Petropolis

A novel by Anya Ulinich.

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Reprinted with permission from American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide (Jewish Publication Society).

The future of American Jewish literature looks a lot like the past, with a couple of major modifications. Like Mary Antin, David Levinsky, and Sholem Aleichem's Motl, Sasha Goldberg, the plucky heroine of Anya Ulinich's debut novel, wends her way from Eastern Europe to the United States, hoping to find the Promised Land there. While Sasha's predecessors escaped pogroms, though, her motivation to emigrate is much more mundane. Asked in an ESL class in Phoenix, Arizona, to explain why she came, she selects "(b) To seek a better life"--just like her Mexican classmates--because the other choices, including "(a) To escape religious oppression," "don't apply at all."
Petropolis By Anya Ulinich
In fact, Sasha's Jewish grandfather, an engineer, had been "a media star" in Moscow in the 1960s and the winner of the Lenin Prize, having survived "Stalin's anti-Semitic campaign more or less untouched." Sasha's father, Victor, a half-African orphan adopted by the Goldbergs, fared less well in Soviet society, and ended up having his daughter with a librarian in a hilariously desolate Siberian outpost called Asbestos 2 and then abandoning the two of them there. The desire to escape this hopeless backwater-where, in the first fourteen years of her life, she studies art, suffers inevitable taunts at school, and gets herself impregnated by a charming nihilist whose family dwells in a concrete half-pipe in the garbage dump-spurs Sasha's westward trek through an arranged engagement to an American nerd.

A New Life in America

In the United States, Sasha escapes her potential husband, crashes with some Russians, and then briefly lodges with a grotesque and wealthy American Jewish family in a house outside Chicago seemingly based on Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater. Never quite returning to art, Sasha nonetheless makes it to Brooklyn and achieves some approximation of the American dream: meeting her expenses as a cleaning woman, she saves enough not only to bring over the baby she left with her mother in Asbestos 2 but also to buy the kid a Hello Kitty music box, a Dora the Explorer backpack, and all the kitschy commercial children's spoils of capitalism.

Meanwhile, Sasha's hometown on the margins of post-Soviet Russia, and her loving, assertive mother, wither and die. Naive and precocious, an outsider's outsider, Sasha--and Ulinich, speaking through her-is perfectly positioned to critique contemporary American Jewish fiction and culture: when a friend in Phoenix tells her gory tales of her relatives' suffering in the Holocaust, Sasha objects, "Is your life so boring you need to dredge up dead babies that you've never even seen?"

Elsewhere, Sasha's "intolerance for proper fairy tales" suggests a rejection of the ever-growing trend toward the fantastic in American Jewish fiction (in a promotional interview, Ulinich has said this explicitly: "I can't stand magical realism"). With an artist's eye for detail--he author, like her character, studied painting--Ulinich captures and deforms the absurdity of the contemporary immigrant experience and may one day write a comic epic of 21st-centuryJewish life in the United States.

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Josh Lambert

Josh Lambert is Dorot Assistant Professor/Faculty Fellow in the Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University and the author of American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide (2009).