As the New York literary scene grows ever more cloistered and clubby, we’ve been missing out on the simple pleasures of a good, British-style literary feud. Like Tibor Fischer calling Martin Amis’s Yellow Dog “not-knowing-where-to-look bad” and Amis calling Fischer a creep, a wretch, and a fat arse in return. And dare we dream that the aesthetically offended party write the offender into the next work of fiction? Better yet, write an entire work of fiction with the sole purpose of a barely disguised personal attack?
Wish granted, and by the least expected fairies: the kind-hearted Anya Ulinich, the author of the gentle immigration satire Petropolis, and the high-minded PEN America, which has just published her new short story. Titled “The Nurse and the Novelist,” the piece sends up a straw man of an American writer making a fortune off whimsical novels about Soviet Jews. Here’s how it opens:
The entire book is set in two columns. The narrower one is in italics. It tells a story of a village woman who falls in love with a boy hiding in her cellar. The wider column is about a depressed young man. In his Manhattan apartment, the depressed young man keeps a jar of toenail clippings […] One day, the young man is summoned to his grandfather’s deathbed. The grandfather hands him a gold charm shaped like a wing of a butterfly. “Find Yevgeniya,” the grandfather whispers.
Hm, we could swear we’ve seen this particular straw man. He lives in Park Slope, wears rimless glasses with the temples stuck right into the straw, and has a name that rhymes with Leviathan Chevron Lawyer (hint: It’s Jonathan Safran Foer!). Did we mention that, in his novel’s climax, “magical realism kicks in, and the allegorical souls of the Jews soar about the Belarusian wasteland”? Anyway, in comes the Nurse, an actual Soviet Jew and a paragon of common sense, who proceeds to put the hack to rights:
In your novels, past calamities are nothing but milestones of self-discovery. The central question is: “Why am I collecting toenails in a jar?” It only takes a village of dead Jews to figure it out. Your characters are monsters who fashion heaps of bones into tiny missing pieces of themselves.
The ball’s in your court, Foer. First your friend Itamar Moses writes a play that is totally not based on his envy of your success, and now this. You’re bound to snap someday. Do it. Have your long-awaited third novel feature a vicious, backstabbing Russian scribe named Vanya Blinich. Or else just borrow Martin Amis’s thesaurus and call Vulture!
Anya Ulinich: The Nurse and the Novelist [PEN America]