Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya

Panic in a Suitcase: A Novel BY Yelena Akhtiorskaya. Riverhead Hardcover. Hardcover, 320 pages. $27.
The cover of Panic in a Suitcase: A Novel

Panic in a Suitcase is the story of Ukrainian immigrants who come to the United States after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but it would be reductive to call Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s extraordinary debut a traditional immigrant novel. Historically, immigrant novels have tended to be about motion, transition, adjustment. In The Rites of Passage, anthropologist Arnold van Gennup explained major life transitions as occurring in a three-fold progression. The first stage is separation, a departure from the familiar: You leave home, are forced out of childhood, change status. The last stage describes ownership and assimilation: you take office, mature, discover that a once new and strange place is now home. These first and last phases possess a measure of stability due to their clarity of purpose: Each describes a leaving and an arriving. The middle—the “liminal” stage—is, for Gennep, more ambiguous, containing traces of both what’s to come and what’s been left behind. Immigrant narratives often enact this tripartite model, emphasizing the peril and meaningfulness of each stage. They seek to pass by, to overcome, the ambiguous middle.

Akhtiorskaya, on the other hand, takes it as her main subject. Panic in a Suitcase is set in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brighton Beach—nicknamed “Little Odessa”—where a simulacrum of home is manufactured and contained at the edge of the Atlantic. Thanks to economic globalization, her characters are able to configure their newfound neighborhood much in the style of the ones they left behind. Immigrants have always brought the customs of their place of origin to their new home. But the modern immigrant is able to keep accessing home, and the increasing ease of this results, it seems, in a peculiar type of stasis. Ethnographer Victor Turner famously characterized liminal personae, or “threshold people” (the term “liminality” comes from the Latin limen, meaning “threshold”), as being “betwixt and between.” Akhtiorskaya’s characters exist permanently in the liminal phase of a life transition, and find themselves in an intermediate space between cultural practices, laws, conventions; they are stuck in the act of not-yet-arriving.

In 1993, the Nasmertov family—save Pasha, the last close relative still living in Odessa—have lived in Brooklyn for seven hundred and thirty days. They’ve forgotten why they keep count of their time away from Ukraine, but continue nonetheless, as if counting keeps the sensation of permanent Brooklyn residence at bay. When the Nasmertovs arrive in Brooklyn, they are both home and not: “The food on the table was identical to the food on the table in the kitchen in the apartment in the building in the city in the oblast in the republic in the Union they were prepared never to see again.” There’s a lie at both ends of that sentence—the cream herring they eat in Brighton Beach may look and taste identical to what they’d eat in Odessa, but it isn’t the same. Now it represents something new: what they are not eating, what they are not trying, what separates them from their new landscape. All of this makes the claim at the end of the sentence a false reassurance; they may have been prepared to leave the city limits of Odessa, but they’ve brought all they can with them.

When Pasha arrives in Brooklyn for a month-long visit, the discomfort of the ersatz-Odessa is made clearer through his perspective:

Eyes glued to the window, Pasha’s first impression had been horror. . . . His fellow countrymen hadn’t ventured bravely into a new land, they’d borrowed a tiny nook at the very rear of someone else’s crumbling estate to make a tidy replication of the messy, imperfect original they’d gone through so many hurdles to escape, imprisoning themselves in their own lack of imagination, forgetting that the original had come about organically and proceeded to evolve, already markedly different from their poor-quality photocopy.

If in the first stage of a transition one is full of expectation and in the final stage the expectations are realized, then the liminal phase is marked by the twin emotions of desire and disappointment, which feed off each other cyclically. The Nasmertovs have desires that don’t correlate with the reality they must endure, but that gap alone is not what causes their disappointment. Their new reality appears riddled with an artificiality that causes a specific disappointment. Will their lives never regain the authenticity of the one they’ve left behind? The Great American Family Vacation, for example, turns out to be less than the brochures have promised. Advertised as “in the vicinity” of Lake George, the family’s rented cabin is a four-hour walk from the water. The cottage oozes impersonal impermanence—“fake wood paneling, Formica countertops, a neutral blur of smothered smells, deflated polyester comforters whose floral pattern mirrored the sensibly sized nature paintings”—and Lake George turns out to be not much more than a “bathtub of . . . snot-faced kids.” The main problem is, of course, that the cabin isn’t their dacha and Lake George isn’t the Black Sea.

Many of the family’s desires center around Pasha. He may be the family’s great hapless one, but he is also the family’s Great Poet. His imagined imminent literary renown is his father’s longest-running fantasy. When a scholar from Harvard seeks out Pasha in hopes of translating his poems, Pasha’s nonchalance sends the family into a frenzy. Pasha’s father, Robert, corresponds with the scholar, believing that he is securing fame and a future lecturer position for Pasha and entrance to Harvard for the youngest Nasmertov, Frida. The correspondence causes Robert to manifest “such outward symptoms as an acute mailbox fixation,” but the scholar turns out to be a nobody, a mere “chopstick of a man.” The translated text is never completed, no publisher is hooked, no job offered to Pasha, and, despite his promises, the scholar has no pull with the undergraduate admissions committee. Similar disappointments await Pasha as he tentatively enters New York’s émigré literary scene. What should feel like home—his countrymen banded together through shared artistic impulses—ends up being yet another the site of tremendous fakery.

The thoughts of the individual Nasmertovs are revealed through a roving free indirect eye that sees into the mind of one character after another. Akhtiorskaya uses no quotation marks and often forgoes speech tags that would name which member of the Nasmertov clan is saying each line. The result is the cultivation of a familial voice that belongs to them all, unifies them. Sometimes, the absence of quotation marks makes it hard to tell if certain lines are being spoken aloud or not. The tactic creates another liminal layer, this time in the mind of the reader.

Yet as Akhtiorskaya leads her readers into the unknown, she grounds them with precise physical description. She is an expert noticer. To take just one instance: “An odor of derangement hung about Brighton, wafting extra from under the train tracks. There were too many instances of household appliances used as hats, baby carriages with things other than babies in them, heated conversations with a sole visible party.” The combination of dislocation and precision is, perhaps, the best among the many gifts this book bestows. The effect is the engaging and suspenseful revealing of a world as one author sees it. Akhtiorskaya's noticing is generous; she leads, but doesn’t push, allowing readers to see things for themselves, to notice a world alongside her.

Chloé Cooper Jones studies and teaches philosophy in New York City. She is the interviews editor at Gigantic.