Ivan and Misha – Michael Alenyikov (TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press)

Buy it now at Amazon.com – Ivan and Misha: Stories

I want to give thanks to the divine
Labyrinth of causes and effects
For the diversity of beings
That form this singular universe,
For Reason, that will never give up its dream
Of a map of the labyrinth
— “Another Poem of Gifts,” Jorge Luis Borges

Alenyikov has given us the gift of gorgeous vignettes, some tightly bound to one another, some more loosely wrapped but all sublimely orchestrated; the melody, the flow of the words, the images, the cause and effect of life’s pinprick moments—long-remembered, long-suffered, long-treasured—emerge as remembrances of, and reflections on our own morass of collected moments, our own complexities, our own yearn for a map of the labyrinth of ourselves.
Seven vignettes, including a prologue and epilogue, are what we have here. And what we begin with are Ivan and Misha, motherless fraternal twins, ensconced within the dismal environment of an apartment in Kiev, where their father’s promises of a new life and a new mother remain unfulfilled, as fictional as the grand stories and plays he recites to the boys nightly. But then it happens: “Years passed, and one day people were talking about a wall. A wall had fallen. …and in only weeks, a month later, they were on a jet plane to New York.”
What follows are six sketches, all told with a different point of view. Ivan and Misha are in their twenties, their father, Lyov—changed to “Louie” six months after they land in New York—is seventy-five and in assisted living in Brighton Beach, where a mini-stroke has left him shakily moored both in the past and the present. Misha, fair-skinned, blue-eyed, is like his mother; he is sensible, a thinker, a film school student at Columbia, working as a production assistant, “a gopher,” for a film company. Ivan, like his father, is somewhat swarthy, short; his appearance is an aphrodisiac—a sensuousness not lost on men or women alike. Ivan drives a cab. “Geography ,” Misha tells us, “is not a minor detail with my Ivan. He’s a little bit bipolar and drives a cab.  …And his mind takes ideas and travels to places I cannot reach. He schemes for riches to share with me; he has dreams of a better world for all mankind, which is wonderful, but too often to count they have taken him to Bellevue… When Ivan bleeds, so do I.” Yes, they bleed as one. They always have.
Indeed, Ivan’s and Misha’s covenant goes much further. “If we had been Siamese twins…” Misha ponders, “…where would we be joined, I wonder: shoulders, head, heart, hips? I imagine us connected at our navels, destine to stare into each other’s eyes, he lost in my pale blues, me in his dark browns. Or sharing one set of testicles, or one cock. The thought excites me.” Ivan’s attraction to Misha is no less intense—something that will eventually be played out as an inevitability, predestined perhaps from birth. Against this background, Alenyikov weaves literary prose to poetry as if such a thing were easy to do. He exposes his characters—their quirks, their longings, their loves, their angst—with a lilt of pen rarely equaled.
There is so much in these little more than 200 pages. Repeating themes sift through the narrative in such a way as to leave the reader nodding, smiling even at the ability of Alenyikov to ease into a reintroduction of something that has come before from another angle, another light, another voice. The relationships of fathers and sons; mothers and sons; the interaction of siblings, both intimate and removed; psychoanalysis from a degreed practitioner (a mother), and also from a fraud who feigns blindness; the deaths of lovers or, more precisely, the deaths of those loved if only for a moment, or fleeting eternity; the dynamic of families, none completely in their parts or collectively sane; the love, the passion between gay men; oh, all of this here in this wee, fascinating collection.          
In “Barrel of Laughs” it is through Louie’s eyes that we see him often sharing his thoughts with his new assisted living friend, Leo. He does not share with Leo, though, the visage of his wife’s suicide when the twins were almost two.  “I do not to this day understand why Sonya took the razor blades to her arms. … I never told my boys. I said she died in childbirth… …But I never spoke of the dark circles under her eyes after she’d lock herself in the bedroom for weeks; the sound of her weeping; the nights she disappeared. How her face would be distorted by rage, unrecognizable, then wide-eyed with grand and impossible schemes. Their memory of her—if it existed—had no more substance than a dream. Of that I am certain.” This soliloquy has import. Ivan, in rare moments, blames his brother for their mother’s death during childbirth—the lie their father has told them—because Misha was the last to be born. If Misha had not been born would their mother still be alive? Then, too, are Ivan’s demons genetic gifts from his mother. 
“It Takes All Kinds,” gives us Smith’s, Misha’s lover’s, view. Within the storyline describing Smith’s relationship with his mother, father and sister, his changing personas—and occasionally changing his name, as well—to suit however he sees himself at any given time, he is distracted by concern for the planet, even to the extent of buying a ticket to Antarctica to help with the cause. Or, he wonders, is it Misha’s virus he wants to leave behind him?  Smith’s distraction—a ticket to Antarctica in his wallet—becomes more sensible, more understandable than the dynamic of Misha’s family. “Smith’s thoughts drifted to the rain forests again, the melting ice caps, the spread of diseases that had existed for eons in isolated jungles. These concerns frightened him but were easier to understand than family. This, Misha would never get. Feelings about family were like religion Smith had learned since being with Mish. The differences were as profound as the approach to God defined by Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. And just as irreconcilable. In Misha’s world one was loyal to the death for family, even if they drove you crazy, even if they were crazy.”
“Whirling Dervish,” is Ivan’s realm where he first meets Taz, a fellow cab driver: a “Slender, lanky, bubble gum–chewing Taz—self-named after a post-collegiate trip to Tasmania had turned his world upside down, freeing him to ride the jet stream to anywhere but home, the anywhere being, at the moment, New York.” Ivan ceases to sleep, ceases taking his meds, neglects his pet rabbit, works back-to-back shifts, all because of his obsession with Taz. His world becomes surreal, dotted with cab fares that become an inconvenient intrusion, or a pleasing pause in the thousand-mile-an-hour, never-ending churn of his brain let lose from the constraints of, well, the modicum of normalcy he has leapt beyond.
“Who Did What to Whom?” is told by Kevin, who was with Vinnie, before he was with Misha, before Misha was with Smith. And who knows how many other withs each of them had had. Vinnie is dying. Kevin reflects on that time when, “There were no blood tests, no positives and negatives, no HIV, no safe sex. It could be from kissing or quiche, poppers, or brunches. More than once I shud-dered awake in that crack of time between middle of the night and dawn, thinking over and over, But Haitians don’t brunch, as if I could make sense of things.
Those were the days when you died real fast and there was nothing, at least in bed, that Vinnie had done that I hadn’t done, too.” This one is intense in the read.
The “Epilogue,” from Misha’s voice, is the recounting of a ferryboat journey to dump Louie’s—Misha’s and Ivan’s father’s—ashes halfway between Brooklyn and Staten Island, the location Louie’s friend, Leo, has insisted upon. Misha wonders: “Is the number of stars in the universe equal to the number of minutes in a person’s life? In Louie’s? Or the number of seconds? Or maybe it’s the number of times Papa’s eyes blinked?  The number is as important to me as Leo’s halfway mark between here and there. I want to capture Louie’s life before he leaves me forever. Is that selfish? Then I am selfish. I am filled with selfish.  He was my father, not Ivan’s. He was mine alone! And my friend, not Leo’s, not Estelle’s. More selfish. Maybe selfish is okay when your father is dead. When it sinks in, finally.”
Please understand the snippets I’ve given you are wholly inadequate to a full appreciation of what Alenyikov has done here. I hark back to Borges. Perhaps, finally, what Alenyikov intended was a reasonable quest to map the unmapable; a striving to get to the bottom of that illusive labyrinth of ourselves. It that was his intent, he succeeded…magically.    
Reviewed by George Seaton

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