When we think of teachable stories, we often reach deep into the rucksack of the literary past, pulling out classroom-tested stories that have worked their way into the canon. While there is obviously a ton to learn from these pieces, contemporary short story writers are also completing strong work built upon teachable literary foundations, while also finding fascinating ways to advance the form. In this space, we’ll highlight some of these more modern stories and explore a bit of what they have to teach us as we continue to do our part to push literature forward.
In “Novostroïka” by Maria Reva (published in The Atlantic), Daniil Ivanovich Blinov has some problems: He’s recently been allotted an apartment, and every day more of his family moves in; his job is asking him to create literal impossibilities; he hasn’t received a paycheck from his employer in quite a while; the heat has gone out in his complex, and snow has started to fall; and, perhaps most vexingly, it appears that his apartment does not officially exist. Oh, and everywhere he looks, there is evidence that the USSR is collapsing.
In all of this, Daniil just wants to live his life and enjoy his new apartment, which is so big and roomy he can “lay down on the kitchen floor, his legs squeezed into the gap between the stove and the table.” But there’s no heat, and the apartment has been taken up by fourteen family members plus a coterie of small animals. He tries to solve the heat issue through government channels and is stymied multiple times, so the family eventually scrounges up enough money to buy a single space heater. In its very first scene, the heater is immediately broken, ridiculously, by workers commandeering the apartment because they’re carrying a coffin too big to be turned around in the hall. With no heat and no savings, his job and life falling apart and no particular prospects for saving any of it, Daniil goes outside to claim the numbers of his building and prove, to anyone who may doubt it, that it, and by extension he, does exist.
Plot as Character, Character as Plot
On a simple plot level, this is a story about the apartment complex (the titular Novostroïka), and Daniil’s struggle to get it seen and heated. We get that from the opening scene, where the conflict is laid out explicitly for us. On a more complex level, the plot is about Daniil’s effort to carve out some semblance of existence for himself in the crumbling world he inhabits. This, again, is shown in that opening scene, where he’s so easily dismissed by a failing bureaucracy, and it is doubled down upon with our conclusion, where he takes concrete physical hold of the apartment to prove that it is tangible.
But the genius of this story is in the way that it uses that larger conflict to wind through multiple challenges in Daniil’s life while building his character solely through his interaction with these events. Everything we know of Daniil stems from the apartment: His job gives it to him, his hanger-on family appears because of it, his world-weary passiveness is shown even as he attempts to solve the heating issue, and the way he is brow-beaten by everyone from government officials to his family to his boss comes through every time he tries to take any action. Daniil simply moves from one moment to the next, always one more problem appearing in front of him. We take almost no time away from the events of this story; there are precious few moments spent describing characters, or in Daniil’s thoughts, or in narrative summary. At one point, Daniil doodles a cartoon creature, and there is a recurring interaction with an old man who mentions a specific type of candy, but other than these two references the story doesn’t use much in the way of context or even a tremendous amount of cultural specificity, though the latter of course can be seen in many narrative choices and character actions.
This is what plot is supposed to do, present challenges to a character that then reveal character, but it’s rare to see a story handle it so efficiently. It’s something I take note of, and try to copy, every time I read this story: The large conflict of this piece spirals out to affect everything that Daniil does, so that wherever we are, we’re constantly engaging with the throughline of the piece on both the character and plot level. If Daniil loses his job because he can’t solve the design puzzle his job has presented to him (or because he’s heating the apartment illegally, or because of all the people and animals living there who shouldn’t be, or because he’s made too much of a nuisance of himself by gently pointing out the existence of his building), then he loses his apartment. If his apartment doesn’t exist, then he never had his one piece of pride. If Daniil can’t get heat, then the apartment that gives him that pride is worthless, and on top of that he cannot provide for his family. If he cannot provide for his family, what good is his apartment or his pride?
In all of these ways, conflict leads to internal development which adds layers of context to the conflict. Plot builds character, which then deepens the plot.
The Ridiculous Absurdity of Reality
Nearly every scene in this story bursts with moments so ridiculous that I want to call them absurdity. I’m still not sure if that’s the right descriptor for them, nor the right mode in which to be reading this story, but it’s the best one I, as an outsider to this world, have. The story seems to intentionally play with this awareness: There are plenty of moments that are clearly ridiculous, such as in our opening scene where a government official declares Daniil’s housing complex nonexistent because it’s not in her records; but there are other moments that almost toe the line of absurdity, such as the grandmother ensconced in chickens who bursts in the very instant Daniil moves in demanding to stay with him, or the government workers doggedly wandering into various apartments as they attempt to maneuver a coffin down multiple flights of stairs through which it cannot fit. They’re all played with the same exhausted disbelief, as if the world is slipping away from Daniil and he can’t for the life of him imagine how to respond. Indeed, that’s perhaps what makes these moments feel most absurd, the way he is left speechless, and actionless, at each one.
But then there are the more heavy-handed examples of something like absurdity, from Grandfather Grishko producing money from his testicles (“Don’t ask me where I’ve been stashing it”) to Daniil’s job’s insistence that he completely engineer and produce a new type of vegetable, a triangular green bean, solely for the sake of saving a few cubic millimeters of space. These are again handled with Daniil’s almost stunned stoicism; there is nothing he can do in either moment but move forward.
It’s important to note that none of these things are absurdism as impossibility, things that could not physically happen in our reality. Rather, they are poking quite clearly at the absolute nonsense that exists clearly within reality. Daniil’s acknowledgement of each of these things, the way they seem to fill his life as easily and surely as the snow on Lenin’s statue, only serves to highlight how strange these events are, how non-real these very real moments feel. It’s incredibly effective in building tone, in building uniqueness of character and situation, in making memorable moments and set pieces within the story, but it also points to a lesson that I feel like I glean from most truly amazing stories: to come at story itself, all story, from a unique perspective.
The maxim I often tell my students: You need to either tell an old story in a new way, or find an entirely new story to tell. What I mean by that, setting aside the pithy note-taking verbiage, is that stories need to have something unique to say, something individual that no other story, no other writer, can present. This story, in the way it slants these events so that they feel something like realistically impossible, builds itself a voice that is entirely its own.
In Conclusion: Empathy (vs. Relatability)
My professor and mentor Charmaine Craig (hey, she’s judging The Masters Review’s Novel Excerpt Contest this year!) talks often about the scourge of relatability in our modern literary consciousness. So often we look for stories that confirm what we already know, and we allow ourselves to write things that sit comfortably in our personal bubble of awareness and knowledge. There’s nothing wrong with taking advantage of the places where you’re an expert, and write what you know is a perfectly valid guiding light, but unless you’re writing nonfiction, it can only take you so far. When this thing we do is done right, as writers we are imagining our way into people other than ourselves, and as readers we are discovering people other than ourselves. Yet I often speak to students who think it’s something close to impossible to write anything other than their own experience, and when reading they’re looking for characters who confirm their own worldview exclusively.
From what exists on the page, I have very little in common with Daniil: I’ve never even been out of the United States. I’ve never lived in anything like an apartment complex. And if anything, I’m a drain on my family rather than the opposite as Daniil experiences. And there’s nothing other than those details for us to latch onto, as we know nothing about his general opinions or what he looks like or how he comes across to other people outside of this situation. Unless you’ve somehow literally had the exact same experiences as Daniil, there is nothing to “relate” to in this piece. Maybe that makes some of my comments about the absurd fall flat, maybe there are things I’m missing about what is normal in this place or how Daniil responds to his situations. That’s all right, I’ve been wrong before and will be again many times. There are a lot of things in this story to which I can’t relate, for which I have no frame of knowledge.
But what this story does, in addition to all the other lessons we can take away from it, is give us enough of this character, his world and his troubles, to empathize with him. Whoever he is, whatever he is doing, we read him and we are there, right with him. We can feel his plight, and we respond to it. That humanistic ability to respond doesn’t need sameness, requires no tribal or gender or cultural connection.
This connection is the magic of story, of course, but this piece masterfully pulls off that alchemy while avoiding backstory, or narrative summary, or much in the way of cultural references or even internal thought. Rather, we have a character struggling in a moment, drawn so deftly that the moment itself pulls us along. There’s something in here about trusting your reader to follow the path you set, there’s something in here about conflict being the engine of story, but mostly, the lesson to walk away from comes down to this: you don’t need to build a million reasons for your reader to care about a main character. There’s no need to setup some perfect backstory that tugs at every greeting-card heartstring. Story comes from the struggle of characters in challenging situations, whoever they may be.
Sometimes, it really is that simple.
by Brandon Williams