daniel share crowded apartments, scrounge for cheap meals, grab sporadic temp jobs. When her visa is due to expire, they marry. Initially a sympathetic character, Daniel takes on the trappings of a slacker (albeit one fluent in Russian). The marriage collapses amid a combination of familial pressures, vaguely ominous Brooklyn Russians, and Katya's infidelity.

Greenberg writes precisely, keenly painting the different worlds through which his characters move. Daniel describes waking up weekdays with Katya in their New York apartment, "bleary from the streetlights shining through the windows in our faces, our heads still ringing from the unruly shouting coming from the crack dealers at the homeless shelter on the

corner. We made coffee without a pot - just a one-piece filter and generic brand coffee held over a cup. When one of us opened the front door to leave, the apartment filled up with the smell of Latin sauces stewed eternally on our neighbor's stove."

Greenberg's portrait of the collision between Russian romanticism and American materialistic fervor rings sharply true, paralleling the failed marriage at the novel's heart. The clash between old and new, East and West, is as threatening at the geopolitical level as it is interpersonally, leaving us to wonder how the United States and Russia will fare in the twenty-first century.

Ben Schrank's new novel, Consent, abruptly begins when Mike Zabusky, a thirtysomething graduate student (his thesis topic: the Golem, a creature of medieval Jewish legend) attends a Manhattan party and winds up having a sexual liaison in the bathroom with a young lawyer, Katherine. Mike's father commits suicide and there are subsequent revelations of shady financial dealings, which spark Mike's investigations into the roots of old family tensions. Meanwhile he's trying to figure out the meaning of his thesis adviser's apparently sinister manipulations. In this context, Mike's affair with Katherine supplies the torturous romantic fulcrum on which the story rests.

Mike moves back and forth between New York City (in a nod to the old school, he resides in a hotel, sinking his graduate fellowship into the accommodations) and his late father's house upstate. Dislocation from the city, both physical and emotional, allows Mike time and distance to reflect on his life. He puzzles over the seemingly interminable path of his studies, which fail to excite him. His relationship with Katherine - which does stir his passion - never achieves comfort. They fling feelings at each other with an intensity sometimes bordering on ferocity, yet always maintain a gulf. With delicate skill Schrank makes us aware of that distance:

" 'I'm sorry,' " she says, 'I didn't mean that.'

" 'Let's take a nap. Let's go upstairs and rest.'

"She flattens her pink shirt over her chest. She takes a step back from me.

" 'You go up,' she says. 'I'll join you in a little while. Right now, I'm going to stay down here and read.' "

In a few short sentences, Schrank conveys the discomfort of this relationship - a large reason for the novel's success in its depiction of a young man struggling to locate his place in an unstable world.

Stealing the Ambassador, an ambitious debut novel by Brown medical student Sameer Parekh, shifts the focus from 1990s New York to India and Newark. Through his Indian-American medical student narrator, Rajiv Kothari, Parekh traces the Kothari family's struggles from pre-independence India to present-day America. In a graceful voice, Rajiv relates the stories of his grandparents, his great-uncle, and, most poignantly, his father, who traveled to America in the 1960s to study engineering in New Jersey and eventually settled there. His encounter with the West is jarring, often painful, yet the dreamy patina of opportunity glosses his experience. We sympathize with the father (his death at the start of the book prompts Rajiv's reflections), striving to achieve a compromise between the inexorable pull of tradition and the siren call of the American Golden Land.

Parekh subtly infuses the story with brief passages about Rajiv's own childhood and undergraduate days as he examines his Indian-American heritage. A good deal of the novel occurs during his trip to India (after the father's cremation), and Parekh vividly and memorably portrays the country's sights and sounds, smells and tastes. He renders characters carefully, weaving them seamlessly into the narrative. What emerges is a complex tale that spans three generations and two radically disparate cultures, adding a new chapter to the immigrant experience in this country and a fresh perspective on American identity.

Michael Paulson teaches English at the Boy's Latin School in Baltimore.
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May / June 2002