I have a pet theory that there are two kinds of people in the world: the kind comforted by knowing other people have problems similar to their own, and the kind comforted by knowing other people have problems very different from their own. I am decidedly of the latter category. Sitting in my dirty shoebox of an apartment in Brooklyn, thinking of insurance claims yet to be filed, essays to be finished and irritating relatives who need to be called back, I become easily convinced that a life with headaches in wild contrast to mine would be better. I escape not into the warm, familiar embrace of Girls or Brooklyn-based novels by Jenny Offill, but into the lives and obstacles of pearl divers off the coast of Japan, young brides awaiting marriage in Jerusalem, melancholy wives in post-war London.
Recently, when the city was wet with heat and it felt like nothing was going my way, I found happy escape––and hilarity––in the debut novel of Christina Nichol, Waiting for the Electricity, the most seamlessly inventive and enchanting debut novel since White Teeth. The protagonist, Slims Achmed, has many problems, but they all share one source: he lives in Georgia.
That’s Georgia the country, not Georgia the state, about as far away as one can get from peaches and golf courses. Georgia is one of those nations that a big chunk of the American population would be unable to identify on a map, but would perhaps imagine to be, like any land not-European but also not-Asian, dry, dusty, and populated by goat herders wearing keffiyahs. But it is neither topologically nor culturally Middle Eastern. It is a mountainous, fertile region with a craggy green landscape reminiscent of Scotland’s. And it is filled with mostly autochthonous people, endowed with a sense of romance that rivals the Italians’, a patriotic fervor that puts Americans to shame, and a history of storytelling that would make even the Jews feel competitive.
Waiting for the Electricity follows the humble Slims Achmed, a maritime lawyer in the seaside city of Batumi who lives with his mother and sister and longs to escape the corruption of his native land. He hasn’t gotten paid in months, the electricity stops working arbitrarily for long stretches of time, he gets robbed every time he takes the bus, and his best friend wants him to conspire to kidnap a British geologist. But one day he receives a glimmer of hope in a fax from an American business initiative sponsored by Hillary Clinton for former Soviet republics. Thus begins the most heartfelt and amusing series of letters Clinton, in real life or fiction, has likely ever received:
Hillary, i’ll try to tell You more about myself, but i’m not as interesting person as You are, obviously, but still i’ll write something. I love animals, especially fish. Once i had the fish which I called billclinton, but unfortunately it had eaten some poisoned thing and that was the end of his life… Now i wish to ask You very important question: Have You seen the movie Jesus Christ Superstar? Do you know about the theme song in the movie, “Don’t you mind about the future. Think about today instead.” ?!!(!) We have been living that way for very long time now, for 15 centuries maybe, and i don’t think it’s very good advice.
Achmed’s missives to Clinton go on to describe Georgia’s many flaws: the dysfunctional business climate; the dictator’s monopoly on basically everything, including goats; the influence of the Georgian Mafia; and a nostalgia for medieval times that serves to stall cultural progress. (“The communists destroyed our traditions,” Achmed’s best friend says during an argument. “The true Georgian can only be found in the 12th century, in our Golden Age.”) Against all odds, Achmed’s application to attend a seminar in the United States is accepted, and he travels to San Francisco to learn the workings of a fish packaging plant.
After this impressive leap in setting, Nichol presents one of the funniest, most accurate satires of Northern California. Neurotic, self-important, and bent on self-actualization, Achmed’s American hosts are strange to say the least. “I buy the mix down at Whole Foods,” says his housemate, who harvests seaweed and constructs roofs. “Actually, we call it ‘Whole Paycheck,’ but it’s the only place I can find blue-corn flour pancake mix.” Achmed marvels at the bright lights of America––which never go out for a moment, let alone for days on end––and how readily the citizens follow the laws. He learns about the power of affirmations, the glory of Fridays (Georgians don’t have “weekends,” per se), hula-hooping, and something called “techpub.” But not surprisingly, the American Dream begins to drain of color under the fluorescent glare. “Every day in Georgia we are eating and drinking with our families. But in the US, I felt like a fish on the factory floor. My gills opening, closing, trying to breathe, developing strange complexes because everyone had to be very ambitious and not have the normal human connections, urgently trying to create their own happy bubble.”
Clearly Achmed has taken for granted the aura of Georgia, which is something of an airborne intoxicant that infects both citizens and visitors with the ability to feel the entire spectrum of emotions at once and spit out poetic proverbs at a moment’s notice. (This might also have something to do with the liquid intoxicants. Gary Shteyngart, a noted fan of alcohol, once said Georgians were his favorite people to drink with––or maybe he said his favorite people, period. “We drank about ten wine horns, in between vodka shots… They asked for the names of everyone in my family and they would create these elaborate toasts to people they’d never met.”)
Like the poet-seers of the Bhakti tradition writing of their gods, the Georgians in Nichol’s book talk of feeling an almost magnetic connection to their piece of earth: the foaming Black Sea, rife with spiny blackfish; the mountains where the villagers pick Odessa grapes and listen to frogs sing; and the city, where everyone is shouting but military revolutions are waged with roses. Sure, Georgians have had their problems, even after they managed to depose a dictator, but as a reader, you can’t help but become besotted with the chaotic culture and the passionate people, especially as portrayed by a skilled, big-hearted writer.
Upon finishing the book, I felt what the Georgians called naialagari, or “having just returned from the summer pasture in the mountains.” Nichol says that the word means “unhinged,” but I prefer to think of it as giddy.