| March 2011
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By Olivia Boler
“Linked story cycles” is a form of book-length storytelling that sits on the fence between the novel and short stories. Each story is its own universe, with a beginning, middle, and end, but the same characters appear in starring or supporting roles throughout the book. Two years ago, Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout, straddled that line, and Strout came away with a Pulitzer Prize.
Ivan and Misha (Northwestern University Press), the debut story collection published last fall by Castro District author Michael Alenyikov, follows this tradition, although Alenyikov prefers the term “novel-in-stories.”
“Novel-in-stories seems like a better description because the stories in Ivan and Misha are long, almost novelistic,” says Alenyikov, 62. “Each of the stories goes into great depth about one of the major characters of the book.”
The novel centers on Ivan and his fraternal twin brother, Misha, who as children immigrate from the Soviet Union to New York with their widowed father in 1989, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Ivan grows up to be a cab driver with a weakness for get-rich-quick schemes. Misha, the more grounded of the two, is gay and in a serious relationship. Their father, who was a doctor in Kiev, works as a doorman.
“I think of the stories as love stories that explore different aspects of love,” Alenyikov says. “The first story, ‘Ivan and Misha,’ is about the relationship between the two brothers. The second story is about their father, who has a stroke in his 70s while living in Brighton Beach, N.Y., and his relationship with his best friend, another widower. The third story takes place when Misha is an adult, and it’s about his relationship with his boyfriend.”
Alenyikov points out that the theme of illness is prevalent in the stories as well. Misha is HIV-positive but healthy. Brother Ivan is bipolar, and the fourth story in the collection is from his point of view. Their father recovers from his stroke, but loses “some passages of time. His memories go back to the 1930s and the Stalin years. He doesn’t talk about what he experienced back then, but he thinks about it a lot.”
Exile is another important thread. The boys and their father have left the familiarity of their native land, and they struggle to fit in in America. Other characters are trying to find their own sense of belonging—such as Misha’s boyfriend, Robbie, who has fled the Midwest for New York and wants everyone to call him Smith. “I didn’t want to write a reportorial book that simply recreates the immigrant experience, but stories about really complex characters and their worlds.”
Alenyikov admits he drew from his own childhood experiences. His grandparents fled the Soviet Union before World War II. “The impulse behind the book was because I knew nothing about their history. I was always intimidated by Southern writers—hearing stories from aunts and uncles and parents—and Irish writers. In my situation no one told me anything. I only knew one grandparent and she was not forthcoming. I grew up in a vacuum, so I became the storyteller in my family.”
Alenyikov’s mother had severe asthma and was always searching for a place to live where she could regain her health. While still a boy, Alenyikov moved from the Bronx to Phoenix, Ariz., to southern California, and finally to Brooklyn, N.Y., to live near relatives after his mother succumbed to her illness. His father had a “nervous breakdown” after the death of his wife, and could not take care of Alenyikov and his younger brother. “My sense of home is very fractured. In the book, nobody feels that they are home.”
A former member of the prestigious MacDowell Colony for writers and artists in New Hampshire, Alenyikov has published stories in respected literary magazines, including The Georgia Review, and has been anthologized in Best Gay Stories 2008. The journal Booklist praised Ivan and Misha as a work “written with sweetness, compassion, and great beauty.”
Alenyikov is quick to point out that although Misha is a gay character, and he himself is gay, he doesn’t think of the book as a gay book.
“I want to find a way to tell universal stories with gay characters, and I want to write with the same freedom with which a straight writer would write,” he says.
He studied clinical psychology during college and was living in Boston in the 1980s, when he let friends convince him to move to Manhattan. “I had never lived there, and they told me it was so much fun. So I took a filmmaking workshop at NYU, just planning to stay a few weeks. Then 10 years went by.”
Alenyikov began to have his own health issues and decided to move to San Francisco in 1993, to see if he’d do better here. He was still in a fragile condition but able to take a writing class, which sparked his interest in telling stories.
These days, he spends time in Noe Valley, where he’s part of a writing group (“We don’t have a name”) that meets every few weeks. “Regardless of how I feel, I come away from our meeting having written 800 words. I almost can’t imagine writing Ivan and Misha without this group.”
Ivan and Misha is available at Cover to Cover Booksellers, Books Inc., Modern Times, and Bird & Beckett, among other local bookstores.
From Ivan and Misha by Michael Alenyikov
He read them War and Peace at bedtime. Also, to their delight, Papa recited plays, and more stories than they knew how to count. He did all the voices: men and womenÉchildren, too. There was instruction in his voice and manner: the raising of his eyebrows warned, this part is sad; the sparkle in his eyes said yes, yes, to laughter. They understood little, but they heard Papa’s voice, resonant like the smooth, steady ascent of an engine’s steam whistle on the edge of the city. The belief that they were headed somewhere new and wondrous settled under their skins.
One day Misha awoke to learn that Papa’s promises were also stories. It was a morning like any other: outside, the air was cold, crisp, the edges of buildings and trees sharp. He had often watched Papa carefully trim his beard in the bathroom’s cracked mirror, the golden scissors—a gift from their mother, he was told—dancing across the field of black. Misha waited for the door to close, for the sound of the toilet flushing, for his father to claim his few minutes alone. But this morning the door did not close. This morning, Misha watched his papa stare intently into the mirror, his breath made visible by the air’s chill. “Chekhov’s face,” the woman had said. Misha mouthed the name silently and took pleasure in the way the syllables moved the air through his mouth and shaped his tongue and lips. Papa removed his teeth (how had Misha never seen this before?), and his father’s handsome face sank into itself, as if crushed by a fist. He rested his hands on the edge of the sink, letting it support his weight. Misha feared it would collapse. Watching his father at the mirror, Misha had caught him thinking, doubting.
Reprinted with author’s permission from Ivan and Misha by Michael Alenyikov (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 2010).