It’s tempting to frame Anya Ulinich’s “Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel” in terms of its antecedents: Bernard Malamud and Anton Chekhov, on the one hand, both of whom are referenced in the narrative, and on the other, graphic novelists such as Marjane Satrapi and Harvey Pekar, whose work is rich, allusive and (perhaps most important) alive with words.
What’s more accurate, however, is that “Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel” has no antecedents, that it transcends its influences so thoroughly it creates a form, a language, all its own. Ulinich wrote a previous (nongraphic) novel, 2007’s “Petropolis,” which tells the story of a Russian mail-order bride named Sasha Goldberg, who ends up in Brooklyn by way of Arizona. Something of a similar set of migrations is at play here, but don’t let that mislead you: This new book is a departure in nearly every way.
Most obvious, of course, is its status as a graphic novel, the interplay of words and images through which so much of the narrative unfolds. Ulinich has an MFA in painting from the University of California and has done her share of portrait work and illustration, but this is a different order of magnitude.
Then there is the story, narrated by a woman, Lena, very much like the author — late 30s, a novelist who came to the United States from Moscow as a teenager, a divorced mother of two daughters, living and teaching in Brooklyn. Gone is the satirical edge of Ulinich’s first book, replaced with a relentless drive toward revelation, a metaphorical mortification of the flesh.
“If I’m going to be an American novelist,” Lena tells her mother after the State Department offers to send her back to Russia on a cultural exchange program, “I’d better write my next American novel.”
“Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel” is that novel, a kind of social fiction in comics form. The simplest way to describe it is to say that it’s about Lena’s efforts to reconcile herself to sex and love (through OkCupid, among other contemporary intercessions), but that doesn’t do justice to the complexity of what Ulinich has in mind.
Rather, “Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel” works as something of a confessional, a series of notebooks that excavate its protagonist’s life and psyche from the inside. We learn about her upbringing in Russia, her infatuation there with a boy named Alik, with whom she has remained in touch. We witness, in subtle yet chilling detail, the two times she was abused as a child in the elevator of her apartment block, incidents that have a lot to do with inability to connect.
This is the power of the graphic novel, that it not only tells but also shows us, that by integrating images into the narrative, it draws us into Lena’s experience with the force of memory. Ulinich highlights this with her drawing, which merges elements of sketch and crayon into a style that is naturalistic and impressionistic at once.
For the most part, she forgoes panels in favor of full or half-page images, and throughout, she uses the device of a notebook, complete with lined paper and re-created spiral rings, to bring the process of her storytelling to life. The effect is that of seeing her working drafts — a useful strategy because so much of the book deals with her efforts to find a through line, to make sense of the disparate pieces of her life.
“I’m going to write about you,” she announces late in the novel to a man known only as the Orphan, a trust funder in full retreat from his privilege with whom she’s fallen in love. “You won’t be able to,” he responds, "… [b]ecause you’ll turn me into a stereotype like the characters in those mean satires you like.”
It’s hard, reading that, not to think about “Petropolis,” a point Ulinich makes explicit by giving Lena a failed second novel, which flutters through the background of the story like an albatross. “Novels are so stupid!” she laments. “With their plots, deliberate as garbage truck routes, and character development, steady as garbage collection. … Look at these three hundred pages of garbage! … What does this ‘realism’ have to do with reality? … Why keep trying to do, badly, what Tolstoy already did well a hundred years ago?”
In that sense, “Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel” can be regarded as a declaration of independence for character and (perhaps) author alike.
Certainly it has literary aspirations; Lena is named for the protagonist of Malamud’s “The Magic Barrel,” and in one of the book’s most unexpected scenes, she dreams a confrontation with Philip Roth on a bus; “You’re so mean!” she tells him. “Guess what — I hated ‘Exit Ghost’ so much I threw it in a subway trash can!” But more to the point, Ulinich means — not unlike Pekar in “American Splendor” or Karl Ove Knausgaard in “My Struggle” — to set aside literature with a capital L (whatever that is) in favor of the epic textures of the day-to-day.
Throughout the book, we see Lena’s most mundane and intimate interactions: making dinner for her daughters, riding the bus, wrestling with her self-loathing, her self-doubt. We observe her, in other words, in all her flawed and glorious humanity. Even when she is making a mistake, we empathize with her desire for transcendence and her understanding that transcendence is another illusion, that the quotidian is all we get.
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Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel
A Graphic Novel
Penguin: 362 pp., $17 paper