21 May 2012
About a third of the way through a fairly short novel, and… not much is happening. Our man is Nick, but we only find out the (rather ordinary) biographical details piecemeal. His Christian name, his surname, his job – corporate lawyer in more or less present-day Moscow – his age…. In a look back to his reasons for leaving London he tells us about hitting 30. His lament is a modern pastiche of the one we remember by another first-person narrator called Nick, in The Great Gatsby, about the horrors of reaching that age. (I can’t see the problem myself, but it’s a long time ago for some of us.) The Moscow placement, which was supposed to be a short cut to a partnership in his law firm, has morphed into, well, nothing much. He’s 38 now, and feels he’s wasted his 30s. Ho-hum.
At least the setting feels real. A D Miller must have spent a lot of time in Moscow because we get a lot of details. The end of summer and the urgent approach of winter, the industrial-scale snow-shifting that goes on, the everyday corruption we all think we know about but which only a long-term resident knows this intimately…. It’s real, but somehow ordinary, and not always in a good way. Nothing comes as much of a surprise, particularly concerning the kinds of deals that Nick’s law firm brokers for whichever oligarch needs their services. He’s uncomfortable enough to acknowledge his own hypocrisy in pretending that he’s only doing a job, and there are hints of Graham Greene in his worldly acceptance that he’s nobody special. Ok.
From the start, Miller gives us titbits to chew on. A short prologue informs us what a Russian snowdrop is – a corpse that emerges only after the snows of winter have melted. He sees a crowd gathered around one, and somehow lets us know that there’s a connection between it and him. Nick is describing things that happened in the recent past, but he’s back in London now – and is supposedly writing this for the woman he met after his return and is now his fiancée. This is going to be the warts-and-all story of why he left Moscow, and the worldly tone he adopts seems designed to show that he isn’t going to hide anything. I’m not always convinced. His appraisal of the prospects for him and his future wife, in that way he has, would not be tolerated by any fiancée I’ve ever met. And it gets worse. Most of the novel so far, except for little hints of the dark things going on at the edge of our vision that are presumably going to come into focus soon, is all to do with a Russian woman he meets and the great sex he has with her.
But I’m not telling you the plot. What plot? So far, from September to November, he’s met Masha and her sister Katya and got to know them. Masha is, Nick tells his future wife, ‘premier league’ in terms of looks, but if she isn’t part of some kind of scam – I’m guessing that she is from the staged attempted mugging that brings them together – she’s rather poor and needy. After a night of sex which Katya watches – what? – they become an item. He meets their aunt, who has a flat as a reward for her husband’s work as a military scientist. (In Chapter 6 she’s hoping to swap it for a place in the country.) And… there’s a character called ‘the Cossack’, ex-KGB and a front-man for the company that Nick is acting as broker for. He reappears when Nick needs help to get into one of the exclusive Moscow clubs. That whole scene is like a garishly vulgar, bling-obsessed version of the West. I’m sure it’s just as he describes it, but… but here we are, as in so many novels, in familiar Russian oligarch territory. Then again, if what you know about is Russia, who else are you going to have in your debut novel?
Two more tiny plot-threads, whose significance we can’t be sure of yet. There’s often one of those terrible Communist-era cars parked outside, little more than a rust-heap. Nick thinks the snow-shifters have simply buried it in snow for the winter, and maybe they have. And an old neighbour of Nick’s is worried about the apparent disappearance of a friend. Is he the one whose feet we saw emerging from the snow in the prologue, which takes place the following spring? How should I know?
About three quarters of the way through and… I’m still waiting, because most of the novel is little more than travel writing. Miller really did spend something like three years in Moscow, travelling around Russia as an economics correspondent. (I wondered for a while if the character of Steve Walsh might be a kind of skewed self-portrait, but decided probably not. But I bet Miller met cynical, boozy journalists like him along the way, too comfortable with the expat lifestyle in Russia ever to get out. Miller did get out, of course, as does Nick. But not yet.)
So, the book’s main selling point continues to be mise-en-scene, the local colour he endlessly wants to tell us about. I’ve never been a fan of that kind of tourism, so I spend a lot of time being unimpressed by the colour of late-winter snow or the danger of lethal icicles in the thaw – to say nothing of the almost adolescent Russian obsession with guns, big cars and sex amongst those who can afford them. ‘They’re like children,’ muses Nick. Yes. And?
He wants the reader to know that he understands about the advantages he’s had. He never tires of telling us stories of how appalling he finds many aspects of Russian behaviour, but he also tells us how privileged he feels as a westerner. When he finds out that Katya is having to work in order to finance her studies, he has a ‘there but for the grace of God’ moment. He’s constantly remembering – or, equally constantly, being reminded by somebody or other – that he hasn’t had to go through what the Russians have. Ok, again. But where does that lead? He’s a corporate lawyer turning a blind eye to his clients’ misdemeanours, and he’s a man in his late 30s turning a blind eye to whatever it is that his premier-league lover and her not-quite sister are up to. The aunt, swapping her flat for an out-of-town place? Not an aunt at all, but somebody they met – precisely as they met Nick – on the Metro. And in order for the deal to go through, Nick is to lend the builder of the new flat $25,000. He knows it’s a scam, knows he’ll never see it again, but lends it anyway. Something else he knows is that it won’t make him any less guilty.
The trajectory of the plot, what there is of it, is Nick’s slow realisation – that is, slower than the reader’s – that his time in Russia has not been good for him. To be more specific he is, equally slowly, recognising that Masha and Katya really are involved in a scam, and that ‘the Cossack’ really is no more than a crook. He is helping them all – and his involvement compromises him in ways he considers irreparable. Several times, particularly during one day in the late winter, he reaches a moment when he could make a different decision, take a different path. But he doesn’t, and he wants to convince his reader (his fiancée, if we choose to buy into Miller’s increasingly far-fetched literary conceit), that he is not proud of the person he ‘has become’. Ok. Except for this to work we should believe that he could ever have been anything better than what he is. In fact, there’s no fall from grace because there’s never been any grace. He isn’t an Everyman, he’s Bog Standard Man. His description of Christmas at home with his parents is a cliché, as is his thumbnail sketch of a ski trip when he was a student: ‘drinking games, pissing in the chalet sink, a sprained ankle.’ If this novel is tourism with a few fictional knobs on, he’s definitely one of the fictional knobs.
It all seems directionless to me. I’m not expecting any more surprises than we’ve had already – that is, none at all – because it’s been clear from the start that there are crimes taking place, and that he is implicated. So, as I’ve said, all we’re left with is tourism. If there’s anything you want to know about Russian taxi-drivers, the etiquette of Russian bribery and home cooking in Moscow, ask any reader of this novel. If they’re anything like S D Miller, they’ll be very happy to tell you.
Chapters 14-17 – to the end
It’s clear in this last quarter or so that Miller has been building things up to a structured climax. It still doesn’t work for me, and I’ll get back to why that might be later, but at least we can see by the end that Miller has a clearer idea of where he’s taking the plot than I’d given him credit for. In the final chapter we even get a kind of whodunit-style explanation – it’s in an almost accidental final conversation with Katya – as though what is going on is rather complicated. It isn’t. Together with Steve Walsh’s explanations to Nick and the blindingly obvious signals that Miller has been giving us all along, we don’t need it. Nick does, apparently – he’s been retracing his steps, denying to himself the horrifying consequences of his actions – but he’s always been slow to the point of catatonic when it comes to moral insight.
In a nutshell. Masha and Katya really are crooks, probably part of a gang, out to cheat the old woman out of her flat. The out-of-town place was nothing of the sort, simply an unfinished block used by the gang to deceive people into such a swap as this. Nick isn’t going to get his $25,000 back – the only surprise being that he seems not to have understood that this was going to happen. Even when Masha produces documentation for the sale of the new flat that is obviously not genuine – there are the ghosts of shadows in some of the corners, as you always get with photocopies – he doesn’t consider what this might mean for the old woman, thinking instead about a promised sex-trip to Odessa.
In one of the other storylines, the ‘snowdrop’ in the prologue really is the friend of Nick’s old neighbour, and the crappy old car covered in snow is where his body has spent the winter. This is late in the novel, and Miller is finally bringing home to Nick – he needs these lessons, apparently – the enormity of what he has done. It’s the worldly Steve Walsh who has to explain to him that the old man will have been killed for his flat, and explains the sordid process by which this is usually achieved. Nick knows this is true because he’s been to the flat, and knows that somebody else has already moved in and installed a Jacuzzi long before the body is discovered. Clearly, Masha and Katya’s scam is a variation on this, with Nick as the willing dupe helping them with the paperwork.
And, finally, ‘the Cossack’ is as much of a crook as we always knew. The deal Nick’s firm has been brokering is as much of a scam as the sale of the non-existent out-of-town flat – and that’s Miller’s point. As soon as you let yourself be seduced by the apparently consequence-free amorality of the new Russia, you get stung. As Katya tells Nick, it’s only business.
I’m just surprised that Miller decided there was a whole novel to be squeezed out of the thin stuff he has to offer. It’s presented as a moral journey, and it’s this that doesn’t work for me. There’s a suggestion that, somehow, Nick has been in Russia too long, that its routine venality has made him forget who he is. Even he realises what bullshit this is, realises after he’s left the country that the discoveries he’s made aren’t about Russia but about himself. Well, duh. There’s no gut-wrenching moment of recognition: he never seems to realise that by allowing himself to be manipulated in the most transparent way imaginable, by simply letting things happen, he hasn’t become some sort of romantic victim. He’s become a disgusting little worm. I’m struck by the moral muddle at the centre of it. In the last paragraph of what is supposedly a confession to a future wife he tells her that guilt isn’t what he mainly feels. He misses Russia. He misses Masha. Jesus wept.
Whilst Miller’s narrator begins to accept that he might somehow be involved in his own corruption, Russia is presented as a place where such corruption is inevitable. Moscow is an addiction, and we all know that addicts can’t help themselves. Well, maybe. But what Nick allows himself isn’t a kind of understandable backsliding. It’s disgusting behaviour that no adult I know would have gone along with for a single minute. From the opening chapters of the book I was wondering what the hell he thought he was doing, and I have no sympathy for him at the end.
Miller uses an image of Moscow-style behaviour to demonstrate Nick’s descent into the irredeemable Russian mind-set. At the start of the novel, at the Metro station where Masha and Katya first test him out, he behaves like an English tourist, making sure the door doesn’t swing back fiercely in the way that such doors do on the Metro. By the end, he just lets it go like a Russian, because he doesn’t care any more. Heavy stuff.