Reading Conventions by Patrick McGintyThe Conventionalist

Small Agreements:

Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin

By Patrick McGinty


Recently, I’ve gotten my kicks by reading movie reviews of Cloud Atlas. I skim straight through to the "plot paragraph." This is where the poor movie reviewer usually addresses the reader in some capacity. I could tell you about the plot, but I’ll surely get it wrong. Or, I’d tell you the plot, but for one it doesn’t matter and for two, it ruins the experience. Or, Let’s see if I can do this...


Plot, I think, is just another word for agreement. As in, yes, I know the plot. We both know the plot. We can disagree about the meaning, but we’ve witnessed the same plot. We’ve seen the same events unfold. Some shred of agreement is needed to kickstart conversations about art, whether in reviews or everyday discussion. These agreements can be small.

A recent example between a friend and I: Yes, I saw that movie. No, I didn’t have a clue as to what was going on. Was she supposed to be possessed?

The type of agreement I’m talking about can be as small as that "she." An agreement has been reached that the protagonist is female. Sometimes, an agreement this simple can be quite an accomplishment. Sometimes, it’s all you need to move forward, particularly if the artwork in question is designed with disagreement in mind.


Mikhail Shishkin has won the Russian Booker, the Russian National Bestseller Award, the Big Book Prize, the International Literature Prize...can we agree, what-I-assume-are-American-readers-of-this-predominantly-American-website, that we haven’t heard of some of these prizes? Can we agree that they sound prestigious (they are, I’ve discovered) and that we feel slightly guilty about our lack of awareness? Can we agree, too, that Mikhail Sishkin is not someone we’ve heard of?

Vulnerable as this may leave us, these are the easy agreements. Now let’s get to the plot of Shishkin’s novel, Maidenhair. It has recently been translated into English by Open Letter Books and mercy me is it a doozy. Let’s agree that:

A. An interpreter has a lengthy literal Q&A with Russian refugees seeking safe haven in his (the interpreter’s) new country (Switzerland).

B. This interpreter is working for the Swiss government at the expense of spending time with his wife and son.

C. The interpreter writes to his son as though he (the son) were "Nebuchadnezzasaurus," ruler of some sort of imaginary land that is comprised of imagination and bits of real mythology and...let’s just agree that the nomenclature is definitely, unobjectionably awesome.

D. The interpreter (we) reads (read) diary entries written by a woman whom the interpreter is or was writing a biography about—you know, once the interpreting slows down a bit and he has some “me” time.


Did I mention Maidenhair is a Russian novel and is long and epic in the way you would hope all Russian literature is long and epic? (And can we just agree that this is a stereotypical view and ultimately an honorific one?) The usual flair is at play is what I’m saying. Sentences start with "we" and are intended to mean nothing short of humanity. Life and death and God and fate and war are all spoken of with the bluntness and respect that a Western writer might instead bestow upon a nice pair of slacks. To wit:

"This is you lying with a book under a tree on an air mattress, and hanging from the branches on invisible threads are black caterpillars, nimble and quick. They throw themselves on everything that breathes: leaves, shadows, stones. They’re goddamned Tatars, not caterpillars. Now it’s not bad, but last spring, this rosebud here was chewed down to the nub. Everything around is alive. You just put your book on the grass to pull off your T-shirt, and when you picked it back up there were ants crawling over the page like scattered letters. In heaven you have to be on your guard, make sure a scorpion doesn’t crawl in your purse or boot. You have to walk through your garden with a stick, tapping the earth, because there are snakes."

I’ll confess to a real readerly moment when I reached snakes. I was still thinking about how much I liked the ants like crawling letters. I was still thinking about the role scorpions might play in heaven. I was still thinking about the rhyming "breathes" and "leaves" separated by that artful colon. I was ten or so pages from the end. I was just starting what turned out to be a ten page philosophical-yet-scenic crescendo to the novel. And I was positively up shit creek with regards to plot.


I’m serious: not a clue. I mean in that moment (fine: in many moments). I had forgotten that what I was reading was written as dialogue. I’d forgotten who was speaking and to whom. I forgot where we were. l both liked this and didn’t.

This is the type of disagreement that novels like Maidenhair seem to foster. It is the sort of disagreement that doesn’t even reach the stages of conversation. It remains internal. It is the disagreement between the part of me that wants to be utterly clueless with regards to plot—to daydream within the small worlds of sentences, novel be damned—and the part that wants to board a train and travel.


Just to be clear: there is narrative cohesion. The interpreter is at the center of all story lines, and I read in awe at the numerous registers struck in the Q&A between he and the refugees. “Do you consent to expert analysis to determine your age from your bone tissue?” “Did you fire at children?” “Why didn’t you go to the police and file a statement against your director?” The latter follows the confession that the refugee was raped in his orphanage. It is the second exchange in the 500-page book.


I’ve been reading Cloud Atlas reviews to see if it’s even worth addressing plot in works of narrative art like Maidenhair. The consensus appears to be: not really. Let’s agree to this, then. Escape and transport are not the same thing. I escaped into Maidenhair. I’m not sure where I ended up or when I’ll get there.

Patrick McGinty's fiction has appeared, most recently, in ZYZZYVA and The Portland Review. In the summer issue, he reviewed Jon McGregor's story collection This Isn't the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You.