Attention Conservation Notice: a too-long and not particularly coherent review of the Russian translation of Michael Idov’s novel “Ground Up”. This should not be of interest to anyone, because Idov presumably can guess everything I’m going to say about it and probably even agrees with some of it, and for everyone else basically the information that in my opinion you shouldn’t bother reading it is sufficient.
First of all, why would I be interested in a ten year old book by Michael Idov? I’m roughly of the same age (as Idov, not the book!), I share the same first-and-a-half generation Russo-Anglophone identity, and broadly similar politics. So I’m always curious to read Julia Ioffe, Michael Idov, Peter Pomerantsev, etc., and I generally like what they write – Pomerantsev most of all. (I am almost physically repulsed by Gary Shteyngart’s writing, though). I remember first reading Michael Idov back when he was writing at the New Republic, and I knew for a long time that he had written a novel with a cup of coffee on the cover. I never saw it sold, so I never bought it, but was always curious. Then, recently, I heard a song he wrote that I liked. I always want to expand the list of people who’ve written both novels I like and songs I like (so far this list contains one person [spoiler: this person is not Idov]). So I asked mom to find me “something by Michael Idov”—I had assumed he had written things in Russian as well. I’m still not sure if he has, but what mom found for me was a translation of “Ground Up” into Russian. So this is what I read.
“Ground Up” is the story of two lower-upperclass (upper-middleclass?) Manhattanites who decide to open up their own “authentic” Viennese cafe. It takes place in 2007, and as Idov acknowledges in the preface to the self-translation, it feels immensely dated. I don’t know if lower-upperclass young people having epiphanies about “real poverty” ever felt genuine, or if it did in 2007, but at this point, the least bad thing you can say about it is that it feels out of place (i.e., неуместно) and in poor taste.
That brings us to the question of taste, which is maybe peripheral to this book’s main shortcoming, but central to its method. As far as I’m concerned, Michael Idov has basically impeccable taste (here’s a playlist curated by him, just to give you an idea). Let me clarify that. As Andrei Bitov remarks in Pushkin House, there are two different concepts we refer to as “having taste”: a specific, personal taste, and a general “knowingness” of being able to distinguish what is classy and what isn’t. A taste can only be “impeccable”, as I put it, in the second sense—the person is in the know. So Michael Idov has impeccable taste—he knows what is classy to like and what isn’t, he knows just the right level of irony at which to appreciate kitsch, etc. I don’t mean to denigrate this trait, as so many do—I admire it and aspire to it. But it’s a very poor basis for writing a novel.
While it’s possible to write a character who has “better taste” than you do by omission (for instance, I listen to Magnolias Forever basically all the time, but I realize that a character “with good taste” wouldn’t do this), it’s pretty much by definition impossible to write a character who is more “in the know” than you are, except by changing the rules of the universe you’re writing in. But taste is central to the the life Idov is trying to describe—consuming art and fashion, having your café be aesthetically appealing and attractive to the crowd of people “in the know”. And so Idov, whose book is set in our universe, is forced to write Mark Scharf* and Nina Liaw as two people who are just-slightly-less-in-the-know than Michael Idov. That could still be a good recipe for a comic novel: combine a genuine affection for his characters with funny observations obtained by distance. A toned-down version of Wodehouse. But somehow, in “Ground Up”, this combination achieves neither affection nor distance. Instead we get a double defensiveness. Idov wants to show he’s better than his characters, but then is defensive of them in the face of the reader. For instance, Idov gives Scharf and Liaw the tastelessness to call their cafe a “Mittel European Kaffee House”, and then gives them the taste to feel kind of bad about it. Within “Ground Up”—and one gets the frightening feeling—within Idov’s world as well—it’s turtles all the way down. Appraisal of other people, and human relationships, rather than being built on feeling, are built on oneupmanship of taste. Mark and Nina feel superior to the woman who wants to name her café “Les 400 Cups”. Then they joke about naming a café “About the Souffle”. Then Idov feels the need to explain to the reader in a footnote that the second joke is better than the first one.
Thus, rather than a friend that Idov treats with gentle ribbing, Mark Scharf comes off as a protegé that Idov doesn’t really like personally, but whose interests he is still trying to advance. It’s less funny this way, but at least it’s also less genuine.
The only time genuine feeling comes through in the book is when Vic Fioretti, Scharf’s musician buddy, appears. And that feeling is Idov’s hatred for anti-folk. This hatred may be genuine, but it’s also extremely petty. For instance, in a novel where no real people figure, Idov out of nowhere feels like telling us what a fraud Devendra Banhart is. Banhart, along with Kimya Dawson and Regina Spektor (both of whom are implicitly tarred by their association with mega-fake Fioretti), are in fact the only people from the real world I recall being mentioned in the book at all. This pettiness is kind of bizarre, but almost endearing, the same way a world-renowned critic putting Caddyshack on their list of greatest films of all time between Ikiru and Andrei Rublev is.
But all that’s, as I said, peripheral to the real problem with the book. The central fact about “Ground Up” is that there is no point to it. It doesn’t — it can’t — go anywhere interesting. Two lower-upperclass nobodies start a café. They’re underprepared for this, and their café doesn’t do well. That’s about it.
There is no shame in feeling the need to write without a particular reason to do so. It’s an uncontrollable compunction, and one shouldn’t be ashamed of things that are out of one’s control. As someone who is similarly afflicted by this kind of graphomania, I completely sympathise (Do I really need to tell you of this? May I remind you that I’m writing a review of “Ground Up” here and putting it up on my blog). But before, I was of the opinion that the more books written and published the better, since it’s not like people pick what books to read at random from the published total. Now, I am less sure of this. Certainly reading “Ground Up” has made me more wary of trying to write or publish fiction.
There are things you read that have such a joy of writing to them that it makes you want to write. There are things you read that are so masterful, they dissuade you from ever trying to write anything because you know it’d be worthless. Then there’s reading Dino Buzzati’s short stories, which provides a strange combination of the two feelings. By contrast, reading “Ground Up” discouraged me from writing because of the extreme likelihood that anything I’d write would end up like this (except worse, since my taste is not as good as Idov’s).
Idov’s good taste I would guess also extends to books, and so you get the feeling that at some level, he knows that his book isn’t any good. And so he protects himself with a quiverful of magic defences against criticism. Scharf, the narrator and central character, makes money writing anonymous panning reviews of first novels. In these blurbs, which are quoted through the book, Scharf mocks the mentality of the aspiring first time novelist. Then, one of the novelists Scharf has panned writes a critical review of the café, and the rationale behind opening it. The criticism, which is also quoted in the book, is valid and Scharf notes that he agrees with it. Scharf also laments the contrived soap-opera turns the plot is taking (this is one place where Idov’s taste awareness fails him. Characters in a novel complaining about how unrealistically novelistic their life is is in bad taste, unless, like Krug, they then do something about it.) Protected with amulets and charms in this way, “Ground Up” is immune to rebuke — since the book itself contains ample criticism of the concept, of the characters’ plans, of the plot and of Idov writing it. But instead of contorting to make his book too knowing for criticism to destroy it, one wishes Idov would have either made it better, or given up. If you know your book isn’t good, then why publish it? Pride, maybe, and that’s an acceptable answer that I’m not going to judge. But why in God’s name translate it yourself into Russian? And so, whatever “Ground Up” is, «Кофемолка» is one of those rare things in art: like Fred Durst’s cover of “Behind Blue Eyes,” it’s not just a bad piece, but one where it would be better on balance if it didn’t exist.
*All names, specific jokes, etc., are my guesses of translating the Russian of my copy of «Кофемолка» back into what I think the original English would have been.