'Panic in a Suitcase' is a story of Odessan émigrés in Brooklyn, told with humor and catharsis

A Brighton Beach family’s saga bends Russian literary tradition into mordant modern comedy.

Panic in a Suitcase, by Yelena Akhtiorskaya, Penguin Group, 320 pp.

Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s debut novel, Panic in a Suitcase, has numerous elements that might seem familiar to certain readers. At its center is the Nasmertov family, émigrés from Odessa to Brighton Beach. Pasha, the late-30s son whose 1993 visit to New York opens the novel, is a poet; Esther and Robert, his parents, ponder life in their adopted country even as Esther struggles with cancer. What makes "Panic in a Suitcase" so memorable, then, is the way that it avoids the clichéd routes any of these elements could have prompted. Instead, this is a novel of family that remains true to its sometimes stubborn, sometimes endearing, and sometimes unknowable characters.

At the center of this is Pasha. Viewed from the perspective of his family, he seems an irresponsible figure, his refusal to join his family in the United States a source of constant frustration, his presence in writing circles out of sync with the rhythms of his parents and sister. There’s also the matter of his conversion from Judaism to Christianity:

At 20, he’d inflicted the injury. There has been the technicality of the process – an elaborate theater of spite, as Esther called it, convinced that every step of it was being done to undo her. The catechumen period had been auspiciously brief.

Pasha’s fecklessness leads to the first of Akhtiorskaya’s subtle yet powerful narrative shifts, as Robert encounters “the man from Cambridge,” a translator with his eye on Pasha’s work. This seems at first to be so disconnected from what’s come before – Pasha himself has apparently forgotten the man’s existence – that it seems likely that Robert has delusionally willed this man into being. (Shades, perhaps, of the patriarch in Franzen’s "The Corrections" slowly losing his grip on reality.) Except that this turns out to be untrue: Pasha’s work is, in fact, very highly regarded by a certain literary community. Suddenly, another dimension to him is revealed: While his frenetic traversals in the summer heat of New York City, from his family’s home in Brighton Beach to cultural happenings in Manhattan and back again, seem like the travails of a clown, Pasha can’t simply be reduced to the “comic hero” category. Self-effacing and nebulously poised between genius and fool, Pasha seems to reject the place of honor that being at the core of a novel with grand themes might confer.

And elude it he does, ultimately ceding his central role in the book to his niece, Frida, whose actions in the novel’s second half echo Pasha’s, without acting as an outright parallel or inverse. Akhtiorskaya accomplishes this transition out of the novel’s first half and into the second via two seemingly disparate scenes; as the connection between the two is made, a sense of what has transpired is gradually revealed: exposition through inference.

In the second half of "Panic," Frida (and, to a lesser extent, her mother, Marina) take over, and what has befallen many of the characters is initially left implicit. Over a decade has passed. Frida is now in medical school; feeling a certain malaise, she embarks on a trip across the Atlantic to visit her uncle during her summer break. When Pasha re-enters the narrative, questions of his own artistic and personal trajectories over time are raised – notably, his place in his country’s literary scene – and certain encounters that took place earlier in the novel are invested with new significance. Frida’s trip to Odessa involves a number of culture-clash moments that are at once comic and deeply aware of the weight of history.

I know what Chernobyl was, said Frida with irritation, though when she said it, a fear shot through her that she’d be tested on the subject and fail horribly, like in a dream, mixing up Chernobyl with the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire or the Titanic.

Stock plot lines and canned situations are eluded here. This might have something to do with the novel’s setting, both temporal and geographic. The Nasmertov family hails from Odessa; at the time that the novel opens, Pasha is considered a Russian poet. By its end, the question is raised as to whether he might better be described as a Ukrainian one, as Frida briefly considers becoming her uncle’s biographer and runs down the often-contradictory facts of his life. Pasha’s distance from his family’s religion also prevents the narrative from occupying a familiar shape, as does his refusal to fill the role of expatriate writer that his family and peers seem determined to force him into. (Vulture’s “Approval Matrix” recently raised a comparison between Akhtiorskaya’s novel and the works of Nabokov; Nabokov himself, then, might be said to be the embodiment of the literary archetype that Pasha himself skirts.)

"Panic in a Suitcase" ends with a long meditation on routine and apathy, on both the personal and cultural level. It ends with Pasha concluding that stagnation itself is futile: “With each passing year, his surroundings became less recognizable, he felt more and more uprooted. Constancy of habit didn’t buffer against a city, a society, perhaps a whole culture in decay.” It’s clear by this point why Akhtiorskaya has chosen New York’s mid-1990s and late 2000s as the particular moments in history for her novel. For all of the glorious eccentricities of her characters, the enduring message of this book is both deeply universal and faithful to the idiosyncrasies on display. “Several times in one’s life, a good sobering was required,” Akhtiorskaya writes towards the novel’s end, and the story that’s come before fills that purpose memorably, with humor and catharsis in abundance.

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