It was an idyllic Sunday morning, perfect fall weather. I was on the way to my favorite Park Slope diner for brunch, resolved to spend hour upon hour reading the Sunday Times. At the newsstand I discovered with pleasure that the New Yorker’s Fall Fiction issue was out. I mouthed the word fiction with no ill effects. ‘I’ve recovered,’ I said to myself happily, although without a hundred percent conviction. Still, being prepared to devote my time to reading fiction, poetry and literary essays was a positive sign. So I bought it, stealing only the briefest glance at the cover before laying it on top of the Times and slipping the bulky mass they made together under my arm.
Then came the double take, the disbelief, the after-image hovering phantom-like above a bustling Brooklyn street. It was like the moment when Prince Myshkin looks back and realizes with a shock that it’s his friend Rogozhin lurking in the shadows of the stairwell with a knife in his hand, and that he wants to kill him.
Of course my double take only involved the cover of a magazine, and there was no physical reflex. I simply pulled it back out from under my arm so I could take another look. As a double take it was entirely internal. But in that inner turn of the head I swung around so violently that I could feel my neck snap.
The title read, ‘The New Russian Renaissance,’ the cover appropriately displaying a cartoon drawing of onion domes and a graceful ballerina with a cubist face. It had an introduction written by Gary Shteyngart, author of the Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absurdistan, who bemoaned the fact that he had yet to get his hands on the original Russian versions of the stories and poetry the issue contained and had only spoken briefly by phone with a certain Evgeny Pavlovich, but that he was astounded and heartened (actually shocked) at this literary flowering from his native city, for it turned out that all the contributors, in spite of the striking differences in styles and subjects, were born in the former Leningrad, that, as Shteyngart put it, “they received their literary nourishment, their mother’s milk as writers, from the grimy nipple of St. Petersburg’s streets,” an assertion I’m fully able to confirm.
I began walking again, passing my destination without a pause. After all, a diner on Sunday morning is a refuge and there were no more refuges left for me. I had no idea where I was headed, to the end of the island or the end of the world. It didn’t really matter.
The glossy tidings of the renaissance somehow remained in my hand. I felt a desperate need to act, not in the theatrical sense—although more than a few people had suggested I give that a try—but in the sense of action. Maybe it wasn’t too late? Maybe I could get my renaissance back unharmed.
I took a quick look around, a reality check, suddenly feeling the need to make sure where I was. That’s because for a split second I could have sworn I’d caught a glint of light reflecting off a canal, heard someone curse in Russian and imagined I was still there, that this was all some Petersburg nightmare and that it would turn out that the renaissance came from somewhere else, from New York, or Prague, or Buenos Aires, made up of literary works I had never even read, let alone written.
But I was plainly in New York, and there was no renaissance going on that I could see. And although there really was someone cursing in Russian walking alongside me, there were also a couple kids behind me having a chat in Cantonese, and never once did I suspect I was on the streets of Hong Kong.
Still, I felt the compulsion to react, to do something, not to let those crooks get away with it. And what? Could I walk into the 11th Precinct around the corner waving a New Yorker in my hand and tell them I want to file charges? Should I show them the stubs from my plane tickets as evidence that I was really there, along with a shopping bag full of all my early drafts?
The desk sergeant would roll his eyes and put his palm down on the magazine’s cover as if he was patting a child’s head.
”Hey kid, have you ever heard of Shelley?”
I nod humbly. Heard of him I have.
“Well, that was all me. Those blinkin limies stole my stuff and then backdated it so I couldn’t make a stink without sounding like a nutcase.”
I was all done nodding.
“You mean I sound like a nutcase?”
He glances down at the Fall Fiction issue and the stubs. My notebooks remained untouched in the brown paper bag. It’s true that to be conscientious he would have to sit and go through the whole stack, making careful stylistic comparisons while telling the gunshot victims and manacled drunks to wait their turn, that he had a literary theft to deal with.
But what if he goes through it all, all the stories along with the notes and variant versions, and comes to the conclusion that there’s no proof of any wrongdoing? Instead, he gives the magazine a quick skim, closing it with the sigh of an old timer who’s seen it all.
“Look, kid…. I wanna believe you. You seem like your heart’s in the right place. It’s just…well, uh…I hate to say it, but you were kinda asking for it.”
“Ah, I see…blaming the victim!”
“Hey c’mon…you wrote all this stuff in different styles, expressing different sensibilities, as if they were written by different people. I’m missing a unifying voice…know what I mean?”