Garden State

My review of Francine Prose's novel, MY NEW AMERICAN LIFE (Harper, April 2011), appeared in the Boston Globe on May 22, 2011. You can read it there or (much easier) below. - BJ

MY NEW AMERICAN LIFE by Francine Prose

Svetlana Kirilenko made me love The Sopranos. You remember Svetlana: the peroxided, chain-smoking, one-legged immigrant Russian home care nurse who became Tony Soprano’s lover. It wasn’t just her charmingly unsentimental personality; I liked the fact that she appeared in the series at all. Svetlana was exactly the type of person we come into contact with every day yet rarely see dramatized. Now Francine Prose puts a Svetlana-esque character at the center of her novel, My New American Life. Her Lula is Albanian, not Russian, and she’s a nanny, not a nurse, but she’s got a lot in common with Svetlana - which may not be a good thing, in the end.

On the novel’s very first page Lula refers to Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlen’s 1961 tale of a human born on Mars who returns to Earth and finds it a hostile home. Putting an immigrant at the center of a novel has always been a good strategy for seeing one’s native culture in a new light. Lula toils illegally as a waitress in lower Manhattan along with a staff of other illegal immigrants: Dunia, her fellow Albanian, Eduardo the Mexican busboy, and a bulimic model from Belarus. After work, “everyone got drunk and bet on who’d get deported first.” [9]

Lula is twenty-six, pretty, and her “visa problem was keeping her up at night.” [10] She answers a Craigslist ad for a nanny and is surprised to find that Mister Stanley is on the level, not like the guy who taught her English back in Albania in exchange for sex. What a country. Mister Stanley hires her to watch his teenaged son Zeke after school and in return she not only gets paid but he will also help get her U.S. citizenship. “The Balkans had no expression for ‘win-win situation,’” Lula muses. “in the Balkans they said, No problem, and the translation was, You’re fucked.” [17]

Lula’s glass-half-empty outlook on life serves as the novel’s central joke: she expects the worst, which never arrives. That’s the odd thing about the book: nothing terrible ever happens to her - undertipping is as bad as it gets. It’s puzzling, but somehow all the real drama ensues just out of frame: we hear secondhand that Eduardo the busboy gets deported. Lula’s friend Dunia prostitutes herself to a closeted, rich plastic surgeon: “The shopping is better [in America],” Dunia says. “The sex is worse.” [184], but this is all told after the fact. Lula, in contrast, lives in a bubble of suburban safety, surrounded by well-meaning Americans trying to help her. Her boss pays her well, she’s represented by the most famous immigration lawyer in New York City, and the only hint of danger comes from a brief encounter with her fellow Albanians.

This is a story about one woman’s inner world, and whether the outer world can change it. That’s the problem: not much changes. Lula’s pessimism can be endearing - “Paranoia was Balkan for common sense,” [127] Lula says - but it’s not original. The “Balkan shrug” [115] of resignation she employs so often is a familiar trope, an accurate portrayal of a certain kind of post-Communist apathy, no doubt, but not especially revealing. When Lula muses in Chapter Four that “[i]t was so hard to live among strangers with whom you shared no history, no knowledge of a way of life that went back and back,” [100], the passage suggests that Prose will explore this drama more deeply as the book goes on, but that doesn’t happen. A list of some of the non-events Lula experiences include: a college tour that’s a disaster - but only for the teenaged son (we hear about it secondhand); Lula’s lawyer making an inappropriate advance - or not (Lula isn’t sure); Lula being forced to hide a gangster’s gun and while, according to Chekhovian logic, the gun is eventually fired, no one is hurt and Lula’s is never held responsible; Lula being attracted to a seemingly dangerous man, but their relationship is never consummated and the extent of his criminality is never revealed. This picaresque tale of Lula’s non-adventures in suburbia leave us wondering if the main fact of Lula’s new life is its lack of excitement.

Prose makes a point of referencing The Sopranos throughout the novel, which only begs an uncomfortable question: what has Prose revealed about the inner lives of ethnic Europeans adapting to life in the Garden State that The Sopranos, an epic series spanning nearly the entire first decade of this century and described more than once as “novelistic,” didn’t already? It may not seem like a fair comparison - The Sopranos is generally recognized as a masterpiece -- but then, isn’t an actual novel supposed to have the advantage in this area? Surely the genre is specially designed for this purpose, to burrow deep inside the psyches of its characters in a way no other narrative genre can touch. As likable as Lula is, ultimately we know her about as well as we knew one-legged Svetlana Kirilenko, a minor character who appeared in just a few episodes. The time seems ripe for a great novel about immigration, yet after spending three hundred pages immersed in her new American life, we leave Lula (we never learn her surname) with little more than a Balkan shrug.