A Replacement Life

HarperCollins  2014


In A Replacement Life, literary journalist Boris Fishman’s ambitious first novel, we enter a richly comic world of aging Russian Jewish immigrants, still fierce in their will to survive after so much misery wrought by Hitler and Stalin, and their spiritually lost new world grandchildren, displaced from the cradle of Brooklyn (where most of the emigres from the Former Soviet Union settled in the 1970s) to Manhattan, struggling to locate themselves, to figure out a city that remains alien and bewildering. Fishman’s hero is Slava Gelman, a young man wicked in satirizing his own self-absorbed, twenty-something hipster existence, yet also a deeply-feeling grandson whose life takes a serious turn after he hears about the loss of his cherished grandmother: “our first American death.”

Fishman’s achievement in A Replacement Life is how he evokes—summons—Slava’s awakened filiality, the grandson’s needy desire to chant a form of secular kaddish for his grandmother who survived the Minsk ghetto but never received (because she never applied for) restitution after the War from the German government. A low-level fact checker for a New Yorker-like magazine called The Century, Slava (from the beginning the English translator and go-to writer in the family) is compelled to fabricate a version of his grandmother’s horrific story, but now on behalf of his widowed grandfather, who avoided the Russian ghetto but ended up in Uzbekistan. “Maybe I didn’t suffer in the exact way I need to have suffered,” argues the wily grandfather to his initially reluctant grandson, in defense of the scheme; “but they [the Russians] made sure to kill all the people who did. We had our whole world taken out from under us.”

As the novel unfolds, Slava becomes more deeply, and thus potentially illegally implicated as the “author” of his grandfather’s restitution scam. Indeed, the grandfather—charismatic and vital, hilarious in his linguistic tangles with English, a legendary shtarker among the displaced enclave of Brooklyn’s Russian Jews—invites his cohort of FSU friends to let Slava tell their stories as well. As a result, the grandson finds himself absorbed by, indeed immersed in the horrors of twentieth century Jewish memory. Such a total immersion enables Slava to re-connect with his grandmother: “I get to be with my grandmother for a thousand words,” he confesses.

In the end, Slava’s empty life in the City is replaced by his grandmother’s story; as he imagines her life as a young woman in the ghetto, sees what he imagines the horrors she has seen, the choices she made to survive, his own capacity to feel himself into the meaning of his family’s history expands. “If you can invent,” Slava comes to recognize, “you must be alive still.” In a set of powerful concluding scenes, Slava receives the fragments (relics?) of Jewish history from one of the grateful family members for whom he testifies. He also re-connects at the graveside, with his beloved babushka. “Did I betray you by inventing all those things?” asks the grandson. Does Slava seek absolution? Her blessing? In Fishman’s moving conclusion, Slava seems cleansed, ready to move on, his soft twenty-first century life “replaced” by the rigor of history and memory, embodied in the figure of his grandmother. “She is no longer around to answer for herself,” Slava muses. “And so she will have to live on in the adulterated form in which he must imagine her.”

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Non-Standardized Testing

Discussion Questions

Courtesy of Boris Fishman

  1. Much like the author, Slava Gelman has to figure out how to write stories that will seem credible, in his case to the officials who assess restitution claims. How does he meet the challenge? What does he determine helps make a story believable? Which of the three “false narratives” included in the book was most engaging, and why?

  2. Given that Slava has tried so hard to leave behind his old South Brooklyn neighborhood, why does he return? Is it because he wants to help his grandfather? Do something for his grandmother because he feels guilty for abandoning her in her last months? Because of the more self-serving reason that it’s an opportunity to be a writer in demand?

  3. Did you sympathize with Slava’s desire to escape South Brooklyn? Does it seem like a vibrant community? Is it a good example of what refugees from a less fortunate place can become in America? Or is the community missing something that Slava considers vital to good citizenship in his adopted country?

  4. A Replacement Life has both melancholy and tragic elements. For instance, Slava feels great regret over having abandoned his grandmother, and he and his family pay dearly for his and Grandfather’s scheme. But A Replacement Life contains much humor as well. What examples of comedy can you recall? How well do they co-exist with the more somber notes of the book? Why do you think Fishman wrote a book that works in these various tones? How does the novel fit in the tradition of Jewish humor?

  5. What lessons do you think Slava has taken away at novel’s end? How do you think he will live his life now? What do you think he will do professionally, and what do you think he has understood about what’s important in a life partner?

  6. Why do you think the middle generation – that is, Slava’s parents – plays such a relatively minor role in the book? Why does Fishman place such emphasis on the relationship of the grandchildren and grandparents?

  7. Which of Slava’s love interests was more sympathetic or compelling, and why? How do Slava’s perceptions of Vera and Arianna shift over the course of the novel? What does Slava learn from these women? With whom do you think he would be happier?

  8. Grandfather defends his scheme to Slava by saying: “‘Maybe I didn’t suffer in the exact way I need to have suffered’—[Grandfather] flicked a finger at the envelope—‘but they made sure to kill all the people who did. We had our whole world taken out from under us. No more dances, no holidays, no meals with your mother at the stove... Do you know what we came back to after the war? Tomatoes the size of your head. They’d fertilized them with human ash. You follow?’” To what extent do you empathize with Grandfather’s logic? Do you think he and his confederates in South Brooklyn are criminals? Do you think there’s any justification for what they are doing?

  9. Why do you think Slava is having such a hard time breaking through at Century? Is it that getting ahead at such a prestigious institution is harder than he understands or expects, or is something larger at play? Were he to get his wish and get signed on as a writer there, do you think he would find happiness?

  10. In what way does the novel affirm the American Dream, that is, the idea that great rewards – material comfort, professional advancement, a sense of belonging – await those immigrants to America who work hard? In what ways does the novel challenge that notion?

  11. In what ways is Slava an appealing character? In what ways is he frustrating, small-minded, or disappointing? Did you root for him? What is Slava trying to figure out for himself in the course of the novel?

  12. Who was your favorite character, and why?

  13. Compare Grandfather and Israel. In what ways are the two men alike, and in what ways dissimilar? Whom did you like more, and why?

  14. Apart from the general fact that many first novels draw on autobiographical elements, Fishman’s specific background – he immigrated from the former Soviet Union at only a slightly older age than Slava, and spent his first years in America in roughly the same area as Slava – makes a strong case that some of the material in A Replacement Life comes from real life. However, just as many details – the narrator’s crime, for one – seem invented. In what ways did your awareness of the author’s personal history inform or inhibit your appreciation of the novel? Do you think that history makes the writing of such a novel easier or more difficult?

  15. In the novel-long tug-of-war between Slava and Grandfather, whom did you root for, and why? Do you think Slava learns anything from Grandfather by the end of A Replacement Life? Does Grandfather learn anything from Slava? How has their relationship changed in the course of the novel?

  16. “You must know these things,” Slava thinks as he imagines his descendants at Grandmother’s grave at novel’s end, “for you will replace me as I am replacing them.” What is the title of the novel referring to? How many types of “life replacement” can you count in the novel?

  17. What makes someone American, or Russian? If one continues to live in the country one was born, the answer is easy, but for those who had to give up one homeland for another, what determines where on the spectrum one falls? Where on the spectrum does Slava begin the novel, and where does he end it? In what ways does he realize he was wrong about what it means to “be Russian” and what it means to “be American”? Is it possible for an immigrant to be fully one or the other?

  18. Discuss the style in which the novel is written. If you had to come up with five adjectives that describe the “voice” and sensibility of the novel, what would they be? If you had to compare the style to another novel you’ve read, what book or author comes to mind?

  19. “It’s family, Slavik,” Grandfather says in persuading Slava to agree to forge the older man’s claim. “I would give my right arm for you if that’s what it took. That’s family.” What does A Replacement Life say about our obligations to family? Would you ever commit a crime for a loved one?

  20. How much distance does A Replacement Life find between what’s lawful and moral? What is an individual’s obligation in circumstances where he or she finds the law unjust?

  21. What five adjectives would you use to describe Grandfather? Is he a heroic character, or off-putting?

  22. Does Slava manage to recreate his grandmother in the false letters he writes for the neighborhood? In what ways, according to the novel, does writing make possible what is impossible in real life? In what ways is writing hopelessly limited? In what ways does the life of the imagination free us from our real-life obligations? In what ways does it impose an even greater burden?

  23. How do Slava’s aspirations for himself – professionally, romantically, creatively – differ from what he comes to discover would make him happiest?

  24. What does A Replacement Life say about the traditional aspirations of Jewish parents for their children? Could the Gelmans have avoided their heartache if Slava’s parents and grandparents had found a way to support his dreams of becoming a writer? Could that have been achieved if Slava had elected a different course?

  25. What meaning does the Gelmans’ former homeland – the Soviet Union when they left, now Belarus – have for them? How do you explain their simultaneous disdain of the place they left behind – certainly of the way it treated its Jews – and their clinging to its ways of life, culturally and emotionally?

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