Tuesday, December 14, 2010

On "The Last Chicken in America" by Ellen Litman ***

"A Novel in Stories," the collection's title page says. I guess that depends on one's definition of the novel. More and more, it seems like the description denoted on this title page is an excuse to try to sell something as a novel rather than a collection, because the former will sell and the latter won't. For me, a novel develops plot wise. It may not even necessarily develop chronologically, but it will develop in some way. I didn't get that feeling from Litman's book.

What her book certainly is is a short story cycle, a set of stories all set around the same community, much like Joyce's Dublin. Litman's community is a place called Squirrel Hill, a Russian immigrant community, and each story is about such people. I admit, whether this is a novel or a story cylce doesn't much matter to me; I'm actually more a fan of the latter than the former, so adding the novel appelation does more a disservice for me than sell it. Litman's collection does what great short story cycles do--it shows us a community from different angles and perspectives, letting us learn all about these people and this place.

The difficulty I had with these stories is that they--and many of the characters--ran together for me. Too much of the same voice, I couldn't keep one Russian name separate from another, one character apart from another.

But save that, I did enjoy the collection, more even than I thought necessarily thought I would. I was moved to read it largely by other reviews (good reviews), but I was almost desiring not to given that the subject matter didn't sound compelling. Overall, I'm glad I picked it up. I'm just having a hard time saying exactly what I just completed.

The most moving story for me in this collection is the second to last, "About Kamyshinskiy." It recounts love stories, three of them, simultaneously--how love bursts on to the scene, and how it simply bursts. This is one of those stories whose power sneaks up on you--or at least it was for me. The way that Litman structures it, we become as curious about Kamyshinskiy as his neighbors, even if we are not as shocked by his budding love, since we know of it from the start. What we are shocked by is something else, something Litman holds back from us until it's almost too late, and it is what makes the story so sad, so compelling, so terrible (and I mean that in the most gloriously tragic way).

Other stories in the collection recount tales of a teen girl taking up with a young man her parents like but who she doesn't like and who proves to be something less than his parents think he is; a couple who takes English classes together and who keep in contact with a senile woman they met on the journey to America; a young girl who babysits for a rich woman who doesn't seem to need a babysitter (except to keep her from being lonely, given that her rich husband has little interest in her); a girl who sleeps around a lot; a pair of dancers who come to stay with a couple; a girl learning to drive; and a woman who returns home to Squirrel Hill for a wedding.

A couple of the more intriguing stories involve contrasts between past and present. In one, a man flirts with having an affair with a fellow Russian immigrant in his office. Of note here is how he thinking constantly of a former girlfriend, of how these relationships become his means to return to the Russia--and the girl--he left. The other story is of a girl who excels in Russian club as long as she is willing to be absolutely devoted to Russia. Her teacher is a man with very strong views on this subject, very strong views on Russia itself, unable to move on to a life in America. How much does an immigrant keep of the old home, and how much does the immigrant become part of America? This seems to be one of the main questions Litman is exploring. In the aforementioned wedding story, for example, the girl, Masha, who shows up in several of the stories, wrestles with this question intensely, having fled her Russian immigrant home only to find her new almost wholly American life possibly lacking. Though she lives as if becoming American is more important, she spends her time studying Russian. Subconsciously, she seems drawn to the old world. In the end, she seems unsatisfied with either world--and wants both.


Karen Carlson said...

I like your comments on the "novel in stories" phenomenon. For me, the key is this: if I skip a story (or read some out of order), can I still understand the others? If so, it's a story collection. If not, it's a novel.

I'm going to have to read this one, though, because it keeps falling across my path. Steve Almond wrote a wonderful tiny book "This Won't Take But A Minute, Honey" (if you haven't read it, oh, you should) which is half essays on writing (the cover is a nurse in white with a very long hypo) and half amazing micro stories (the cover is the same woman in a sexy black catsuit with a whip in the hand that used to hold the hypo). The halves of the book are reversed, so one cover is upside down while reading the other. It's brilliant! And every word is marvellous - including an example, in the essay on titling a story, of a brilliant student named Ellen Litman who wrote a wonderful story titled something blah, but the discussion returned over and over to a scene in which the narrator's immigrant father clutches a chicken in a grocery store like it was the last chicken in America. I've always wanted to read the book that went along with such a wonderful title, and now you've motivated me further - thank you!

Chris said...

I read "Last Chicken in America" a year ago and loved it because of its portrayal of Squirrel Hill. I work in and live nearby the Sq. Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh where the book is set and I have to say it's a very accurate picture of our neighborhood. It also gave me a lot of insight into the lives of the Russian immigrants here. I'd recommend it for anyone who's familiar with Squirrel Hill.

Short Story Reader said...

That is one thing I like about cycles like this--that you get a feel for a community or a place or a set of people. It makes the collection more than just a set of random pieces.