When I was a child, I had a family of doll people. … What my family lacked was a father, but a father doll was a true rarity. Nobody I knew had a father doll. Most of the kids I knew didn’t even have fathers. I didn’t have a father; mine died when I was two. …Fatherlessness was so common that even the Soviet authorities were aware of it. The Soviet authorities were famous for being protective of their citizens, so whenever a certain item was scarce they did their best to make that scarcity less conspicuous. My mother, who used to write school textbooks, was prohibited from even mentioning those scarce items. When composing a math problem, for instance, she couldn’t mention bananas, because they were impossible to get in most parts of Russia. She could use apples, but not bananas. Chicken, but not beef. Mothers, but not fathers. She was allowed to write, “A mother gave her three children six apples and asked them to divide the fruit equally,” but forbidden to write about a father asking his kids to do the same thing with bananas. She told me this when I was in my teens, and I didn’t believe her. I combed through my old textbooks to try to prove her wrong, but I couldn’t find a single mention of a father, beef, or bananas.
I’ve been looking at this story (available online) for a week now, trying to find something interesting to say about it. It’s not that it’s a bad story – the insight into Soviet-era Russian families in this city is quite nicely done – but it seems to me to exist on the surface. I suspect that’s because I’m not looking hard enough. I felt the same way about the last Vapnyar story in TNY; good writing, very interesting in places, and the parts worked, but I didn’t see the whole. Here, I see the whole, I just feel like there must be more to it than I’m seeing. I’m probably not doing justice to this story, but at some point, I have to move on.
Katya and Tania are childhood friends who form a bond over their separate doll families, and the country of Katania they create for them. They grow apart after a nasty fight about fathers, and both move to the US in adulthood, where they reunite.
The closer I got to Tania’s place, the more I dreaded our initial conversation. I did want to talk about our childhood, but to get there we would need to catch up first. I’d have to tell her that my mother had died. That I probably wouldn’t be able to have children. And that my husband had left me. “Up and went. Because he was sick of me.” (I guess I didn’t really understand the cruelty of those words until my divorce.) At least my career was on the right track. That was something.
“Recalculating,” the G.P.S. informed me for the twentieth time…
Katya herself is in for some recalculation; she and Tania have not traded places, exactly, but it’s close.
Vapnyar discusses the switch, and the significance of GPS in light of the line, “You may be rich, but I have my freedom,” in her Page-Turner interview.