“How Did We Come to Know You?”
by Keith Gessen
from the April 16, 2018 issue of The New Yorker

I believe it has been a long time since Keith Gessen published any of his own fiction. He’s often in the pages of The New Yorker or The London Review of Books, but usually it’s for criticism or for an essay. I also know his name as a translator, particularly of Svetlana Alexievich’s fantastic Voices of Chernobyl. However, this is his first piece of fiction for The New Yorker, and, to my knowledge, the first fiction at all since he published his novel All the Sad Young Literary Men ten years ago in 2008, the same year he was named a “5 under 35” by the National Book Foundation, the same year he and Emily Gould, his wife now, were the subject of some very unfortunate internet vitriol.

Incidentally, “How Did We Come to Know You?” also takes place in 2008.

Here’s how it begins:

I was sitting in the kitchen one evening, checking my e-mail, when my grandmother told me she was going for a walk. It was snowing a little, and slippery—I could see that—but it wasn’t too slippery. Despite the cold, my grandmother had been out earlier to get some groceries and had done just fine. I felt like I should go with her, but I also wanted to continue checking my e-mail. Was I just going to spend my whole life going out with my grandmother whenever the notion struck her? That was no way to live. I went over and kissed her on the forehead and told her to have a good walk.

This is an excerpt from his forthcoming novel, A Terrible Country, coming from Viking in July.

Please join in the discussion below and let us know what you think of the story.

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By |2018-04-09T14:44:16-04:00April 9th, 2018|Categories: Keith Gessen, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |8 Comments


  1. David April 9, 2018 at 2:45 pm

    “This is an excerpt from his forthcoming novel….”

    The New Yorker page linking the author interview calls it a “short story”. They used to say “short fiction” when it was an excerpt, but it seems they have decided to go for complete dishonesty now instead of just being misleading. I’ll pass.

  2. Reader April 10, 2018 at 10:40 pm

    As far as I can tell, David, you haven’t missed much. In addition to the prose (and thus the voice, this piece being told in the first person) being distinctly bland, the subject matter, character development, and plot were all really rather uninspiring. Surprisingly so, actually, to the extent that I was waiting throughout the story for it to take a turn in a more stimulating direction–some insightful social commentary on modern Russia, some psychological penetration, a bit of emotional resonance, sharp exposition, anything–though my wait seems to have been for not. I didn’t pick up on a central theme. As for peripheral themes, here’s what I got: the protagonist’s quasi-failure to assimilate in the US and his quasi-failure to assimilate into modern Russia, his general sense of floundering, distant family ties (and thus isolation?), the isolation of the protagonist’s grandmother, her sense of loss (both literally in the lose of her friends and family and cognitively in the (very moderate) loss of her memory), her longing for the past. I suppose one could argue that there are more. However, none of the themes I’ve mentioned or possibly missed add up to much on their own. Each one felt very much fledgling and underdeveloped, which is where the story really fails to reach maturity, in my opinion. Because there could all be rich themes. And yet nothing of note was really said.

    To give the writer the benefit of the doubt, I very well may have missed the significance of the piece. It’s certainly possible. However, I’m skeptical, as it really didn’t feel like there was anything more stewing below the surface of the narrative. It left me with a straightforward A to B to C to D impression. Each step along the way was predictable and weakly fleshed out. And I don’t think that style was adopted so as to make a point.

    I’m definitely open to someone proving me wrong, though.

  3. David April 11, 2018 at 6:50 am

    A story about an immigrant family having difficulty adjusting to a new culture coupled with an older family member facing debilitating memory loss? Wow, The New Yorker hasn’t published a story like that is, what … 4 weeks? At least last time they waited six months between publishing Edwidge Danticat’s “Sunrise, Sunset” and then Gish Jen’s “No More Maybe”, but I guess now this is a once-a-month theme The New Yorker plans to corner the market in. I look forward to their story next month about an immigrant coming to the UK from Ghana whose elderly uncle then suffers total amnesia, forgetting his home culture and having to start over again. It’s a SOLID GOLD idea!!!!

  4. Paul Monsky April 16, 2018 at 8:57 pm

    I don’t mind it being an excerpt from “A Terrible Country”, I very much like the writing, and trust the author’s take on Moscow 10 years ago–I look forward to reading the book when it comes out in July. And the book is highly praised by one of my favorites–Elif Batuman.

  5. Larry Bone April 19, 2018 at 6:05 pm

    My favorite lines in this Gessen story are, (concerning the smallness of the grandmother) “There was less and less of her inside her” and her ending comment, “But you don’t get to say how your life is going to be.”

    I can see how this might seem like another long-winded family story where in Russia, family is more important and as Gessen seems to suggest, especially when there is a history of hardship such as a war or revolution or colonialism of some sort or another.

    Years or 2 or 3 fiction editors ago, the typical New Yorker story seemed to be a sad tale about some rich person living in Connecticut who had be drinking to much in the afternoon and was complaining about how something or someone was totally ruining their life. Prochial tales about American family dysfunction getting published were these.

    Years later, the stories are much more international and environmentally diverse in nonfiction and fiction. There was a recent amazing story on the physics of paper jams in copy machines where a lowly piece of copy paper seemed to be the protagonist. In America we have just not had the more recent hardship of Russia or India because most of our worst hardship was 250 years ago. And we have had mostly good times since 1945.

    So it seems, when there is relative domestic peace the individual is more important than the family. It is sort of interesting if Andryusha would have even paused his life to come back to see his grandmother if he’d become a successful multimillionaire writer in the U.S.

    At least the next 2 or 3 New Yorker stories will probably not be family stories. Maybe instead, something totally the opposite for those who are a little bored by them. Maybe there will be some great stories about horrible people with mental or physical dysfunction who suffer or fiction that reveals something new and unexpected about someone in a bad state. Or maybe there will be an incredible story submitted by some author’s agent that has a particular brilliance noone ever suspected would surface.

    And Trevor will surely let us know when that occurs.

    We are lucky because very few major general interest magazines publish short stories any more and the ones that did have largely gone extinct sometimes long ago.

  6. Greg April 28, 2018 at 5:59 pm

    I enjoyed going to the ‘everyday’ Russia while reading this novel excerpt. And the interaction with the Grandma brought back a lot of fond memories for me!

    The following was my favourite prose:

    “‘You don’t need to yell,’ she said, placed her mug of tea in the sink, and then left the kitchen. I hadn’t been yelling, I didn’t think. But I hadn’t not been yelling, either. I watched her walk to her bedroom, and close the door behind her. Why I thought I could change my grandmother’s behaviour by criticizing it, I don’t know. But this is what it’s like to live with someone. Or, at least, this is what it’s always been like for me to live with someone.”

  7. Ken April 29, 2018 at 3:01 pm

    I am in agreement with “Reader” here–this is bland, artless, obvious. I was engaged nevertheless as a. the subject is inherently sad and b. it’s always interesting to read about another culture for me and c. the style was brisk (albeit bland and artless). Still–what is this doing here? It feels like reportage. There are a few good sentences here and there and the last line is poignant, but I hardly feel like I’m reading something with artistic merit.

  8. Rai June 2, 2018 at 7:26 am

    Haven’t read the other reivews yet but was this story worth telling? A boy moves to Russia to look after grandma. Grandma is old, feels lonely. Life goes on. Sure I felt emotion at the bits where you’re supposed to feel it. Yet I was indifferent to the grandmother beyond those moments. She existed only as far as the words devoted to her. I cared even less for the narrator.

    There were some potentially interesting themes: relationship between man and grandmother. Russian cultural and historical context. The narrative didn’t really do anything substantial with those themes. It did not move me, show me anything new (apart from an interesting tidbit about ‘bribing’ doctors), change me or entertain me. As a piece of marketing, it has not made me want to read the novel either.

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