What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

“In Russia … there are only crime stories.”

Nick Platt moved to Moscow in order to break out of the rut of his existence in England, feeling himself falling into the "thirtysomething zone of disappointment, the time when momentum and ambition start to fade"; it doesn't hurt that his law firm promises him that if he does well structuring client deals in the wild East, flush with oligarchical cash, he'll become a partner more rapidly: when Snowdrops by A.D. Miller opens, it's clear that something has gone very wrong indeed with that plan, but not why.

Somewhere along the line, in his quest to leave behind his boring existence and live for the day as do the Russians who surround him, Nick crosses the line to become the kind of individual he had never dreamed of. The nature of that betrayal becomes clear to the reader of this excellent debut novel only slowly; the story unfolds as a written confession by Nick to an unnamed woman back in England whom he intends to marry. At the beginning, we know that there is a death coming, but we don't know whose, or what Nick's role in it may have been. All we know is that as the final winter of his Moscow sojurn begins, Nick is edging closer by the day to some kind of unforgivable crime or betrayal, something that will make him just as shady as the corrupt Russians for whom he structures deals during the day and whom he affects to despise. Not surprisingly, it all starts with a woman, or rather, two women, whom he meets by chance in the subway system. Masha and her young sister -- or cousin? -- Katya become his close companions; he allows himself to dream of a future with Masha who, Nick convinces himself, has no ulterior motive in becoming his girlfriend. After all, she isn't pushing him to buy her clothes, jewelry or a trophy pedigree puppy.

Nick's friend Steve, a jaded hard-drinking journalist, tries to sound the alarm bell. In Russia, he warns Nick, there are no business stories or even political stories. There aren't even any love stories. In Russia, he cautions Nick, everything becomes a crime story. But Nick is in no mood to listen. He's too busy crafting a project finance deal for a rather odd character known as the Cossack, who may be an oligarch or may be a member of the FSB, Russia's secret police. But everyone has a vested interested in seeing the deal go through, so why ask too many tough questions? And then Masha and Katya ask them to help their aunt, Tatiana Vladimirovna, an elderly survivor of the siege of Leningrad, swap her apartment in a prime location in downtown Moscow for something more modern in the still-rural outskirts. Bit by bit, Nick finds himself blinding himself to all that he doesn't know -- and doesn't want to know -- about the various deals in which he's playing an increasingly important role. As the winter becomes fiercer and the snow masks the physical ugliness of Moscow, Nick is able to blind himself to the realities of his situation but when the snow melts to reveal ugly truths -- including a corpse -- he can no longer avoid acknowledging what the winter's events have shown about his own character, about his lack of both courage and morality.

This is an extraordinarily good first novel, and it's no surprise to me that it has found its way onto the longlist for the Man Booker Prize this year. Indeed, it's the first of the longlist nominees that I believe is worthy of ending up on the shortlist. Miller -- a correspondent for The Economist who worked in Moscow -- does a superlative job transforming the ugly truth about Russian politics, business and everyday skulduggery as one desperate Russian looks for someone else to take advantage of, into a novel that isn't just fascinating but eloquently written. This isn't just a novel that dresses up current affairs as fiction, or a thriller drawn from the headlines, but rather an excellent story about a man forced to confront the consequences of his reluctance to ask questions about things that seem too good to be true. Yes, the reader is always a step ahead of Nick in the way that the novel is structured, but that doesn't spoil the tension: while I knew the scams would claim victims and that Nick would be an indirect casualty, the nature of the crimes and the way Miller brings together the various strands of the story were compelling enough to keep me reading.

It helps that Miller can turn his hand to fiction as readily as to news reporting. He handles deftly what someone else might have botched up, drawing parallels between the winter weather and the scams; he draws on his observations of daily life in today's Russia -- the drunken passengers who dance a jig in the aisle of a plane as it lands safely -- while never hammering home in such a way as to holler to the reader "look how well I know this place!" Even the minor-characters are vividly portrayed, including journalist Steve, "one of those lost foreign correspondents that you read about in Graham Greene, a citizen of the republic of cynicism."

I had been wary of this book at first, afraid it would be one of those "wink, wink; nudge, nudge" books written by a former expat who just wants an excuse to write about sexual exploits with young, gorgeous and desperate Russian women, or a so-so thriller. Instead I found a fascinating novel that is now on my best books of the year list. 4.5 stars; recommended.

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