Keith Gessen’s second novel is a very funny, perceptive, exasperated, loving and timely portrait of a country that its author clearly knows well ... Andrei relates the comic indignities of his new life with winning, informal candour. His fluent Russian and obligations to his grandmother draw him into corners of the vast city that outsiders never penetrate. He plays ice hockey matches in Moscow’s interminable suburbs, tries to get a date, is forced to rely on the fragmenting healthcare system, and meets young, broke Russians making their lives in a ruthless city that worships wealth and power. He surprises himself by disliking the well-off Russian liberals he meets at their informal headquarters, the cafe Jean-Jacques ... The refreshingly artless writing belies a deep understanding of Russia, its history and literature. Andrei digresses enlighteningly on Russian as a literary language, swearing, taxis, plumbing, ice hockey and the role played by global oil prices in the breakup of the Soviet Union ... A Terrible Country captures a moment when high oil prices, economic confidence and a strong rouble made Moscow appear even more intimidating than usual to outsiders.
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.
When Andrei does tell us something we didn’t know, sometimes it’s hard to feel that we need to ... Andrei offers plenty of self-deprecation, but we aren’t given much reason to assume this is parody ... As Andrei settles down [into life in Russia], however, his story not only improves but gains significant distinction and shape. We get incisive observations about the country ... as well as instances of good writing, period ... There’s also a laser-true and very funny set piece about Russian men and their dexterity at turning sexual profanities into verbs ... In this section, Gessen’s book feels like one of recent literature’s most accurate portrayals of modern Russia, which is to say I was miserable for hours after reading it. But moved, too, for Andrei also sees the magic of the place ... The openhearted charm that takes over the story here — the marvel and heartbreak of someone who can’t quite believe he’s so attached to a place that can be so dehumanizing and abusive — makes you forget every redundancy and frivolity of the early going ... There’s enough heart here to redeem every recent male novel that’s aimed for it and found solipsism instead ... I don’t know if A Terrible Country is good fiction, but you won’t read a more observant book about the country that has now been America’s bedeviling foil for almost a century.
... [an] excellent new novel ... [A Terrible Country] inspires us to reflect on the indelible stamp that each historical era leaves on its survivors; the harrowing or amusing complexities of migration and repatriation; the challenge of understanding—and functioning in—a foreign culture; the dangers of assuming that one does understand that culture; and the relative merits of beneficent socialism, Communist dictatorship, and cowboy capitalism-gone-rogue. At the same time the novel’s narrative voice is so conversational, so laid-back and low-key, that it may take the reader a while to register the scope and ambition of Gessen’s project: how much he attempts and accomplishes ... Rescue comes via a less-than-persuasive plot turn, challenging us to believe that even the ferociously competitive academic job market is susceptible to near-miraculous intervention. But no matter. The book has already given us so much that we’re willing to go along with whatever it takes to dismantle the wall that Andrei’s career had hit ... In its breadth and depth, its sweep, its ability to move us and to philosophize without being boring, its capaciousness and even its embrace of the barely plausible and excessive, A Terrible Country is a smart, enjoyable, modern take on what we think of, admiringly, as 'the Russian novel'—in this case, a Russian novel that only an American could have written.
To most ordinary Russians, the fact that the liberal opposition is dominated by people who have one foot in the West is an accepted reality. Yet where the New York Times and the Economist see only courageous truth-tellers defending their compatriots against ever-encroaching despotism, A Terrible Country stands out for being as critical of Russia’s liberal opposition and its Western cheerleaders as it is of the Putin regime. The fact that this remains a refreshing—even shocking—perspective testifies to the depressing state of most American scholarship and reporting on Russia ... The biggest threat to freedom, he [the protagonist] soon realizes, is not Putin but capitalism; Russia’s unabashed social Darwinism is revealed as the apotheosis rather than the perversion of Western values ... Gessen’s unadorned prose comes into its own, revealing an emotional depth absent from his previous novel ... ‘The new epoch we are finally entering,’ Kirill Medvedev writes, ‘is defined by the fact that the USSR can no longer help anyone. You can no longer use it positively or negatively … The only thing to do now is live without it.’ That is easier said than done. But as Gessen’s lighthearted yet morally serious novel shows, some young(ish) people—on both sides of the old iron curtain—are giving it their best shot.
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.
Gessen creates terrific opportunities for Andrei to discover Russia and employs 'outsider humor' to great effect. Andrei struggles with the language, with disastrous attempts at joining local hockey teams, with the chaos and danger of Russian nightlife, and, most importantly, in his attempts at finding companionship. He is his own foil, a character we genuinely feel for and identify with ... Gessen, for his part, does a remarkable job of showing us the fault in Andrei’s plan. The last third of the novel is a testament to what it means to try to belong. Andrei finds out that belonging cannot be superficial, that it’s a dynamic, relational process involving more than just the needs of the person who wants in. Andrei, despite his best intentions, cannot change his identity, nor the identity of the country he desperately tries to assimilate into. It is a heartbreaking epiphany, which Gessen builds out masterfully ... With its humor, empathic characterization, and great timing, this book is a hell of an important read.
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.
The conflict in A Terrible Country is both political and spiritual ... I wish I could say these questions held much suspense, but from the outset the style of the novel gives away the game. Mr. Gessen continues in that depressing trend among American writers for diaristic first-person accounts favoring banal verisimilitude over drama and imaginative reach ... Having prepared the ingredients for an epic, Mr. Gessen has fashioned another work of narrow confessional realism that trucks in mundane observations and rueful ironies—something that feels, unfortunately, very American indeed.
Andrei’s observations, though amusing, rely much too heavily on cliche ... His political observations are similarly surface level; he gives us Russia of the international headlines, whose economic success is presided over by an oligarchy ... I found the political narrative at the heart of this novel surprisingly naive given the author’s background, but in the last 30 pages it transforms into an engaging dilemma of an academic who becomes intimate with his subjects, to their detriment. Inordinately gracious, they send word that they don’t blame Andrei for what happened and let him keep his conscience unscathed: 'We knew what we were getting into.'
Gessen’s view of the economy of academia, especially when it comes to the study of Russia, is startlingly recognizable: He understands how unequally the profits of speaking on behalf of Russians are distributed, and how rarely Russians themselves end up the beneficiaries ... Far more self-aware about class and gender, A Terrible Country avoids many of [the problems of his previous novel] ... That Gessen has become much less willing to let intellectuals off the hook makes A Terrible Country not only more appealing as a work of fiction but also more effective as a work of social criticism. Where All the Sad Young Literary Men ended on a cloying note of domestic bliss, A Terrible Country refuses such easy and individualized solutions.
Like his protagonist, [Gessen] moved to the United States from Russia as a child. His first novel in 10 years is a compassionate, soulful read that avoids dourness by being surprisingly funny. [A Terrible Country] shows us that while you certainly can go home again, it often turns out to be a lousy idea.
A Terrible Country brilliantly captures the daily rhythms, allures and challenges of Moscow life in 2008-2009. It’s as personable a book as it is political ... Gessen’s portrayal of her islands of lucidity — the way she consistently beats her grandson at anagrams, for instance — and the areas where the whole scaffolding of her mind is dissolving is all too believable ... The poignant glory of the novel is in its details ... Gessen immerses you so intimately in the fabric of Andrei’s life with her that when History with a capital 'H' comes knocking at the door ... It’s a measure of Gessen’s subtlety and empathy as a writer that the tight bond between the brothers never comes into question, despite their chasm-wide differences ... A Terrible Country is wily, seductive and deeply affecting. Its hybrid narrator — half insider, half outsider — sheds light on a society ... It’s a great book with a great heart — and a whole heap of rueful regret — at the core of it.
The only wholly created character, loved and seen and wondered about, made vivid again and again, is the grandmother. Though we are always in Andrei’s head, he remains an enigma, neither likable or unlikable, and his friends and brother most often seem constructed but not created ... The novel’s best, sturdiest theme is that life is, if not attractive, then at least possible in that Terrible Country of Russia.
[This] hilarious, heartbreaking second novel, A Terrible Country, may be one of the best books you’ll read this year ... One of the pleasures of the novel is listening to Andrei’s hyper-intelligent, wry and ironic voice. At times he can be petty and arrogant, self-righteous and ingratiating, not to mention slightly clueless about women ... The other unforgettable character is Andrei’s grandmother, an indomitable force of nature. Gessen’s portrait of her is tender, and readers will be hard-pressed to find a more nuanced and poignant depiction of what it means to lose your memory ... Gessen’s genius is in showing us how and why Russia is and isn’t a terrible country. And how, in its ruthless devotion to market capitalism, the former socialist state bears a striking resemblance to our own.
Gessen is not much of a stylist here; his colloquial approach ranges from appealingly informal to sloppy, and phrases are repeated almost verbatim, without the necessary emphasis ... He’s never as fleshed out as he should be, but then, his wry observations...are completely engrossing. It’s portraiture ...A Terrible Country is a splendid guidebook disguised as a decent novel.
Given the news cycle over the last 18 months, the fact that A Terrible Country takes place in Russia might make some people hesitant to read another word about that country, lest unpleasant thoughts intrude upon their summer idylls. But it would be a shame if anyone avoided Keith Gessen’s perceptive and entertaining new novel, because what he has to say is very much worth reading ... Despite dealing with some very literary subject matter, A Terrible Country does not take itself quite so seriously, which makes for a much better story and a much better read.
A Terrible Country is set during the financial crisis of 2008, but Gessen's writing of Russia's political situation is no less vital than if it were set today. The authoritarian character of Vladimir Putin and his regime is always on Andrei's mind. In the beginning of the book, he knows it is there but struggles to see it ... a contemplative and compassionate novel about what it means to return to a place that is no longer home, and a fiercely political book about what oppressive regimes do to societies. There are few writers that do either as well as Gessen does both.
A Terrible Country is decidedly well-timed, arriving at a moment when complex, critical stories that connect Russia and the United States are in short supply ... Gessen is careful never to reduce any group of people to a caricature ... Despite the seeming intensity and sobriety of the debates that suffuse the novel—neoliberalism, aging relatives, careerist Westerners—A Terrible Country is filled with moments of levity. It never takes its subjects, even the ones it presents as heroes, too seriously ... Gessen’s novel, peppered with references to Russian literature throughout, is both an homage to the great writers of his home country and a sad reflection on how little value they command in a market driven society ... Tolstoy, who by the end of his life opposed private property, renounced the copyright to his literary works, and started a school for peasants, would probably like it.
His encounters with the locals are mostly hilarious and vividly observed, threaded with the types of details that foreigners see as bizarre and Russians tend to ignore as routine. Less convincing are the detours into politics and the treatment of Vladimir Putin, whose regime sweeps into the story at various points like inclement weather. Still, at a time when so many Americans seem obsessed with Russia and Putin, the book is a blessing. It takes care to deflate the most typical Western clichés about Russia, its people and their government, and it shows Moscow as a place with plenty of heart, even if accessing it involves the discomfort of penetrating the city’s veneer of meanness.
At times, A Terrible Country reads like non-fiction, especially when it veers into polemic ... Andrei’s views on Putin’s Russia are refreshing and accessible, as they’re articulated in Gessen’s precise, unornamented prose, but it’s the details about his Russian characters’ lives that really stick in the mind ... A Terrible Country tells the reader a lot about contemporary Russia and, importantly, lifts the lid on domestic political resistance to Putin. But what makes this a moving and thought-provoking novel is Andrei’s personal struggle to find his way in the world, his sense of obligation to his family and his realization that his parents’ emigration—the very thing that has afforded him opportunities—was 'the great tragedy of my grandmother’s life.'
Sentence structures are not simply sentence structures, of course—they are miniature philosophies ... Likewise, Keith Gessen’s signature sentence structure—'not X, but also not not X'—suggests an entire worldview. It is a universe of in-betweenness, in which the most basic facts of life, the things we absolutely expect to understand, spill and scatter like toast crumbs into the gaps between the floorboards ... Gessen’s new novel, A Terrible Country, [is] the story of a 30-something American man who goes to Russia to care for his elderly grandmother. He falls into the gaps between huge concepts: youth and age, purpose and purposelessness, progress and stasis. He is not Russian but also not not Russian, not smart but also not not smart, not heroic but also not not heroic. Such is the way of the world.
With a realistic approach that nods to William Dean Howells and Tolstoy in equal measure, and like the fiction of his n+1 cohorts Chad Harbach and Benjamin Kunkel, Gessen presents a measured, socially engaged novel that is moving, often funny, and deeply thought-provoking.
[An] exceptional and trenchant novel ... While poised to critique Putin’s Russia, this sharp, stellar novel becomes, by virtue of [the protagonist's] ultimate self-interest, a subtle and incisive indictment of the American character.
Gessen’s prose is generally unembellished and lends itself to deadpan humor, though it can be repetitious. The plain style does suit the muted action of [the protagonist's] mostly mundane existence, and understatement helps to highlight the real hardship and peril that other lives confront ... The themes are timely and engaging, and Moscow-born Gessen displays an affecting sympathy for the smaller players on history’s stage.