By – January 23, 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.”

Don­ald Weber writes about Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and pop­u­lar cul­ture. He lives in Amherst, MA.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Boris Fishman

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • Who was your favorite char­ac­ter, and why?

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

  • 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 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?

  • 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 ? Does Grand­fa­ther learn any­thing from Sla­va? How has their rela­tion­ship changed in the course of the novel?
     
  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • How much dis­tance does find between what’s law­ful and moral? What is an individual’s oblig­a­tion in cir­cum­stances where he or she finds the law unjust?
     
  • What five adjec­tives would you use to describe Grand­fa­ther? Is he a hero­ic char­ac­ter, or off-putting?

  • 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?

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

  • 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?
     
  • 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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