Russians are to laugh at by the American literati, yes? Russian accents in special? When Tom Rachman’s The Rise and Fall of Great Powers hit bookstores this month, Humphrey Ostroloper became the latest emigrant from the former USSR to be played for lulz by a big American novel. He joins Boris, the criminally charming vagrant from Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, and Alex Perchov, of Everything Is Illuminated fame. There is also Vladimir, from Gary Shteyngart’s Russian Debutante’s Handbook, “lightly accented,” with a tendency to exaggerate his cadence for a grave (and comic) effect. In Super Sad True Love Story, by the same author, Lenny has no accent—but his Russian immigrant parents and protective shell of self-hating quips make him a part of the trend. (Shteyngart, who lived in Russia until he was 7 and retained his own Slavic intonations until he was 14, perhaps comes by it honestly. So too Bosnian-American Aleksandar Hemon, whose literary alter ego Jozef Pronek famously asked, “Romaine lettuce, iceberg lettuce, what’s difference?”)
What’s with all the noteworthy American literature making fun of Slavs? It is as if writing workshops throughout the land were teaching students that, to show playfulness and whimsy, they need a wise scamp from the steppes burbling malapropisms. Deflate your highfalutin meditations on aesthetics with a drunk Russian! A tripping-on-painkillers one will also do. Counteract the formal archness of your novel-within-a-novel with a Ukrainian’s “sublimely butchered English.” (To wit: “I dig to disseminate very much currency at famous nightclubs in Odessa … Many girls want to be carnal with me in many good arrangements.”)
In Great Powers, Humphrey Ostroloper (“Marxist, non-practicing”) is an eccentric father figure for protagonist Tooly Zylberberg. He loves classic literature and philosophy, chess, and telling extravagantly implausible stories about his past. Boris, Theo Decker’s friend in The Goldfinch, is also a bookworm (though not a scholar), and adept at both games and lies. Everything Is Illuminated’s Alex initiates the fictional Jonathan Safran Foer into certain kinds of knowledge, and messes around, and tells untruths. The same could be said (roughly) for Shteyngart’s heroes, although as the main characters in their tales they have a whole other set of responsibilities.
In lit crit terms, then, many of these madcap, unreliable, creative Eastern Europeans are tricksters. They serve as mouthpieces for something that doesn’t quite belong in the modern world, even as they seem supremely at home in its chaos. So maybe it makes sense that they speak in a kind of broken code, with an accent that evokes an area of the globe not quite European and not quite Asian, halfway between developed and developing.
Still, why this region in particular, as opposed to some other liminal group of countries? It could be that big American novels poke fun at Russian or Ukrainian accents simply because big American novels contain a fair number of Russian or Ukrainian characters. A significant handful of today’s marquee authors, from Shteyngart to Michael Chabon, can claim Slavic ancestry.* What’s more, thanks to earlier greats like Nabokov, Tolstoy, Bulgakov, and Dostoevsky, the genre of the serious, “literary” novel is closely entwined with Russia. Does shoehorning a Russian into your ambitious book help situate it in a long tradition of ambitious books that are likewise inflected by Russian-ness? Maybe—and it can’t hurt that what we’ve come to perceive as “seriousness” in novels often breaks down into a host of stereotypically Russian qualities: a deep sense of history; preoccupation with grand, philosophical questions; melancholy; range and sweep (Russia is big); irony; absurdity; and gallows humor.
In a 2006 interview with the Russian journalist Ostap Karmodi, the late novelist David Foster Wallace suggested that the United States “could be entering a period much like the period Russia went through [for] much of the twentieth century, with a great deal of repression and hollowness and artificiality of the culture.” If the USSR during the Cold War is an apt analogue for America in 2014, then perhaps our pleasure at Humphrey’s antics is a form of nervous laughter. Or maybe it’s that the shadow of the Soviet threat has lifted since the current generation of novelists were children, and they now feel liberated to have some fun at Russia’s expense. “The Slavic bad guy has become a movie cliché,” wrote New York Times critic Steven Kurutz in January. He is a “politically safe villain” because advocacy groups won’t protest and international audiences won’t be spooked. Yet in the hands of a good writer, a contemporary Russian character can also inject some moral ambivalence into a story: “For someone like me who grew up in the sixties at the height of the Cold War and whose consciousness was formed by, ‘we are the good guy and there’s one great looming dark enemy and that’s the Soviet Union,’” said Wallace, “the idea of waking up to the fact that in today’s world very possibly we are the villain, we are the dark force, to begin to see ourselves a little bit through the eyes of people in other countries—you can imagine how difficult that is for Americans to do.”
Certainly, the freewheeling Slavs in the current crop of U.S. novels are a far cry from Boris Badenov and John Le Carre’s evildoers. “What if our badness and mistakes are the very thing that set our fate and bring us round to good?” Tartt’s Boris asks her Theo, filtering Tolstoy’s interest in destiny through the prism of American optimism. His authority here comes in part from his otherness and in part from the “wise fool” patina he’s developed as a result of being the butt of so many jokes. Alex, Lenny, Vladimir, and Humphrey have a similar naïve-savant goodness to them, despite the trouble they cause.
And, of course, we should not underestimate the timeless appeal of accent humor, which has a long novelistic history from Dickens’ Londoners to Twain’s river rats to the immigrant families in Junot Diaz or Amy Tan. (Unsurprisingly, Tartt gets the Dickens comparison a lot. Rachman should, too, given that Great Powers, like Great Expectations, concerns an orphan unraveling her origins.) For a long time, the conversation about dialect in American literature orbited around the South: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for instance, is deservedly criticized for presenting black American idioms as unsophisticated curiosities. John Kennedy O’Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces dishes out New Orleans patois with comic flair, and Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird skewers Alabaman polite-talk brilliantly. Now it appears that the speech tones of the former Soviet Union have replaced the strains of sub-Mason Dixon line America as a target for literary accent mockers. It was fun for a while, but now it’s old. And slightly unfair! Do you speak perfect Russian?
*Correction, June 22, 2014: This post originally misstated that the novelist Eliott Holt could claim Slavic ancestry. She is Anglo-Saxon.