Boris Fishman’s debut novel A Replacement Life is a panoramic reel of love, grief, and loyalty set among the Russian-Jewish immigrants of Brooklyn, New York.
Young Slava Gelman wants away from the hustling and scraping of the south Brooklyn neighborhood where his Soviet immigrant family has settled. He cuts off contact and runs off to Manhattan, where he tries to get ahead at a revered American magazine and waits for the “Americanness” to take hold. Not much doing on either front. Then his beloved grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, dies, filling him with regret: He desperately wanted to hear her stories before she went and has sacrificed that possibility to his dubious identity project.
As he returns to South Brooklyn for the first time in over a year, he is especially susceptible to the unsavory proposal his shyster grandfather is about to make him: To forge the Holocaust-restitution claim his grandmother was eligible for, but died before she could claim, for him instead. The page is now the only place where Slava can recreate his grandmother; also, he is as vain as the old man and badly wants to be lionized as a writer in all the ways he isn’t in Manhattan. And, so, the young man doth protest, but eventually signs up for Grandfather’s scheme, which ends up with him as the Forger of South Brooklyn, composing invented claims for those who “didn’t suffer in the exact way they need to have suffered in order to qualify”—but suffer they did.
Fishman can now afford to focus fully on his writing after working a slew of jobs including farm laborer, hiking guide, market researcher and fact checker. We spoke between World Cup Soccer matches about literature as self-help, Thanksgiving for immigrants, exorcism, Mother Russia and other topics while reviewing the amazing tale that is his novel.
The Rumpus: If you published all the fraudulent Holocaust testimonies Slava writes as its own volume, what novel, if any, would it most resemble?
Boris Fishman: I don’t know if I’d like that novel. It’s certainly an intriguing intellectual experiment that has great value, but for me that value is first of all academic. Novels that have nothing other than dialogue or they’re missing the letter “e” or they’re told through e-mails or through a series of false Holocaust narratives, okay, these feel like ways of concealing that a novel is being written—emphasizing it, too, in a way, of course. But I’m a realist, an old-fashioned realist. Why conceal? Why emphasize? Just write.
But you are getting into something I’ve been curious about for a long time, which, I guess, is a kind of experiment, too. I mean a book that’s a collection of reported fact pieces from an author’s days at Magazine X—except that they’re all invented, as is the author, but they’re written in strict journalistic style. This is the experiment that interests me the most, messing around with our ideas about fiction vs. nonfiction.
You see a lot of that attempted in A Replacement Life. As I try to pull off one or another sleight of hand behind the curtain, I have Slava give the tricks away because he’s trying to figure out how to perform them himself. I’m often asked why I wrote a novel with endnotes. I wanted to formalize my view that there’s no art, no invention, without imitation, borrowing, theft—whether you’re stealing from something someone’s created already or from real life. For me, the only problem is not acknowledging it. My novel is heavily autobiographical—except also not at all. It’s 100 percent fiction, 100 percent nonfiction. I really admire the kind of reader who can manage those facts simultaneously.
Rumpus: This takes me back to a subject we spoke of on the phone last week. When I mentioned the comparisons your novel was garnering with Malamud and Roth, you said you would like to write a book that could invite no comparisons. Is such a book possible to write?
Fishman: Probably not, so maybe I meant a book that invites a different type of comparison, a comparison based on writing style or sensibility rather than on the kind of ethnic community it’s about, which is why I was so gratified to see the Malamud association. Yes, he writes about Jews, but what matters for me is the way he writes about them. It’s the way I try to write about them. It’s the way Coetzee writes about South Africans and Styron writes about slaves and Holocaust survivors and Graham Greene writes about priests and ugly Americans. As honored as I am by being mentioned anywhere in the same galaxy as Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, my sensibility feels just as galactically different. It seems like our primary link is the inspiration of that ethnic community.
And yet, there’s a book like James Agee’s A Death in the Family. That’s a very “Southern” novel, except its relationship to other Southern fiction is kind of beside the point, isn’t it, or interesting mainly to academics? That novel is so sophisticated that it’s primitive. It’s beyond comparison. It treats family, which is a subject of great concern to me, as if no novel about family has ever been written. That’s the most beautiful kind of arrogance. I aspire to it.
I should add we’re talking about many things at the same time. For example, there’s what a novelist means to do and how the novel is received, and how it’s received now versus how it’s received seventy-five years later—by the critics, but then separately by the market. Et cetera. Are all these evaluations equally valid? Maybe. Outside of Shakespeare, it seems like no unified view is possible, and I love that. There are no stable identities. If anything, that’s what my novel is about—not about what it means to be Russian-Jewish.
Rumpus: I was thinking of a line from writer/comedian Marc Maron who said all books are self-help books. With the large increase in the last decade of the publication of international writing, do you think of the influx of immigrant writing as being instructional literature?
Fishman: I think of immigrant literature as voyeuristic—or let’s say vicarious literature rather than instructional literature. It’s the sweat and blood of lives lived in hardship, if not economically then culturally. So many Americans have had a reacquaintance with economic hardship over the last six years, but for even them, cultural alienation is imaginary.
The term self-help has a pejorative connotation. I don’t know how Marc Maron meant it. I absolutely agree that all books are self-help, but in the best possible sense of the term. When I want to find someone speaking candidly about life—I mean someone being, under the fiction mask, unguarded, vulnerable, confessional, true—I open a novel. It’s where some of the best, most interesting, people among us go to be honest. Generally, I have a harder time finding that sort of talk outside the covers of a book. I learn how to be a person from myself, my family, my friends, therapy—but in the deepest way from books. Yes, they’re self-help—literally. They help me be myself.
Rumpus: You mentioned to me about how Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons propelled you to major in Russian literature. How did that book change you?
Fishman: It’s a romantic book. I was seventeen, the last year of high school. I’d spent the eight years since immigrating trying to fit in. That’s what my parents said: Fit in. Think rationally. Walk into a room, figure out what the people in it want, and give it to them. When it comes to choosing a career, law not writing. Et cetera.
And then I read Fathers & Sons. And what was liberating wasn’t that it was some kind of On the Road where the previously opted-in citizen opts out and chucks it all to hell. That’s very fashionable when you’re seventeen, but all I wanted was to opt in, to be part of something because I felt so closed out of American life. And the magical thing about Fathers & Sons, not that I could say so at the time, is that Turgenev may be stranded between the rational view, which is his character Bazarov—who is so devoted to scientific principle that he thinks he can write the human element even out of his human interactions and eventually pays the ultimate price for it—and the romantic view, which is Bazarov’s elders, that is, Turgenev’s generation. But everyone is obsessed with figuring out their country’s future in a very earnest way. Maybe so is On The Road in its own way. But in a very different way.
The other thing was: Turgenev can’t choose. He sees the upsides of both approaches. He sees the downsides of both. He believes in the necessity of progress and reform for Russia, which is mired in autocracy but not via bombs. And yet, Turgenev is dazzled by these young people, their bravado, their resolve, and he’s got no illusions about how ineffective his contemporaries have been.
I was so seduced. And not only by the what, but the how. For me, A Replacement Life is 300-plus pages of hand-wringing across many different questions—what’s the right answer, this or that?—and then finding a way to live with not knowing or that it’s a little bit of both. Anything else feels neat and untrue. I stopped reading On the Road after seventy pages. For me, there wasn’t enough curiosity given to the opposite view.
Rumpus: I wonder if Putin has read Fathers and Sons.
Fishman: Who knows with that man. An inscrutable human being, but an epic literary character.
Rumpus: Have you had much feedback from the Russian community about your book?
Fishman: Virtually none, at least from the more concentrated parts of it in south Brooklyn. Interesting to me because the radio stations and newspapers down there were all over my earlier work. Is it because they think I’ve represented them unkindly or because they don’t really read English-language literary fiction? I had an ex-Soviet refusenik at my Politics & Prose reading the other night in DC. He surprised me by saying that my representation of the community in the novel was more generous than how he would’ve done it. That was gratifying. All I can say is the novel is a pained love letter to my people. I was trying to hold up a mirror and say, “Haven’t we lived this way—meaning, corruptly—for long enough? Isn’t it time to welcome the future?” This is prickly, direct and honest in a way my people try to avoid, but I hope they recognize it for what it is.
Rumpus: Your first day in America at the tender age of nine was on Thanksgiving Day. Were you amazed at being in a land of gluttons?
Fishman: I have exactly two memories from that first night. The first is muenster cheese. It was on every table in every home we went to, sliced. Russians love to serve deli as its own entree. I had never seen muenster, but something about it—the netting of the rind? the scent? the Martian coloring?—just got me and does to this day, my madeleine. My muenstereine.
The other was people who wanted to leave the USSR could take with them only a couple of hundred dollars worth of value per person. One of the treasures we had decided not to part with was this gorgeous china set, though only because we were planning to resell it somewhere along the way, I bet, but we hadn’t, and over the course of two and a half months, half a dozen countries, endless unpacking, repacking, we had unbundled and rebundled that set a hundred times. Somehow, miraculously, it had survived in one piece. Then we arrive at JFK, and we’re met by a friend of the family, who—maybe he wanted to seem casual and in control, or maybe he was just excited to see us—but he heaved the suitcase with the china and just flung it onto a porter cart. I think all four of my adults winced at the same time. We were too polite to say anything, of course, but I imagine the adults on that long car ride to our friends’ apartment. They must have been burning to find out. I feel like by this point, in a way none of them probably could articulate—they’re not really self-analyzing people, my family—that set of china had come to take on a larger significance.
I remember seeing them steal off to the bedroom. I followed. I remember so vividly the packing newspaper being unwrapped and unwrapped, the grim tightness on their faces, that sense of again, we are victims. And the china was all in one piece except one. One cup and saucer had broken. You might remember that this is in the novel, first literally and then in a reference in the last chapter, when Slava visits Grandmother’s grave. That latter reference is one of my favorite lines in the book.
Rumpus: I’ve been thinking about what you said earlier about your book being 100 percent fiction and 100 percent nonfiction. Would you say a little bit more about that? Exactly where and in what way do fiction and nonfiction depart from each other?
Fishman: There are so many ways fiction and nonfiction intersect, overlap, hold hands, run away from each other. For some reason, it makes me think of kids running in and out of rooms at some family party. Like, take the Grandfather character: Temperamentally, spiritually, he’s one to one with my grandfather, but my grandfather didn’t ask me to forge Holocaust-restitution claims, and just about every single thing that Grandfather, the character, says in the novel is invented. I mean, there are individual sentences that begin as nonfiction—I’m talking about plain factuality here; how things work stylistically is a separate issue—and end up as fiction. For example, the set piece at Lenin’s tomb, or the scene where Grandfather bargains for graves. My family visited Lenin’s tomb once, but none of the rest of that happened—same with the graves. I got the kernel of that from a newspaper story, but the rest of it is invented.
The more interesting way in which fiction and nonfiction overlap is when fiction uses the techniques of nonfiction and vice versa. You read a memoir like This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff and it’s nonfiction only in that supposedly all these things happened. There’s no reason nonfiction can’t be stylistically distinctive, but you find that more often in fiction, and this book—This Boy’s Life—is just so finely written, not to mention the necessary inventions of such a work. The dialogue is as much invented as recalled, for example. The priority is not only to recall it but to make it work dramatically. Meanwhile, a novel has so much nonfiction. Even a sci-fi novel draws on things that happened or occurred to the author.
By the way, here’s a real downside to drawing on the facts in fiction: my real-life grandmother was a Holocaust survivor, and my novel memorializes her experiences, but I had to falsify them considerably so they would work as drama, and now, often I don’t remember what really happened to her and what was invented for the novel. But that’s what the novel tries to get into: How to make peace with imperfect solutions, how to use fiction to liberate ourselves from the nonfiction of life, and the new traps that gets us into. Grandmother dies before Slava can get to know her, so he invents her through these claims, but it’s a false portrait because neither he nor I are writing for our diaries. We’re writing for audiences, which have dramatic requirements, which requires falsification et cetera, et cetera.
I don’t know if this answers your question, but the interplay feels kind of endless and, to me, fascinating.
Rumpus: Did your real life grandmother talk about her experiences during the war? My uncles who saw horror in the Battle of the Bulge never did. I respected that but would have liked to hear about it.
Fishman: Yeah, my grandmother didn’t want to talk about what happened. When I asked why, she said, “I don’t want to upset you.” But what she really meant was “I don’t want to upset me.” But she couldn’t allow herself to say that, to be selfish in that way, you know? In a typical Eastern European Jewish family, or at least mine, the child could not hear “no,” so things had to get repackaged.
In any case, these days, I don’t have too much patience to play along with this theater, but I was more polite as a fifteen-year-old, I guess—or unknowing, more like it. I didn’t call my grandmother out. I tricked her. I told her that I had a school assignment, three generations of personal history. She wouldn’t have dared cost me a good grade, and “punctured.” That’s a Russian way of saying “gave up the info.”
It seemed criminal to do without her stories. They seemed so much richer and more important than anything I was likely to go through in my life, but that I had to lie to her to get at this truth, that feels so emblematic of the twisted ways in which the place we lived made you think, and why fraud and truth live so closely in my novel.
Rumpus: Writing can be a form of personal exorcism. Do you think you would have been able to write about the Holocaust if you had experienced it first hand?
Fishman: Let me start by arguing with the idea that writing is where the exorcism happens. For me, writing is where the exorcism of your writing dreams happens, your insecurities as an artist, but not of the predicaments explored by the novel. In the writing, I learned how to write, not how to answer Slava’s questions. Think about it this way: Slava is enlightened by living out the story of the novel, not writing a novel. To the extent that autobiography informs the novel, I answered those questions in my private life and then decided to write a novel about that process of understanding transposed onto a fictional character undergoing fictional experience, which is a tricky thing because you have to rewind yourself into not knowing.
I’m being way too neat about this. It’s not like I had a dossier of answers and then mapped out a novel accordingly. That would be a dead novel. I had a broad set of ideas and experiences I wanted to explore: how to take action without clear answers, how to honor elders whose definition of honor is different, how we tell stories, how much our lies sleep in the same bed as our truths, and how okay that is, et cetera. And, of course, the process of writing the novel reveals new things. I mean, what is dramatic exigency? In part, it’s constantly asking yourself, Is this how real people behave? So it is an exorcism of the personal history to some extent—just not, I don’t think, to the degree that people tend to assume.
Now, to actually answer your question. It’s a hard one. Let’s take 9/11. All the novels and films that came out right after were not very good. Not enough distance, not enough outsiderness of perspective, which is what good writing requires, the impersonal coldness of an outsider’s position. If I went through something as cataclysmic as the Holocaust, I can’t start to imagine how this novel would have been different or if there would be a novel at all. I mean, we have plenty of examples: Kosinski, Levy, Borowski, Appelfeld. I sing about my little trauma, the legacy of a Soviet life, but that can’t begin to compare to what these people went through, and even though, other than loved ones, I’m not sure I value anything in life more than fiction, I can’t imagine how it could ever acquit even a little trauma like the one I’m describing. A sincere apology from Vladimir Putin to all the Jews who have been abused by the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire for three hundred years? For the people I’m describing and for me, that would do a whole lot more than 300 pages of exorcism. In the absence of that—just like Slava, who can’t have his real grandmother, so he invents her—the people I’m writing about take justice into their own hands. We can’t have justice, so we wrote a novel instead. That’s why the epigraph is about revenge. Fiction as the ultimate freedom, the ultimate power. So I guess in a very roundabout way I am reversing myself completely. Writing is exorcism indeed.
Rumpus: Any thoughts on the current state of Russia?
Fishman: No one should listen to me on this subject. I haven’t been there in fourteen years, and it changes every day. I’m judging from the news and friends who live there.
On the one hand, I find the current political situation in Russia odious. I find Putin odious as a man, though kind of incredible as a literary character. I find Russia’s historical amnesia odious. There are too many peoples in Russia to apologize to for the wrongs done to them by the Soviet Union, but I’ll just take my people, the Jews. Anti-Semitism has gone out of vogue a little in Russia, but it’s simply gone out of vogue. No one’s reckoned for a minute with Russia’s history of abusing the Jews. So, to me, it’s still the Soviet Union in every sense except the geographic and economic.
On the other hand, all these things that are so inexplicable to Americans about Russia’s behavior, are they really so inexplicable? I was watching a video the other day, the writer Keith Gessen talking to Justin Vogt, an editor at Foreign Affairs. As Keith said, Russia hears us lecturing on the need for remembrance and reckoning, but are we so eager to remember our sins against Native Americans? Against African-Americans? Racism has gone out of vogue in our country, right, but has there been a truly national, top-down, the-government-but-the-people-too reckoning with our history of slavery and discrimination? This, the most egalitarian and exceptional nation on earth? Actually, yes, far greater than Russia’s. But has it been enough? Russia sees us as a bunch of hypocrites.
Same goes for geopolitics. They hear us reassuring them on NATO borders, on territorial sovereignty, and then we go and bring NATO to its borders, take Kosovo away from Serbia, et cetera. And then we go up in steam and fury when they take over Crimea. To them, when America does it, it’s democracy, but when Russia does it, it’s aggression. I’m not saying they’re right. For me, at the end of the day, there’s a difference, and a big one. Ukraine didn’t lay into Crimea the way Serbia laid into Kosovo, but I can comprehend why Russia sees things the way it does.
Rumpus: What’s next on your horizon, another book, a visit to Russia?
Fishman: Ha, no visits to Russia—South Africa more like it. I went a couple of months ago and fell in love.
The second novel just sold to HarperCollins. It’s called Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, about a Russian-American couple in New Jersey that adopts a boy from Montana. He turns out to be wild, and they have to figure out how to make a life with this foreigner. Meanwhile, they are such foreigners themselves. It’s written from the adoptive mother’s perspective, because she, too, is kind of a foreigner—in her own family. Over the course of her 20-plus-year marriage, she has gradually given herself away—in order to be somebody’s mother, somebody’s daughter, somebody’s wife. And there’s no her left. And her son’s affliction ends up forcing her to reckon with that. I wanted to try something quite different. It should be out Spring 2016.
In the meantime, it’s A Replacement Life publicity all the way through the paperback, which comes out in January, and for several more months after that. I really wanted the third book to be nonfiction—my first love, after all. I’ve always had a special curiosity about the Native American experience, I think because I started as the ultimate outsider in this country and now pass quite successfully for a native. Speaking broadly, Native Americans have had the inverse experience. That makes me think.
I miss reading—I’ve barely opened a book since late May, when publicity started—and travel. I used to leave New York about once every six to eight weeks. I mean for a good ten days at a time, somewhere far. Mobility, the writer’s only great freedom, besides writing. I’ve barely been anywhere since Africa in March. The world is calling. The usual places: Montana, Mexico, France, and now South Africa.