blackbirdonline journalSpring 2016  Vol. 15 No. 1
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Review | A Replacement Life, by Boris Fishman
Harper, 2014

spacer A Replacement Life, by Boris Fishman

Wordplay always has a certain double-edged quality to it (it’s only one letter away from swordplay, after all); dictionaries define it as both a “playful or clever” approach to language and “the witty exploitation of the meanings and ambiguities of words.” Both definitions feature strongly in Boris Fishman’s debut novel, A Replacement Life, which tells the story of a young writer—Slava Gelman—who puts his skills to use by helping forge Holocaust reparation claims for his Jewish neighbors.

Exploitation—check. Ambiguities—check. Words—check, in abundance. Fishman infuses his prose and dialogue with an energetic lightness, which lifts Slava’s ploy up from the realm of heartless fraud to something like tender, well-intended justice. The novel truly sings when Fishman brings both possibilities to the fore and allows the ethical lines to fully blur as Slava sinks deeper into the scheme. At its heart, A Replacement Life is a meditation on stories and what truths they must tell, if any.

Throughout the novel, Fishman examines the liberating and constricting effects of language. The characters relish the concreteness that writing can bring to old memories, but just as often, they prefer to spend their time around the edges, keeping their histories close and never articulating anything too dreadful to remember. When Slava shows one of his letters to Israel Arkadievich, a Jewish war veteran, Israel offers him some advice: “Oh, it’s good, Slava. It’s got that silence of ours. That terrible Russian silence that the Americans don’t understand. They are always making noise because they need to forget life is going to end. But we remember, and so we have silence, even when we’re shouting and laughing.”

Slava is already a devout believer in the power of the written word. He spends most of his days working for a prestigious journal, Century, in Manhattan, where his serious writing goes woefully unappreciated. Instead of writing brilliant articles, he hunts for interesting, punny news items from around the country, providing fodder for the magazine’s humor column. He’s dealing in the most menial form of wordplay—tasked with recognizing it, not writing it. But to Slava, the son of Russian immigrants, Century represents everything cultured and everything American. Slava knows his hero’s journey begins here, “the forking road spread-eagled before him” between the past and the future, between what he sees as an increasingly burdensome immigrant heritage and his vision of himself as a Great American Writer.

But then his grandmother—a Holocaust survivor who escaped from a ghetto—dies suddenly, and Slava sinks into regret and shame for not knowing her better. In the early chapters dealing with the grandmother’s death, Fishman’s prose goes into the height of wordplay, giving us a sense of Slava’s reliance on writing to understand the world and his place in it: “His grandmother wasn’t. . . . The new tense, a hostile ambassador, submitted its credentials.” Fishman makes language an active force when Slava feels his world is at a standstill, and the spin of Slava’s thoughts propels the narrative forward, driving us into unexpected poignancy: “Grandmother had been in the Holocaust—in the Holocaust? As in the army, the circus? The grammar seemed wrong. At the Holocaust? Of it, with it, from it, until it? The English preposition, stunned by the assignment, came up short.” It’s rare to find lyricism that manages both humor and gravitas so easily, and blends them together seamlessly, but Fishman achieves it in a way that reminds us that the characters think in translation, that they have to guide their thoughts through the filters of language or culture or religion, always trying to “[weather] the divide between there and here.”

Slava has spent a lot of time putting distance between there (his family) and here (the New York literati and all its promise). His grandmother’s death forces Slava to return to his old neighborhood in Brooklyn, which is largely populated by other Soviet émigrés. When Slava returns to his family, his grandfather asks Slava to help him collect his wife’s rightful reparations, recently approved from the German treasury. All Slava needs to do is write a letter describing his grandmother’s experience—and then swap out the name.

Slava can’t conceal his horror and irritation, but his grandfather explains it like this: if Slava’s grandmother just happened to miss the deadline, then where’s the harm in conferring her story onto her still-living husband? What does it actually mean to be a survivor? Can a soldier qualify for reparations? Or an evacuee? And why not? Is it necessary to have gone through one horror instead of another? Are there agreed-upon degrees of suffering, like the stipulations on the reparation form: “ghettos, forced labor, concentration camps”? “Maybe I didn’t suffer in the exact way I need to have suffered,” Slava’s grandfather spits, “but they made sure to kill all the people who did.”

So, after a little waffling, Slava takes up the challenge, and we’re off on a fascinating morality tale. The voice remains strong throughout, wittily dry and often lyrical, especially when it’s focused on the most central characters—Slava and his grandfather: “[They] were sealed to each other like husband and wife. They were married in the old way, without release. They would be vicious toward each other, wait till the burn settled, start in on each other again. They were deathless.” The sharp language and wonderful dialogue pull readers through the leisurely pace of the story; the plot meanders unhurriedly at times into numerous subplots, and a few scenes (especially those in the thick of Century’s editorial meetings—where Slava introduces us to wave after wave of forgettable writers and editors) can go a little slack. But while it would be easy to imagine a version of this novel that sustains the narrative tension at a more even pace, building like a classic true crime tale, there’s also something charming about the way Fishman steers us toward Slava’s mounting guilt at a slant instead of head-on. Fishman certainly sees his premise through (the conclusion of the reparations arc is a strange, entertaining treat), but his primary interest involves questions about the immigrant experience and the power of stories.

Slava carries the weight of those questions, and he makes for an intriguing protagonist—he’s always feeling things like “resentful relief,” seething on the page at a low simmer. He’s got a selfish streak that makes him interesting, but he’s hesitant to act on that impulse. He’s fearless one moment and furtive the next, and Fishman holds the character together by working through Slava’s contradictions and indecisiveness, all a result of Slava’s unresolved feelings about his heritage and his family. This man yearns intensely but feels utterly out of place in every setting—his Russian neighbors seem like strangers to him, but he can’t manage the office politics at Century or the emotional cues in his blossoming romantic relationship. His paranoia about being caught in the reparations scheme gives him the forward momentum he longs for, but it also covers older, trickier questions about identity and morality. When visiting another set of neighbors (all of whom are potential reparations claimants), he slides into a long reflection on what it means that they’re now so willing to tell their stories, eagerly providing him with details he can use to write accurate, believable letters:

He would steer the conversation back to the war, the endless war. The assembled—the families before him appeared in full—sat before him as before a judge, the children grasping the mottled hands of the old ones while listening to stories they never had the temerity to prod for themselves. The American dollar would force out the stories that love and consideration had elected not to elicit. Slava, working in concert with the philosophy of the nation that had taken them in—good works as the by-product of self-interest—was able to give the descendants at the table, the children and grandchildren, the gift of knowing, at last, the unknown corners of their forebears, all because the forebears stood to make money.

That line—“good works as the by-product of self-interest”—strikes the right chord for Slava’s discomfort; he cannot decide whether good comes from intention, action, or neither. What works so well about A Replacement Life is that Fishman allows these big questions to stir in Slava’s mind but always brings us back down again to intensely personal connections. Maybe “goodness” isn’t something Slava can ever fully define, but he knows why he feels compelled to write letters again and again, to piece together the experiences he hears from his family, his neighbors, and even perfect strangers. He knows that filling up a blank page with stories that so often seem unutterable is its own kind of reward and that he’s growing closer to understanding his identity through the process. He filters all of these stories through the memory of his grandmother: “You get your letter,” he says, “and I get to be with my grandmother for a thousand more words.” A Replacement Life proves that words can be more than play—they can connect us to something larger, something necessary, all while moving us toward something “more unknown . . . more unfamiliar.” For Fishman, walking the edge of knowledge and innocence, of silence and language, of culture and community gives us answers we can live with.  end  

Boris Fishman is the author of two novels, most recently Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo (Harper, 2016). His first novel, A Replacement Life (Harper, 2014), was one of The New York Times’s 100 Notable Books of 2014, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick, winner of the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, and winner of the Sophie Brody Medal from the American Library Association. He edited the anthology Wild East: Stories from the Last Frontier (Justin, Charles & Co., 2003). His journalism, essays, and criticism have appeared in in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine and Sunday Book Review, New Republic, The Nation, the London Review of BooksThe Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, and other publications. He is the recipient of residencies and fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, among others. He earned his MFA in fiction from New York University. 

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