U.R. Bowie. Collection of short stories. Googlegogol: Stories from the Database of Russian Literature, Inc. [published July, 2016]
Available for purchase on Amazon:
U.R. Bowie writes in the grand tradition of Russian literature. "Googlegogol" consists of thirteen short stories, based (thematically, biographically, or stylistically) on Bulgakov, Bunin, Chekhov, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Nabokov, Tolstoy, and others. The entire production is refracted through the consciousness of that quintessential deranged master of Russian prose: Nikolai Gogol.
Some of the stories are set in Russia, others in the U.S. Some are written in purely realistic style, but the collection as a whole owes much to Russian modernism. An example of the realism is “The Death of Ivan Lvovich,” which tells the tale of the brief life of Tolstoy’s last and most beloved son, Ivan, as narrated by Ivan Bunin—winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1933. Bunin, who is eking out a poverty-stricken life in the south of France, while Hitler’s forces are invading Russia, looks back on the year 1895—when, as a young writer, he visited Lev Tolstoy in Moscow and found him grieving over his dead son. “Running Thoughts” is a stream-of-consciousness tale that takes the reader into the mind of Tolstoy, on the evening in 1910 when he made his decision to flee his Yasnaja Polyana estate and his intolerable life—and ended up running into the arms of Death.
Several stories describe events in the life of Fyodor Dostoevsky. “Man Beating Man Beating Horse” relates an episode that occurred in 1837, when Dostoevsky, his father and brother were on their way to St. Petersburg, where he would enroll in the Academy for Military Engineers. “Something in the Way of a Parricide” tries to get a handle on the story of the “murder” of Dostoevsky’s father in 1839, while “Executed (Almost)” relates how Dostoevsky was put through the ordeal of a fake execution in St. Petersburg (1849).
Other stories range far from the style of traditional Russian realism. Owing much in its themes and style to Gogol and Bulgakov, “Shoes Run Amuck” describes the misadventures of a man who—much to his subsequent chagrin—robbed the grave of Nikolai Gogol in 1931, on the day when Gogol’s body was disinterred for reburial at Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow. “Hobnob” uses Nabokovian tropes to recreate a pale version of the great Nabacocoa and describe his proctoring of an exam in Ohio, 1952— and his interactions with the mind of one of the students taking that exam.
Several stories are written in a Chekhovian vein. “The Lady from Berdichev” is the tale of an old lady living out her life in Brighton Beach, while ever yearning back toward her birthplace of Berdichev, as Chekhov’s three sisters yearn for Moscow. In “Divertimento for Strings and Structure,” a story into which Raymond Carver pokes his nose briefly, Chekhov makes a personal appearance in the flesh (or at least in the mind of the hapless protagonist).
Other stories feature highly unusual characters or narrators. “Anteayer” is a modern tale of schizophrenia, a story of a young woman who leaves Russia for the American Dream, only to find that the only dreams she knows how to dream are Russian dreams. The lead story, “Recruiting,” describes obliquely how Russian Literature goes about gathering its personages and images, while its companion story, “Chimeras,”—the last in the collection—is a tale of Russian nesting dolls; open one up, and whoops, there’s a new narrator or author inside, and then open that one up and whoops, there’s still someone else. “The Riddle of the Duck” is, primarily, about Russian mentalities, the way Russians can hold simultaneous contradictory notions in their minds. It features a man who may or may not be Lee Harvey Oswald, still alive on the fiftieth anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination.
A brief word about the cover art. The front cover depicts a scene from the famous fabulist Ivan Krylov, his tale (“Quartet”) of how a nasty and uppity monkey decided to organize a string quartet. The monkey recruited an ass, a goat and a bear, and they all set about sawing away on their instruments; only to discover that none of them had ever learned to play an instrument. The back cover shows three of Russia’s finest writers—Lermontov, Pushkin, and Gogol—mulling over life in general, while cogitating over the back cover copy beneath them and the way Russian literature is presented in Googlegogol.