Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Lara Vapnyar’s “Katania” was originally published in the October 14, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
I still haven’t caught up with Vapnyar’s last story in The New Yorker, “Fischer vs. Spassky” (my post, with links to story here), so I don’t know whether or not to be excited she’s in another October issue. I’m hoping for the best but may be a bit late getting my thoughts up (again). Thankfully, Betsy’s on top of it!
As I begin Lara Vapnyar’s “Katania,” I am entranced by Katya’s imagination. The details of her shoebox dollhouse allow for a whole world of possibility:
Inside the house, there was a set of plastic toy furniture, plus some random household items: a matchbox television, a mirror crafted from a piece of foil, and a thick rug secretly cut out of my old sweater. I also had a few plastic farm animals—a cow, a pig, a goat, and a very large (larger than the cow) chicken, which lived outside the shoebox.
I liked the way the shoebox house touched me, and I liked the promise it held for the rest of the story. Vapnyar has a keen appreciation for what people are like, and I like that about her storytelling.
Katya has a friend named Tania. Although the story is fashioned around a twist — that Tania who was “poor” as a child becomes very well-to-do as an adult — what truly interests me are the details: the way the girls play and fight, the way they build a friendship out of imagination, the way Katya’s mother is no-nonsense, the way Tania declares that with her latchkey she has freedom. Tania has a need to have the upper hand which rings true throughout the story and which I find very satisfying.
In the background of this story of the girls’ friendship is the mystery of the missing fathers. Maybe they have run away, maybe they are alcoholics, maybe they have defected. The key thing is — they’re missing. It was a shameful failing that even the Soviet authorities felt. Textbook writers, of whom Katya’s mother was one, were forbidden to mention fathers. Math problems, for example, could not mention fathers. The missing fathers are a shame and they are a taboo. Tania’s father defected, but it was both a mystery and a shame.
Why do these men evaporate?
It’s ironic, given that American defections to Russia are on the mind: Snowden, now, and Oswald, a little more than fifty years ago. Oswald apparently thought Russia would be perfect and he defected; apparently it wasn’t perfect and he had to satisfy his dissatisfaction by defecting back to the U.S. Vapnyar’s story makes a point of the word “defect” by giving both the Bulgarian father doll and Tania’s husband a hip defect. There’s an air of defect in defection. There’s an air about the story of the way we miss the point of things — that when we run away, children are damaged. There’s an air in the story about the perfection of the imagination — the cobbled together dollhouses, the imaginary country. But there’s a difference between giving life to your imagination, and running away to something that’s imaginary — defecting to it.
The twin stories — the girls, their dolls, their emigration the America, and their eventual switch in fortunes — all this is at a time when we have Oswald and Snowden on the mind. So strange to think of Oswald and Snowden choosing to go to Russia, when what happens to men is Russia, from Vapnyar’s point of view, is they evaporate.
Vapnyar makes a point of making the dollhouse red with yellow awning, something which is bold and charming in a child’s construction. When Tania’s American house turns out to be red with yellow awnings it’s a little frightening. There’s something here about what’s a real home, what are real parents, what is a real country. Isn’t the basis of our lives what we make between two people? Isn’t, Vapnyar is asking, the real country, the best country, the one two people create between them — the Katania?
I liked this story very much; not only did I like its neat construction, I adored the spot-on psychology of the two girls, and I found the riff on defection’s true identity refreshing.