A Terrible Country is the first novel in ten years from n+1 founding editor Keith Gessen. Faced with dismal academic job prospects and a withering personal life, Andrei leaves New York to spend the summer in Moscow to care for his elderly grandmother (and to collect her tales of Stalinist Russia—a research topic that might finally get him a job).
Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country feels small and tentative in its opening pages ... Gessen is a writer of spare sentences; he’s more of a Chekhov than a Nabokov. There’s little thunder, no off-piste mental excursions, no sense of a writer stropping his razor. His sort of plain writing is difficult to pull off. There is a fine line between elegant simplicity and mere meagerness. As this novel pushes forward, however, Gessen’s patience, his ability to husband his resources, begins to pay off. He introduces character after character—goalies and oilmen and comely academics, the heartbroken, the disinherited and the excluded—each of whom blooms in the mind. Which is another way of saying that this earnest and wistful but serious book gets good, and then it gets very good. Gessen finds an emotional tone for his material. He writes incisively about many things here but especially about, as the old saw has it, how it is easier to fight for your principles than live up to them ... This artful and autumnal novel, published in high summer, is a gift for those who wish to receive it.
Gessen’s second novel, arrives like a cold, welcome wind ... [A Terrible Country] is less a travelogue, or a guide to post-Soviet Russia, than it is a novel about life under neoliberalism—a political ideology that dictates that the market, not the state, rules the citizenry ... [A Terrible Country] is a more mature work, written in pared-down prose noticeably different from the headlong style of the first novel. The sentences are simple and direct, as if subordinate clauses were the stuff of youth. The book is funny, but darkly so—many of the best jokes are about the protagonist’s disappointment in himself and in others ... [A Terrible Country] is not exactly a hopeful book about political protest, but neither it is a fatalistic one. Instead, it suggests what resistance might mean, not as a slogan, but as a life.
Most of the book’s pleasures are traditional ones, welcome reminders of how much an old-fashioned novel can do. It expands the sympathies of its readers, delicately explores the connection between historical experience and the everyday, and offers a picture of a whole social system and what it does to the people who inhabit it ... The personal is political here in a quieter way than in Gessen’s earlier novel ... If the novel contains an implied injunction for readers, it may be simply that we learn to pay closer attention.