Melnik, Kseniya. Snow in May. Henry Holt, New York, 2014. F;2/18.
This Russian-American author published The Wolves, a fine short story in Tin House (vol 19 #2) that I liked. It seemed to start out with an awkward archaic tone but developed a powerful twist of political danger that I didn’t expect until it was revealed, exposing my naïvete to the narrator’s casual familiarity with treachery. So I downloaded this 2014 collection of her stories. Too bad, I found it uneven.
The best two or three were wonderful, startling and original, others just interesting, and a few of them almost annoying with off-key emphasis.
Melnik was born in 1973 in the northern Russian town of Magadan, originally a gateway to the Gulag, where these linked stories are set. She moved to the United States at age 15 and has lived there ever since. Snow in May is as far as I can tell her only book, but she has published several short stories in periodicals.
Nearly all the Snow in May stories drew me into the dreariness and preoccupation with survival of late 20th century Russia. Closed Fracture is a headlong fictional biography of a Russian’s good luck and success once he moves to America compared to his friend’s tragedy staying in Russia, but the dark danger in The Wolves is missing. That returns in The Witch where illness and healing (one of Melnik’s preoccupations) are twisted into ambiguity and haunted with casual reference to Chernobyl. In The Uncatchable Avengers a young boy gets up to play classical piano for a TV taping and although he knows his short piece inside out he is preoccupied with young-boy fantasy and repeatedly messes up his recital. I found the boy’s stream of consciousness during his performance awkward running alongside the plot of the performance itself, and I kept skipping to see what was going to happen next.
The horrors of Russian life are most realized in Strawberry Lipstick. It reminded me of my own ideas about Russia as a boy in 1950s Vancouver, the Cold War with its nuclear threat everywhere in the news. I lay awake at night worrying that the eerie horror of the air raid sirens would start up when I was in school and I wouldn’t be able to get home in time before the H-bomb landed. My dad who was a young man in the 1930s in Central and Eastern Europe sat me down and explained that Russians are peasants, nothing to worry about. As far as he could tell they couldn’t possibly be capable of what they were threatening. I felt better. Kseniya Melnik, a child of the dying days of the Soviet Union, certainly prefers the United States and the harsh unmistakably honest tone of her stories makes it clear why. Russia isn’t the same kind of direct threat anymore, but it’s still no place most of us would want to spend our lives.
I can’t help comparing Ms. Melnik to Vladimir Nabokov, only partly because of the Russia-to-the-West life trajectory. She picks up on several of the great writer’s themes, just possibly ironically, knowing that that comparison might be made. The two authors share fascination with the “ships that pass in the night” idea of happenstance profoundly affecting lives, and Rumba, my favourite story in this collection, is a miniature Lolita.
An older dance coach is fascinated with a talented 12-year-old student. We feel the tension of his hebephilia, her physique, her disdain for dancing and her classmates (and for him), his confronting her in the bathroom kissing a boy, and finally climbing a flight of stairs with her into a dark odorous hallway where her “tongue flutter(s) like a butterfly under the net of his lips”. The story ends there, and we assume his sensual and artistic life shatter against convention. That couldn’t be much closer to the Nabokov masterpiece without turning into plagiarism or an ironic joke.
There are lots of authors whose obvious talent hasn’t yet found self-confidence. Kseniya Melnik has an unusual enough point of view that if and when hers does, it will be something worth paying attention to. 8.9/8.8 (with significant variability).