[Unnamed Press; 2024]

I have a disturbing fantasy of a nineteenth-century novelist cobbled together from the parts of others, like Frankenstein’s monster. His name is Balzaevsky. What he does is this: he writes Fyodor Dostoevsky’s plots, but with the prose style, eye for characterization, and sense of pace of Honoré de Balzac. He avoids, however, Balzac’s bad habit of reducing social problems to the vitiation of the nuclear family. Like Fyodor, Balzaevsky’s concerns are for matters lofty, and he knows how to plan a novel of adequate complexity to get at those matters. Moreover, because he is a monster, and monsters have no god and no country, Balzaevsky is neither a Christian nor a nationalist. If he were haunted by the fear that for all his hybrid virtues, George Eliot is still a better writer than him, he would reassure himself that in paragraph rhythm, at least, he has the upper hand. But he retains more the smugness than the insecurity of his component gentlemen, so I suspect that he, like them, doesn’t worry about it.

The point of Balzaevsky is really to help me decide whether I like or dislike Fyodor. The Balzacquerie of it all is incidental. Like any good book reviewer, I’m usually quick and thoughtless in my judgements, so the fact that I’ve spent years now dithering over Dostoevsky is remarkable. The problem has layers. I can’t read Russian, so Fyodor for me is a creature of many versions. My resistance to his tortured prose may be a product of the Pevear-Volokhonsky translations, which currently seem to have cornered the Dostoevsky market with their muddled, unmusical pileups of sentences. I get along better with the Magarshack Dostoevsky, inexplicably pronounced obsolete by academic consensus, but, much more importantly, admired by Kazuo Ishiguro. I’ve been told by Slavicist friends that the virtue of the Pevear-Volokhonsky translations is their fidelity to the original. If that is so, then I can only conclude that for me to unambiguously enjoy Fyodor, someone like Balzac would have to rewrite him.

Enter Maureen Sun, the closest thing to Balzaevsky that I’m likely to find in this life (with apologies to Elif Batuman), but probably even better than my imaginary monster would be. For starters, less smug. And she does share many of Balzac’s best qualities. Both writers can glide from a narration that sweeps over months or years, to the internal stream of a character’s thoughts, to an intimate, minute-by-minute sequence of dialogue, all without interrupting the momentum of the action or the flow of their prose. But Sun dispenses with some of Balzac’s more treacly affectations. No impassioned didactic apostrophes to the reader here.

And, of course, she rewrites Dostoevsky. The Sisters K, Sun’s first novel, is very much its own book, but it invites comparison to Fyodor’s 1880 family-drama-cum-spiritual-murder-mystery, The Brothers Karamazov, so boldly that I think I’ll go ahead and compare them. Like Brothers, Sisters is a novel of worldviews embodied as characters, a dialectic played out as a drama.

Mitya, Ivan, and Alyosha Karamazov, the sons of a selfish and unseemly provincial landowner, are here reborn as Minah, Sarah, and Esther Kim, the daughters of Eugene Kim, a Korean-American immigrant whose greatest joy in life is torturing and humiliating the women of his family. As Full Stop’s own Fiona Bell once observed, the hatred of the brothers for their father is central to the plot of Brothers, but Dostoevsky actually gives us very little of their interaction with him, especially in childhood. That absence is troubling. To have the patriarch merely described with a torrent of negative adjectives, no matter how evocative—Karamazov père is, in the Magarshack translation, not only “worthless” and “depraved,” but also “muddle-headed”—deprives the account of its argumentative substance, which is to say its point. Who wouldn’t agree that a worthless and depraved person is very bad indeed? But unless we agree on what patterns of behavior qualify a person as worthless and depraved, we have not really agreed on anything at all.

So when Sun fills in the blank of the patriarch’s fathering style with vivid detail, she isn’t just rounding out a deficient characterization. Because the intertext with Fyodor makes clear what is at stake, Eugene Kim’s character acts as a cipher for an entire theory of evil. Brace yourself, reader. Sun is unsparing. She describes, from the perspective of the eldest sister Minah, the alternation of Eugene’s surveillance, rage, and bribery, all mutually implicated in a pattern of manipulation:

Eugene was impulsive, but this did not mean he was not analytical, not reflective. It gave him a terrible thrill—he knew it was terrible, this frisson—to possess insight into other people, especially his daughters; to wield knowledge with which he might shape and deceive, tease and possess. And so, as long as his daughters lived with him, he was apt to sit and stare at them in silence. . . . When he was raging at her, she [Minah] sensed dimly her father was experiencing pleasure and that this pleasure gave him life. She found no relief in the calculated lapses of rage, when he, ever grinning, gave her a twenty and said, “One day you’ll understand.” She was too young to understand that he wanted her to want his love. He wanted to change her so that she would want it. He wanted her to suffer from this want; he wanted her to suffer.

We all understand what we’re talking about now. Let’s leave aside for a moment the beauty of the paragraph’s rhythm, the way that the sentences first flower into variety and complexity, but then reduce themselves, through truncated repetition, to “he wanted her to suffer.” Let’s leave aside how rare it is to find an author who can get their prose rhythm to echo their thematic contention, how the syntactical simplification shows that the truth at the heart of all this complexity is horrific precisely in its simplicity. Let’s leave aside the coy appropriation of the “giving me life” idiom, usually used in the modern vernacular as an unambiguous positive. Let’s leave aside how that inversion of value both sharpens our horror at Eugene’s vampirism, and casts a hauntingly sinister tone over the idiom in its other usages (are we all vampires like him?). Let’s leave all that aside and gaze upon the face of evil that Sun has so helpfully unveiled for us.

She gets similarly spectacular results with many of her characters by leveraging Fyodor’s rubric of Big Concepts. In Brothers, Mitya is much given to the pleasures of the senses. He spends his youth in dissolution, which prepares him well for an early adulthood of more dissolution. Sensualism and dissolution are great nineteenth-century tropes, of course, but they’re interestingly difficult to translate to the twenty-first century. Firstly, we face an economic inequality so great that when our leisured rich spend vast amounts of money on sensory pleasures, they nonetheless stand in no danger of squandering their virtually infinite patrimony. This robs the dissolution trope of all its drama, the sense of real risk of downward mobility that makes the rake-type characters of Trollope, for example, so compelling. Secondly, we are for the most part no longer so censorious about sensory pleasures. They don’t seem necessarily opposed to spiritual enlightenment. Indeed, the other work of Russian-classics-inspired contemporary fiction I’ve read recently, Cat Fitzpatrick’s The Call-out, ends by suggesting that the only spiritual deliverance we have any right to hope for is the transcendence immanent in the brutal frustrations of physical, worldly life and love.

So who is the contemporary sensualist, the modern Mitya? What new mode of sensory pleasure tempts her so severely that she throws away her principles and risks her spiritual well-being?

Minah hadn’t wanted her other boyfriends to know about her confused upbringing. They were by and large conventional-minded nitwits in finance who wanted a nice woman with a proper family who would in turn raise a nice, proper family. And Minah wanted the same—no, she longed for it, she lusted for it in a way her unimaginative exes could not. It didn’t even matter to her if she loved her spouse as long as she respected him. He would figure less as an individual than part of a luminous pattern in a life of shared commitments and community, an ethnically Korean community. They would have children, and for the children they must have plenty of money to make a beautiful home and future.

Sun communicates a great deal with that single word, “lusted.” In the twenty-first century, it is not the lust of the dissolute landowner’s scion for whist, whiskey, and anonymous sex that makes urgent the need to consolidate one’s class status, even at the cost of spiritual corruption. It is the lust of the precariously upwardly mobile professional class for stability, security, and uncomplicated belonging. Both because Minah herself has never had stability, and because she inhabits a milieu of young people who will never have it in quite the way past generations of Americans did, her desire feels taboo. Because it involves ethnic homogeneity and lots of money, this desire drives her to date spineless, joyless, unimaginative men. It will eventually drive her, like any good nineteenth-century sensualist, to flirt with crime.

Like Fyodor, then, Sun is interested in how socio-economic and spiritual conditions mesh, and she deepens this inquiry in her portraits of the other sisters. Sarah, whose analogue is Ivan, is a recent Princeton PhD in English literature, now barely cobbling together a living as an adjunct at multiple institutions. For anyone who has ever been a graduate student in the humanities, this information alone is sufficient to make Sarah’s alienation and cynicism far more comprehensible than Ivan Karamazov’s ever was. Sarah seems to engage Sun’s sympathy, too, more than Ivan did Dostoevsky’s. Where Fyodor proclaims on his very first page that Alyosha is the real hero of Brothers (lest anyone get confused), in Sisters, Sarah subtly moves to the center of our attention because a great many scenes are focalized through her perspective. She’s the only sister we follow to work, and the scenes of her repression and humiliation at the hands of modern academia are deeply affecting. She’s the one whose fog of depression and disorientation, in both familial and professional matters, we most deeply inhabit. The author’s sympathy makes a difference. Ivan’s arc in Brothers is essentially one of punishment: he commits the sin of forsaking God and suffers madness as a result. Sarah’s arc, by contrast, is about the slow growth of an unconventional stability and belonging, especially through her poignant, longing, fraught interactions with her younger sister Esther.

Speaking of Esther. Alyosha, her analogue, is a problem. Even the obdurate, besotted Fyodor knew it. “What if you do not agree that my Alexei Karamazov is in any way remarkable?” he entreats the reader. “I am saying this because unhappily it may turn out to be so.” Heaven forfend. But hey, if you’re going to bet the success of your work on convincing the audience that one character is special, then that character had better be pretty special. The stakes Fyodor puts on Alyosha are equal and opposite to those placed on Karamazov père. To fill in Alyosha’s outline is to offer a theory of what it is to be good, a task so daunting that Socrates in the Republic declines it outright.

Sun finds a way of offering such a theory while ratcheting down the pressure on Esther to embody moral perfection. Like Alyosha, Esther bears an unjudging and all-encompassing affection for humanity, but unlike Alyosha, she is not particularly admired for it, because she is neither an aspiring monk nor a beautiful, chaste young man. She’s a college dropout who wanders around without stable employment, often in relationships of dubious healthiness with whoever happens along. There are some drawbacks to the whole unjudgmental, universal love thing. And yet, as Sarah thinks to herself while embracing her sister:

Touching Esther at that moment was like touching a species of animal you’d never touched before, a lamb, a hog, a mare. Esther’s great kindness was to care for the animal part of you, the humanity that wasn’t personal and ached more deeply. She let you rest, she helped you breathe, she made your body feel whole. And so she tried to protect the deep tissue of innocence in her sisters, and in her father, the fundamental innocence that could never stop believing that you should know care and not harm.

Esther is not a Christian like Alyosha, nor like the rather morally underwhelming Christian characters in Sisters K. This suggests that Esther’s goodness can’t be explained by analogy to the universal love of Jesus Christ. It’s something else altogether. Evil here, as personified in Eugene, is a kind of hyper-attentiveness to the peculiarities of humans as people, an intense awareness of the precarity of the average human being’s self-conception and self-worth. Minah and Sarah are constantly attentive to their own peculiarities in just this way, scrutinizing their own worth, attempting to increase it through the sensualism of conventionality and stability or intellectual self-cultivation. In their self-condemnation and attendant aspiration, the older sisters recreate for themselves the oppressive surveillance that Eugene first placed upon them.

Esther’s goodness is a kind of inattentiveness, an obliviousness to everything that we insist is important in evaluating each other. Esther doesn’t even evaluate. Which is not to say that she’s unaware. Esther knows that her father is worthless and depraved, and she doesn’t forgive him for his behavior. It’s just that she doesn’t find this information relevant in the way the other characters in the novel do. Likewise, she knows that there are serious problems with her itinerant lifestyle, but she feels no sense of obligation to aspire to better, even if she ultimately decides to try something else. Esther’s goodness, this awareness without evaluation, amounts to a way of seeing without surveilling. Because Sun is willing to extend her sympathy to the other sisters, Esther’s is not the only kind of goodness available. But it is the most radical, and the most striking, especially in this time when surveillance threatens to supplant seeing altogether.

The non-sister characters, like the sisters, generally represent greater forces than themselves, but not always with equal success. Minah’s fiancé Paul, who both reflects and frequently reflects upon the distinctive Korean American relationship to Christianity, never fully arrived for me. It’s not that he seemed more symbol than person. It’s that I couldn’t figure out what exactly he was supposed to symbolize. Like so many of Fyodor’s characters, Paul goes through one or two dialectical convolutions too many, until he loses his definition and clarity. To aspire to Dostoevsky’s virtues means taking on some of his faults, I suppose, and convolution is his signal fault. Sun’s prose, unlike Fyodor’s, is always exciting and propulsive; but like Fyodor’s, it is not always clear. There were scenes I had to read two or three times to understand, in the most basic and concrete sense, what was happening.

But, on that note: is it presumptuous to say that this novel’s faults already feel like the faults of a classic? The kind of fault that ought to provoke layers of scholarly disagreement, debate, and interpretation? Perhaps. But it’s also true. It’s shocking and exciting that this is only Sun’s first novel. The Sisters K is so utterly and unabashedly ambitious, so willing to swing hard at the Big Questions. To say I’d read anything Sun wrote is only half the story. I read Balzac, after all, and much of what he wrote is plain-faced silliness. But I would think hard about anything that Sun invited me to, and that’s a higher degree of trust. Higher than Fyodor of blessed memory ever got from me.

Nathan Katkin is a graduate student and plays in a band.

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