Gina Ochsner isn’t history’s greatest monster or anything, but The Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight is still one of those books that didn’t need to be written. Thirty pages from the end, Ochsner feeds this line to one of her characters: “We must give where it feels good to give – where and how it feels right to us.That is the privilege of practicing micro-managed middle-class benevolence.” The character in question is an American evaluating Russian museums for a grant award, and she is telling Tanya, the museum worker and her tour guide, that her museum (really, Tanya herself) isn’t good enough. The line is hopelessly on the nose, but it’s also unnecessary: Tanya had already deduced that the American was of the donors-who-give-money-to-people-who-don’t-need-it genus.
This particular redundancy smacks of writing to a page count: like many books, The Russian Dreambook would benefit from a 20 percent cut. But there’s a general thoughtlessness to Ochsner’s organization. It’s evidenced in the first chapter, when Mircha falls off the roof and dies. This chapter is narrated by Olga, a newspaper translator who lives in Mircha and Tanya’s apartment complex. The second chapter is narrated by Tanya. And then comes a chapter from Azade, Mircha’s widow. She covers the story of Mircha’s resurrection, but she should have had the whole thing: death, funeral, rebirth. It could have been Ochsner’s version of “The Dead.” It would have set up the novel’s magical realism much more efficiently than Ochsner actually managed. It could have held down some of the perspective-switching (this is too short a novel for four narrators – Yuri, a veteran of Chechnya and Olga’s son, gets the other role). It was right there. And Ochsner did something, which is her right as the author, but which wasn’t as good.
The Russian Dreambook is elegantly written, engaged, and thoughtful, but it has no heart or spark. It’s like an army of Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduates assembled a National Book Award candidate the way Katy Perry hires a phalanx of songwriters to manufacture a hit. It’s determinedly inoffensive.
By the way – in an interview around the time of this book’s release, here’s how Ochsner described her day to Bookmunch:
The world outside my kitchen window today is a swirl falling fast and light and furious. Snow. Incredible. Late season and beautiful and arresting. It won’t last, even as I type this, the snow melts and the cherry blossoms, pink camisoles in the miniature, undress the trees. The birds don’t know what to think.
Meanwhile, ever so quietly, it’s a conspiracy of crocus, daffodils and iris, pushing the mud aside with infinite patience and strength. Someone I’m sure has measured the strength of these little bulbs with these stalks that can move aside small stones and punch through packed mud. One stalk has even shouldered aside a small pot that is clearly in its way. All this is nothing short of a miracle and it’s happening steadily, daily. It happens yearly. This is grand – this steady, invisible and visible, insistent life. And it’s elaborate; I can’t quite wrap my little brain around it.
Jesus, dude. He just asked how your day was.