Shifting Realities in “A Replacement Life”

By Deahn Berrini Leblang

Published February 12, 2015, issue of February 12, 2015.
Author Boris Fishman and the cover of his book, A Replacement Life, HarperCollins, 2014
Author Boris Fishman and the cover of his book, A Replacement Life, HarperCollins, 2014

In this debut novel, a Russian immigrant in his twenties vies to get the reputable New York magazine where he works to publish one of his stories. He notes everything his famous editor does, even down to his wardrobe, a collection of cream linen suits and crisp, pink shirts. At one point, desperate to crack the code, Slava spends two weeks’ salary on his own copy-cat outfit, which includes a violet blazer and paisley tie. When Slava proudly wears his new clothes to work, he is perceived in a completely different way than his editor — people are confused and ask him why he is “all dressed up.”

This hilarious send-up of a person trying to fit in, trying to make both his words and his appearance match the culture in charge occurs frequently in Fishman’s very funny, piercing, and heartbreaking book. It is a moral dilemma, though, that lies at the heart of the story: Slava’s aging grandfather wants him to “write” the story of his World War II experience to qualify for German reparations, even though the grandfather spent the war in Afghanistan, fleeing both the Red Army and the Nazis. Rather than dismissing the grandfather’s claim as bogus off-hand, Fishman, carefully and with compassion, examines the qualities necessary to survive World War II and then the Soviet state. If they don’t translate to American culture, whose fault is that really? I couldn’t put this intelligent, brimming-of-life story down. To my ear, there’s not a false word in it.

Snow cancelled Boris Fishman’s talk at the Brookline Booksmith, scheduled for February 2, the first stop on a multi-city tour to launch the paperback edition of his novel; the hardback from Harper Perennial came out last summer to much acclaim. Fortunately, the author, who was born in Minsk in 1979, moved to the United States when he was nine, and now lives in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, answered questions by email with The Journal.

JJ: How is your writing influenced by the fact that Russian, not English, is your first language? BF: Russian comes through my writing most in the syntax, the punctuation, the inflections, the beats between clauses, the ellipses, the sighs. The English of the novel is fluent — but the construction of the prose feels a little bit like the novel was translated from a foreign language. I like that — that was intentional. 

JJ: What do you feel Americans do not understand about the Russian-Jewish im­­migration experience? BF: There is so much to say here. I wish American Jews better understood the very different way in which Russian-speaking Jews construct their Jewish identity. Religion rarely plays a part. For too many American Jews, I feel like this means Russian Jews are not very Jewish. But to Russian Jews, whose parents and grandparents survived a war the aim of which was to exterminate Jewry — an experience American Jews largely did not have — and then decades in a state that discriminated against and abused Jews, so it’s insulting to be accused of being insufficiently Jewish. Russian Jews merely express it differently, most commonly via an unquestioning support for Israel and the cultural derivatives of religion: The humor, the food, the proverbs, and so forth. However, it’s important to note that victimization has a lot more to do with Russian-Jewish identity than American-Jewish identity. Russian-Jewish identity is more conservative, more defensive, more devoted to force, finally more self-loathing. (There’s no way around it.) In many ways, these are traumatized people. And I wish American Jews had more empathy for that fact — for the fact that a generation or two has to pass before this is out of the bloodstream. 

JJ: Can you speak to Slava’s (the protagonist in Fishman’s novel) relationship to his Jewish identity, and how does this compare with your own? BF: Fiction is a liberation and fantasy. You do what’s right for the characters, but you also get to live out your own uncompleted lives. My family grew up atheist in the Soviet Union; so did I. I have tried in many ways to come closer to religion — I dated a Modern Orthodox girl for eight years; she lived in a kosher home, celebrated all the holidays. I fasted with her on Yom Kippur, went to synagogue with her, observed kashrut in her apartment. But none of it ever took. I am fascinated by the people who take it up in adult age, or even convert. It feels like something that has to be implanted in childhood, at a time when faith is more important than reason. I took Slava on the same journey — but he gets further than I did. He asks as many questions, has as many doubts — but he finds a place for it in his heart that I never have. 

JJ: The ending jelled, in a satisfying way, the entire book. When in the process of the story did you know what Slava would do? BF: The truth is I’m not sure. I did know that the resolution would be bittersweet — because things are rarely otherwise in real life, at best. Someone once asked me how I know a novel is finished, and I thought: “It’s when the hero learns something, and loses something.” And that’s certainly the case with the ending. I was so anxious about writing a novel that I mapped out all of it in advance. Which is very cloistering for the story — it has no chance to breathe and surprise you with its own needs and wishes. But I don’t remember whether the ending was there from the beginning or revealed itself when I undid all that very fine scaffolding and started moving forward by feel.

JJ: Where did the idea for Slava wearing the lavender linen suit with the paisley tie come from? BF: There’s a certain type of young or middle-aged man in New York City — often he works in the media, in technology, in the creative professions, but the creative professions that come with health benefits, a corporate-subsidized cafe­teria, and maybe a miniature climbing gym inside the office — who dresses in a most stylish, standout way. There is nothing standout about the way his heart or soul works. If he is not a drone, then he is a good soldier, a conventional man. Slava is all wrong on the outside — his clothes are wrong, his attitude is without confidence. And he can’t see through these men. All he can see if the stylish lavender suit and the heads it turns.

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