Still Here: A Novel
- By Lara Vapnyar
- 320 pp.
- Reviewed by Amanda Holmes Duffy
- August 8, 2016
A poignant story of immigration and technology.
Lara Vapnyar, author of Still Here, emigrated from Russia to the United States in 1994. Russia was a very different place back then. Around the same time, I was living in Moscow for my husband’s job. Our apartment on the U.S. Embassy compound was efficient, secure, and absolutely identical to all the other embassy apartments. It had excellent amenities such as laundry facilities, which were the envy of expat and Russian friends alike.
It was also utterly soulless. Real life happened beyond the compound. There was a fly-by-night exuberance on the streets of Moscow during those years. I was often struck by the depth of Russian intellectual life. The average Russian was very well read by American standards and deeply committed to their inner life. It might have been inconvenient, cold, and forbidding, but life in Russia during those years felt very much alive.
So I came to Vapnyar’s new novel with great curiosity. It concerns a group of four Russian friends, Vadik, Regina, Vica, and Sergey, who have immigrated to New York. They are highly educated, work in the tech industry, and are professionally well connected.
Vadik earns good money as a computer programmer, he has many gadgets, and communicates with his girlfriend mostly via Skype. Regina, a brilliant translator, is now married to Bob, a rich American who owns a startup. Vica is a medical technician who spends her free time on Facebook and is frustrated by her husband, Sergey. He is struggling to develop an app called Virtual Grave which will provide immortality for the departed. As a sales pitch, he tweaks the last line of Hamlet: “The rest is silence, but does it have to be?”
The conflicts in this cleverly plotted and often amusing novel are mostly about loss, death, and alienation. Regina is trying to recover from the death of her mother, a famous Russian translator. She knows she must return to Moscow and visit Aunt Masha, but will she get the motivation to turn off the television, leave her sofa, and make the painful journey?
Vica worries about her son Erik’s social awkwardness and academic potential. But after splitting up with Sergey, she has difficulty making friends. She joins a dating site and wanders around taking selfies to post on Facebook so that everyone will think she’s happy.
After years in New York, Vadik’s most meaningful interaction is still the one he remembers from his first day, when he became lost and met a girl in a coffee shop. Later, with no way to trace her, this girl lingers in his mind as the one true love of his life. He still has no American friends. Vapnyar writes, “Even most of his Facebook friends were Russians…They seemed to have lives pulsating with excitement and meaning. They had lives he could have had if he’d stayed in Russia. Why, why on earth had he been so sure that he’d make it here?”
Unfortunately, just as playing with apps and surfing the net feel like filler in our lives, they also read like filler in a book. You sense Vapnyar’s boredom with the virtual lives of her characters. I longed for them to get their noses out of their laptops and back into the world.
But isn’t this really the point? Because the most satisfying pages in this novel are the ones about Moscow. When Regina sits with Aunt Masha in her filthy kitchen, having a difficult conversation, I was transported back to my own days in Moscow, when I tapped into a vivid and engaging world with my friend Marta in her Moscow kitchen.
“There was a greasy aluminum teakettle on the table, a whole loaf of bread, some butter in a chipped teacup, sliced cheese on a saucer, and a one-liter jar of pickled mushrooms…Aunt Masha took out two little shot glasses from the cupboard and a bottle of vodka from the fridge. ‘Let’s drink to Olga,’ she said, pouring half a shot for each of them. They took a few sips, then ate a mushroom each.”
Vapnyar suggests what we need to feel connected is each other’s bodily warmth. Regina’s marriage to Bob may lack passion, but it has a lot of tenderness and physical warmth. You rejoice for Vica when she has a one-night stand and “he felt like the warmest, largest, most wonderful blanket. And so what if the blanket had a stiff dick, and so what if that dick was entering her?”
The novel has many funny moments like this one. But since finishing it, I’ve mostly been thinking about its more serious implications. Perhaps the virtual grave that really concerns us is not an app for immortality, but technology itself. Our online lives, like the life I once lived on the embassy compound, may have the rough edges smoothed away. But they lack a real presence. It isn’t enough to be still here. In order to live fulfilling lives, we must actually be here, in the untidy real world, and in each present moment.