Book Review: Good Citizens Need Not Fear by Maria Reva
Anything can happen in the wonderfully weird Ukraine of this short story collection
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Sept. 4, 2020
Once you cross the threshold of 1933 Ivansk Street, the setting for several of the stories in the collection Good Citizens Need Not Fear, you're in a building that does not exist. Not because it's a fictional location, mind you, but because this 10-story apartment tower in Kirovka, Ukraine, was never documented when it was built – it having been built only after the two other apartment towers on the block were finished with enough materials leftover to throw up a third – so, as far as the state is concerned, no record of a building, no building. And thus, as one resident at 1933 Ivansk is told by a bespectacled, by-the-book bureaucrat in the town council hall, no reason to respond to complaints about the heating in a nonexistent tower at a nonexistent address.
This bit of governmental mulishness nicely sets the tone of perverse absurdity in Maria Reva's tales of life in Ukraine, where either the Soviet state goes to insane extremes to control you or the post-Soviet "free market" demands the most outlandish goods and services and makes you supply them. It also sets up that Schrödinger's apartment building – existing while not existing – as a kind of twilight zone, where the ordinary resides with the mysterious and bizarre: One woman's side hustle is copying banned vinyl records from the West onto X-ray scans, including those of her neighbor, who has a brain tumor; a dead grandson leaves his grandparents a live Madagascar hissing cockroach that's encrusted with gems and meant to be worn as a brooch; the guard to a saint's tomb believes the mummified saint's teeth have come alive to punish him for knocking them out of the dead man's mouth. As the residents of 1933 Ivansk accept such strangeness in their lives, so do we. Anything can happen in this wonderfully weird place, this singular world that Reva has conjured.
The nine tales spin their own separate stories, each complete in itself, but Reva has linked them into a daisy-chain narrative through their characters: Zaya, first seen as a 4-year-old orphan with a cleft lip who makes her escape from a monastery-turned-orphanage in "Little Rabbit," reappears in "Miss USSR" as a surly teen conscripted into impersonating a beauty pageant contestant. The defiant poet who refuses to pen an apology to the state for telling an improper joke resurfaces later as the enterprising creator of Kirovka's beauty pageant (and the Henry Higgins to Zaya's Eliza) and still later as the entrepreneur who turns an empty storefront in 1933 Ivansk into a tourist attraction with a mummified saint. Even the saint shows up more than once: Before he's placed on display in an old deli case at the apartment building that doesn't exist (and his teeth terrify the man guarding him there), he's seen being liberated from his original tomb at the monastery by young Zaya, who pulls him behind her as she slips through the fence and bolts for the forest.
But escape is a relative thing in Reva's Ukraine. Zaya ends up returning to that internat as a 19-year-old, after it's been converted into a post-Soviet travel package locale where wealthy clients pay to be treated like abandoned children in the orphanage it once was, and Zaya role-plays the domineering caretaker. In this and the collection's other stories, no one is able to truly get away from the oppression or madness around them; wherever they go, they just encounter a different form of it. That's a constant here: The world changes, but its strangeness remains. However, so does the people's ability to adapt. Reva never has her characters surrendering to the mysteries or terrors thrown at them. They find a way to change in the changed world. So whether they're confronted with the iron fist of the state, bureaucratic inanity, abandonment, cancer, bejeweled roaches, menacing teeth, the collapse of a government, or the collapse of a building that doesn't exist, the people go on.
That's an underlying note of hopefulness in the crazed, controlling place that Reva has created here. Perhaps the book's title, which at the outset suggests the coded threat of an authoritarian regime, ultimately bears a message of honest reassurance. Whatever is coming, you can adjust to it. Good citizens need not fear ...
Good Citizens Need Not Fearby Maria Reva
Doubleday, 224 pp., $25.95