Michael Alenyikov’s award-winning new book, Ivan and Misha, explores many-faceted love—from the intense and fleeting to bonds of familial obligation.
Winner of the 2011 Northern California Book Award for Fiction, Ivan and Misha by Michael Alenyikov is best described as a novel in stories. Many-faceted love—from the intense and fleeting to bonds of familial obligation—is the book’s subject, one that requires a complex interplay of character and plot in five lengthy tales to explore. Throughout the prose is plain, prophetic in tone. What happens to us when we love? How terrible are the deeds that love can make us commit? What does it mean to live for another? When the lines between love, madness, and death begin to blur, you know you’re in Alenyikov territory.
Just as the titular fraternal twins Ivan and Misha meet before they are born, so we are introduced to the principle characters in a prologue. During their childhood in Kiev, Ivan and Misha “were rarely apart, and when they were, they shared all at night; they whispered details in soft voices so as not to wake Papa.” Together with their father, Lyov (no surname given), the boys emigrate from Russia to New York City shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
In the title story, which takes place in 2000 when the twins are 23, Misha emerges as an unusually compassionate and accommodating person. He lives in the East Village with his lover, a younger man who goes by the name of Smith. Ivan, who lives nearby, is bipolar, in and out of Bellevue and dangerously close to breaking his brother’s heart. “When Ivan bleeds, I bleed,” says Misha, our narrator. Meanwhile, Lyov—or Louie, as he styles himself after leaving the old country—has had a stroke. Misha reports that he’s become “something holographic, so when you put your arms around him for a hug you’re stuck hugging yourself.”
Stories narrated by Louie and Ivan (among others) reveal inaccuracies in Misha’s perception of reality. In the contemporary American short story, deceit has often been celebrated if not glorified; Ivan and Misha offers a realistic assessment of falsehood, from misunderstandings and harmless inventions through cruel, self-serving lies. Unifying the book is a single “unforgiveable” lie that impacts each of the main characters, contributing to their more bizarre actions. Lesser lies abound. Smith, who tries on personas like T-shirts, tells Misha his parents have died in a car crash when they’re really alive; his lie is never explained beyond a need “to pretend.” Louie is determined to make his sons go through life believing their mother died giving birth to them. The reasons for this lie are clear, if misguided: Louie wants to spare his boys the painful truth that their mother committed suicide when they were very young.
Transitioning almost imperceptibly from memories of romancing his wife-to-be in Odessa to the Brighton Beach deli where Louie and his friend Leo stop for hot dogs and knishes on their way home from a walk, the story “Barrel of Laughs” keeps us grounded in the feelings and physicality of its narrator. Leo asks Louie if it bugs him that his son is a “feygela.” The question bugs Louie a lot. He reflects, “I think he truly wants to understand what to him is unfathomable, so I forgive him, because, to be completely honest with you, I do not fully understand what my son does with men.”
Louie may be a hologram to his beloved Mishka, but to the reader he is profoundly human. His confession suggests a possible moral for the book: love means allowing other people to remain mysterious.
Was Raskolnikov bipolar? Louie posits a troika of Russian literary greats from which the creator of Crime and Punishment is excluded; but Dostoevsky came often to my mind while reading the longest story, “Whirling Dervish.” Its narrator is Ivan, eighteen years old and on day seven without sleep as the story begins. In defiance of Misha’s, Louie’s, and even his doctors’ orders not to fall in love—because it excites him too much—Ivan is head over heels for a man from California who, like him, works as a taxi driver. Ivan lies awake under a ceiling fan, hugging his pet rabbit and sweating in the August heat. He’s painted the word love in many different languages on the wall and has surrounded himself with ticking clocks and religious symbols, including Stars of David for his father and Orthodox icons for his mother. He works the night shift, thinking of nothing but the man from California as two more days without sleep go by. He cannot rest until he has attained the object of his obsessive desire. In a comic twist, when the Californian unexpectedly takes him to bed Ivan falls asleep mid-kiss, his love still unconsummated.
The unforgivable lie is told to Misha by his former lover Kevin, who is several years older than the twins. In the last story, Kevin takes us back to the early stages of the AIDS epidemic (1983) and the hospital room of his dying ex-lover, Vinnie. Kevin tells of going to sleep asking, “Who did what to whom?” He gets no answer because “those were the days when you died real fast and there was nothing, at least in bed, that Vinnie had done that I hadn’t done too.”
In Ivan and Misha, both subjectivity and time are fluid. Tenses run the gamut from the pluperfect to future conditional, often in a single paragraph. Because present tense predominates, the overall effect is one of informed immediacy. The past, with its horrors, exerts an influence, and the future, in which death divides us from the people we love, continuously makes itself felt.