A few weeks ago, I came across Marina Julia Neary’s Saved By The Bang, an interesting (albeit flawed) novel that takes what might very well have been a PC disaster- a family saga set during the Chernobyl meltdown- and manages to avoid the typical pitfalls one associates with such. Just think, for example, of the childlike way Octavia E. Butler once dealt with slavery, or Steven Spielberg’s twee, hamfisted treatment of the Holocaust, or the multitude of journals- poetry, prose, and everything in between- that opine on war and suffering and evil all the while excluding the art itself in favor of agitprop. Of course, it is quite easy to express fear or sadness or hopelessness, for these states are simply part of the human condition. They are built into us from so many access points that the smallest thing will tap into them. Yet it’s much harder to slip into their interstices, to get at things less obvious- more difficult to come by- which is why most ‘artists’ don’t really give a damn about their own craft, favoring, as they do, the fluff extraneous to it.
Saved By The Bang implicitly knows this, side-stepping the above dilemma by turning a drama into a kind of comedy, thus obviating any ‘need’ for bathos- the same sort of inversion, in fact, that helps polish and define Liev Schreiber’s wonderful Everything Is Illuminated (2005). But while the book has a number of strengths that easily put it in the top 5% of published writing today, it also lacks the sort of ‘highs’ that define the best works: it is more or less a solid book that has as many bad moments (3 or 4) as truly excellent ones (likewise 3 or 4), and an interim that merely floats well- for good or ill. In short, there are simply too few memorable passages or lines that work on the mind after the novel’s done, and while the characters’ lack of genuine depth might be unimportant, in some tales, the lack of highs- spoken by or narrated around these characters- keeps it from better company. Being a Chernobyl survivor, myself, I’ve long wanted to write a book about the incident, and I’d have surely done quite a few things differently. But that is neither here nor there. My desires and my way of doing things are and should be irrelevant to criticism, which needs to consider what a thing is rather than filtered through what’s always wished for. So let us focus, instead, on what the book does well, does not do well, and- I guess- does not quite do at all.
Saved By The Bang begins with a comic look at the Belarusian intelligentsia, starting at the height of an affair between the protagonist- Antonia- and a well-known tenor, a nice touch that avoids the oft-silly, moralizing, and clunky buildups towards such by immediately casting some doubts on the book’s (initial) lead. It then moves on to Antonia’s marital woes, Joseph’s- her husband- infidelities, the professional gossip at the Regional Music Academy, scenes with their daughter Maryana, and of course a few hints- most of them quite subtle- of the coming nuclear meltdown. In a way, this becomes a glimpse into the book’s intended future:
Antonia Olenski, age thirty-two, five-foot three, one hundred pounds, blood pressure one hundred over sixty, boasted a modest yet noble lineage. Her maternal great-grandfather, a member of untitled Russian gentry, had been named a distinguished citizen for his efforts to contain a cholera outbreak in Kolomna. After the Bolshevik revolution, he was forced to relinquish his czar-bestowed honors and denounce his Orthodox faith. Antonia’s paternal ancestors were German Jews who had fled eastward to escape the holocaust, morose aesthetes, as proficient with watercolors as they were with interest rates. There was nothing blaringly Semitic in Antonia’s features except for the slight curvature of the dorsum and the sultry shape of the eyelids. Not that she looked distinctly Slavic either. She was a transcendent creature without a nationality, more feline than human. She did not speak — she meowed, hissed, purred, and growled. Her hair was bobbed, frosted and teased to look like the mane on a Siberian tabby. Nicholas Nichenko was wild about her. And who could resist this taciturn kitten? In the world of crude, large-boned Belarusian women with ruddy faces and deep bosomy voices, she was a rare gem of fragility, haughtiness, and subtle sarcasm. The director’s reprimand stirred most fervent protective sentiments in Nicholas.
Ok- 1 or 2 memorable lines, 1 or 2 words ripped cleverly out of their expected context (‘teased up’, ‘dorsum’), and a couple of low-grade cliches (‘rare gem’; ‘wild about her’) that might be excused on account of the book’s comic exaggerations- but nothing that truly sticks out in a sustained way, nor any deeper glimpse into the protagonist’s psyche. No, there’s no over-description in the book, nor any of the typical ills that plague virtually all contemporary writing, but the book’s deepest fault- as well as the portion most responsible for its highs- is in the way Neary treats her characters when they are outside of an already-wan descriptive realm. Joseph, for instance, is pretty much a cartoon villain: a philanderer, thief, abuser, and possible pedophile, there is virtually NO action he can take that wouldn’t end in mayhem, even as Neary’s decision to begin the novel with Antonia’s (as opposed to Joseph’s) infidelity subtly turns the reader on Antonia, first, and gives Joseph the benefit of the doubt. It matters not whether this was conscious- the point is, it is there, and the skepticism is needed. In fact, the only time one sees something deeper in Joseph is also one of the book’s best moments. At the very end, Joseph refuses to accompany his family to America since he’s well aware of his failures, and refuses to be continuously “pardoned,” “put on trial,” then “pardoned” yet again- a nice realistic touch that gives him an amoral air instead of a purely evil one, and makes his previous actions seem more pathetic than evil. As terrible as Joseph is, Antonia made the choice to stay, and although Neary doesn’t explicitly show any of the ‘power’ the narrator (or perhaps Joseph, himself) claims Antonia has over their marriage, such things are not so out of the question. To be sure, manipulativeness is Antonia’s strength, as Joseph’s savagery is his. Had the book thriven on these sorts of inversions instead of merely been peppered by them, one would legitimately have a case for narrative excellence- even though, as is, Saved By The Bang uses a number of tricks that most writers refuse to even think of.
Antonia is a superior character, but while Joseph is marred by caricature, Antonia- despite being put in a few deeper situations- has no deep examinations to offer, herself, nor much surrounding narrative that might invert or illuminate this lack of depth. (Think, for example, of the stupidity of Bigger Thomas in Native Son, and the rich ends this stupidity is put to by everything he does NOT say.) Worse, Antonia also suffers from what Dan Schneider has termed the Dumbest Possible Action trope in film and literature. This is when a character engages in a series of idiotic behaviors merely to push the narrative along, such as Antonia turning a blind eye to her husband’s viciousness- even as she suspects he’s abusing Maryana- trusting this proven liar with her life savings, taking aspirin contraindicated with her IUD, refusing to commit to a superior man for predictable reasons, giving in to Galina’s (another stereotype of evil) transparent manipulations, and a dozen or so smaller entanglements that add up to something less than naivete. Yes, the comic nature of the book makes some of these excesses forgivable, but there are simply too many of them, accumulating too quickly, to suspend one’s disbelief — to give, in short, the level of plausible deniability that EVERY work of art must inevitably prop up: that, yes, this is fiction, but not fully so- that there is an underpinning reality that cuts far deeper than art’s numberless deceits. To this end, Antonia’s best scene is during her first visit to America, wherein her cousin- a creep of a cosmetic surgeon- first insists on ‘correcting’ Antonia’s features, which she refuses, then her daughter’s, to which she quickly assents. And it works precisely because it is no longer comic: it is no longer one of Antonia’s gross exaggerations. Rather, we see the book-long abusiveness heaped upon Maryana coming to its logical end, subtly forcing the narrative to hinge upon Maryana- not Antonia- from this point on, even as it serves a psychological climax that comes a touch early, thus deflating- if just a bit- the book’s pretty good remainder.
By contrast, Maryana — who is mostly a kid within the book’s pages — is the richest of these 3 characters, retaining a level of plausible deniability that the adults can never have. Yes, she goes through a number of things the American reader expects her to be ‘saved’ from, for she doesn’t speak up much, but still approaches the book’s narrative with her own motives. In short, while Joseph and Antonia seem to have things happen to them, by way of authorial force, Maryana goes on to filter these events through her own self, just as a real human being might. And while it’s common to portray kids as either innocent or fragile, Saved By The Bang does not condescend — almost to the point that one might imagine a modern ‘feminist’ singling out the author for apologia, vis-a-vis clever passages like this:
Maryana had seen enough American movies to know what normal girls were supposed to act like after being raped — curl up in a ball, rock back and forth, scratch their arms, cry in the shower and shudder at every touch. No, she did not feel compelled to do any of the above. Either the directors of those movies were lying, or American girls were hysterical weaklings. In all truth, she did not feel dirty or defiled, certainly no more than she did on any other day. Another hematoma in a new place.
Paradoxically, artists often invoke victimhood in order to drive empathy towards their characters. This rarely works, however, since victimhood by definition denies agency, on the one hand, and encourages pity on the other. And pity, of course, is a means of holding something at arm’s length- NOT establishing true empathy. This is why seemingly counter-intuitive inversions like the above work, causing readers to root for a character instead of passively reacting to whatever might befall him. Yet Marina Neary takes it a step further by subverting even this, giving a glimpse into Antonia’s ‘success’ about a decade later, as well as the needy, selfish, and downright annoying nature of Maryana, thus echoing the family’s complaints in a way that refuses to provide easy closure. Nor do we need to know what happened to Maryana in the interim to cause such a change, for- even if we don’t guess- such things do realistically happen, if one only pays attention to them. This may be a small twist, all things considered, but it is a daring one, even though Neary damages her own ending- however slightly- by turning the book’s final image and line into a naked cliche.
As for Chernobyl, itself? Note how I barely even needed to discuss the book’s ostensible main event to get at its meat- a good thing, in fact, for plot should rarely (if ever) overshadow character, or details a book’s ideational strengths. Yet the meltdown occurs early on, ensuring that- for all of the irreality of subsequent events- there is still a ghost-like prodding of the book’s characters, thus encouraging them to behave in ways we’d not expect. In a sense, this is key to both the book’s strengths as well as its faults, for while the reader must deal with occasional lapses in character, failed humor (a sociopathic abortionist, for instance, is dubbed the flat-sounding Abortion King), and a narrative that never truly soars for more than a few moments at a time, one also gets a number of clever inversions that, had they been the book’s focus, would outdo most other books in its genre. I’d recommend Saved By The Bang for the same reason I’d recommend all good art: to catch a glimpse into possibilities, some taken, some not, that only the unreal can offer, and that artists can make flesh.