What story is told by The Natashas, Yelena Moskovich’s rich, bizarre, spellbinding first novel? In short: a young woman grows up, becomes beautiful, and is harassed by nearly every male person she encounters; finally, something terrible happens to her. At the same time, a young man grows up, moves away from home, tries to become an actor, and possibly loses his mind due to the stress of various symbolic masks he must wear. But neither story is resolved. We don’t know exactly what happens to the young woman, Béatrice, and we don’t know whether the young man, César, gets the TV role he wants or becomes the killer toward which his delusions push him. Between these two characters are degrees of connection and notes of resonance, but no specific similarities. And then there is a mysterious woman, Polina, who appears and disappears without explanation; the “box-shaped room” full of girl-women named Natasha; and the many ghosts and dreams drifting through Paris. All these elements float, loosely tethered, to the scaffolding of this object called a novel. This might sound vague, and confusing, but that is exactly how it feels to read The Natashas—and what a glorious, shivery feeling it is.
Any graduate student can tell you that the term “novel” includes far more objects than it excludes. Even with that in mind, The Natashas is an unusual specimen. It maintains high quotients of confusion and surrealism, but it’s also funny and emphatic. It has a phenomenal focus on language, but not to the exclusion of characterization. Normally, as a critic, I seek to write about the literary structures that a book either obeys or subverts: binary oppositions, standard conflicts, placement and replacement, the hero’s journey. But I am quite at a loss to write about these structures when considering The Natashas.
Béatrice and César are set up as opposites in a handful of ways; César narrates his desires as a gay man but has almost no experience, while Béatrice has a lesbian experience but offers almost no narration on her sexuality. Béatrice is a singer and César is an actor, but for César, performing is an ambition, and for Béatrice, it’s an afterthought. However, to say these characters are wrestling each other in a binary opposition would be incorrect. They are just two characters, living in Paris, coerced and seduced by situations bigger than they are. The book might be an elegant, interlocking puzzle, since the characters and themes do collide with grace near the end. But the sense of the novel is atonal, untamed, and how can a piece of literature be both well-organized and untamed?
The lack of these familiar literary structures renders The Natashas completely unpredictable, and potentially indecipherable. It’s a surreal novel, laden with beautiful language, dream logic in place of rational scene-building, and supernatural flourishes. In the following scene, Béatrice is called down to her garden by a voice that is first on a cell phone and then comes from the air. The voice knows what she is wearing, yet Béatrice, from her window, sees no one in the garden.
Béatrice turned her head, peering carefully through the dark for Polina, but everything was as quiet as a pencil drawing.
She was not sure how long she had been standing there, waiting for Polina to come. A wind blew through the garden and Béatrice crossed her arms beneath her breasts and squeezed in, warming herself. Her breasts rose beneath her forearms as bathwater rises when a foot steps in.
A foot stepped in. Polina’s.
Polina’s hair was spread over her shoulders and looked almost as dark as her eyebrows now against the beige trench coat. Her lips had a joke playing across them.
“Well, do you see me now?” Polina said.
For some readers, the book might seem to lack focus or even sense, but I found it fresh, enticing, like nothing I’ve ever read before. In considering artists to compare to Moskovich, I thought of some of the same names listed on the back matter—Angela Carter, David Lynch, Cindy Sherman—but I thought of others, too. Elena Ferrante, for the unapologetic tone Moskovich conjures and the heartless behavior of young girls she depicts. Roberto Bolaño, for the frank ugliness of murder and misogyny into which the novel dives. Kate Durbin, for a precise, biting account of how it feels to inhabit modern femininity. If you tossed all these artists in a blender, you might approximate The Natashas. But Moskovich’s voice is really her own, even in a simple scene between Béatrice and her parents.
“Don’t you want to stay for breakfast?” the father said. “I got you a chausson aux pommes.”
Béatrice thought about his question. It felt like a room full of empty shoes. Her father waited. Words formed in her head, then melted like ice into puddles on the floor of that room. There was one shoe floating across a puddle on its sole. She remembered what it was she could say.
“No,” she told her father.
“All right,” the father said and backed up. “You want me to take you into town and drop you off?”
Béatrice paused. She held the feeling of the floating, solitary shoe. It reminded her of the word at her disposal.
“No,” Béatrice said firmly.
If this book has a failing (beyond the surreal and enigmatic qualities that make it simply not everyone’s cup of tea), it’s the sense of overload that accompanies it. Similes fly thick and fast, and though they are often wonderfully new, there are so many that the prose starts to seem heavy, even amateurish. Metaphor must attach even to hair and musical notes:
A breeze from the open window blew a strand of her blonde hair loose. It swept across her cheek, as thin as an ant’s antenna. She swept the strand back, then sat down on the piano seat and placed both hands on the keys. Her finger mindlessly pressed down on a note and a sound ran out like a mouse. She ran her finger a bit further down and pressed a B flat. A fatter mouse scrambled out.
Still, this too-muchness is appropriate for a novel so intense and bewildering. I’ve been writing about the book for hundreds of words and I fear I haven’t offered much concrete information about it, beyond explaining what a profound pleasure it is to read. This means, I think, that I’ve written something in the spirit of Moskovich’s own project. I will not stop thinking about The Natashas after I finish this review, after I prod your clicking finger to Amazon or IndieBound or wherever to get a copy delivered to your door (or so I hope). And I have the sense, from reading it, that these characters’ stories aren’t over, either. Whether Moskovich pulled this artifact from the ether between this world and the one where dreams come from, or whether she wrote it as most novelists do, typing uneventfully at a keyboard, I feel that she’s merely dropped a handful of beautiful, grotesque puzzle pieces on the bed. The whole picture will come only, I suspect, in dreams.
Publisher: Dzanc Books
Publication date: March 13, 2018
Reviewed by Katharine Coldiron