Usually when someone tells us there are two types of people in the world they usually paint in broad or humorous stokes, not by observing one type of person sees the world as a series of still moments independent of everything around them while the other sees the movement from one state of being to another. Yet Lara Vapnyar’s story is about this difference in how people see the world, their place in it, and how they remember it.
The main character, Vadik, is someone who believes he can change his surroundings to influence his own experiences and life. He believes living in America will change his life and he’s eager to wander New York and sit at a cafe and read something intellectual as if he’ll become the image he has in his mind of a certain type of person. Yet he’s constantly disappointed, or at least challenged by what reality presents to him. Right away, before the plane lands at JFK, he’s unable to even see the city of his dreams as it’s covered in dense clouds hiding the skyline. Everywhere he looks the world is formless, “gray jellied mass of the ocean, across a foggy Verrazano bridge”, as if it waiting for someone to interpret it.
And Lara Vapnyar does a nice job of never imposing her own beliefs on the story. Yes Vadik is continually challenged by the people he meets as to what reality is all about to them, there is never an instance where we feel Vadik (or anyone else) is wrong to believe what they believe. Vadik’s friends have their own life that they may or may not believe is happiness: is the cemetery near the playground a portent or does it mean nothing at all? We’re never told what to think, though there is a lingering sadness to everything that makes you wonder if there is really only disappointment in everything.
Everything here is open to how the characters interpret the world around them: his friend sings a Leonard Coen song badly, someone is making a Nabakov video game (and I gleefully imagined a 3rd person action/adventure of Pale Fire like EA’s 2010 game, Dante’s Inferno), one of the many salads he could have bought is expired, the cheesecake is “disgustingly sweet”. We’re told “He just wanted to lead the life of an American for a while, whatever that meant”, and later we get the Rime of the Ancient Mariner and with it the many meaning symbol of the albatross (repeated again in the scarf Rachel doesn’t take off). Everyone is making some meaning of their life as best they can.
Ultimately we wind up with Vadik and Rachel and the night they spend together, a night that, according to Vadik’s friend may even have been dreamt, but that leaves us wondering about how if we’re seeing the world in the “right” way or if there even is a “right” way. Vadik remembers this night nostalgically, but how does Rachel remember it? All she’s left with is his note (though all he’s left with is still wet socks). Through her we learn every idea can be challenged, that even the lyrics to our favorite song can be seen by someone else as offensive.
We even go as far as to explore how can we even hope to make someone else happy if we can’t interpret what it is they want. Lara Vapnyar uses The King’s Breakfast to make this point, mirrored when the kid at the beginning gets a stomache ache from the Russian breakfast, and again when Rachel offers him a drink he does like.
We do get some resolution in Vadik’s note to Rachel, “You’re beautiful”, because at least he’s made a decision. He believes she’s beautiful, though what his idea of beauty means is unanswered. He just says she’s beautiful without qualifying it. Is she beautiful because she disagreed with him about everything? Because she took him for a night? Because he liked her runny nose? We never learn, and neither does she. Is she supposed to beleive everything about her is beautiful? What is it Vadik finds beautiful about her? Is it just the idea of her? Like a dream?
There is no resolution to all this, and I doubt there could be, but I was a little disappointed that we never get any sort of change from Vadik. Lara Vapnyar doesn’t really grow her characters and everything at the end is the same as it was at the beginning, but at least we the reader have been given something to think about if we’ve never really considered other people interpret the world differently than we do.
Everything in the story exists in a sort of milky cloud, as if the plane at the beginning never landed, and everything is formless and awaiting interpretation – though the one concrete image we get is everyone on the plane applauding when it landed, itself an odd image that makes you wonder how bad the flight had been, but is the only example where everyone in the story agreed on something.
This story made me think of one of my favorite novels, Alain-Fournier’s ‘Le Grand Meaulnes’, a story with similar ideas. Yet in that novel the characters are disillusioned where as here I’m not sure anyone is willing to even think about the possibility they may be seeing the world poorly. Everyone here very much wants to be happy and are willing to live in a house where the children swing over the gravestones because at least they are working towards an even greater happiness.
Perhaps what Lara Vapnyar is trying to show us how is how we are constantly fooling ourselves into believing the reality we’ve constructed is going to make us happy but she’s also showing how difficult it is to change our views. Even becoming disillusioned is dangerous because it might turn out to be like a Visa that expires in three years and forces us to have to start all over again.
I loved this story for how hard it made me work, and how much I had to really think about it what it was trying to say.