Give Me by Irina Denezhkina
I love learning about cultures that are not really even on my radar. Places or groups of people that I don’t come across, like miners from West Virginia or Dutch tradesman from the 14th century, are always fascinating and, by comparison, make me examine my own life and circumstances. For example, I have never tried to imagine what it is like for young people, teens and twenties, living in post-Communist Russia. Now, after reading Irina Denezhkina’s sparkling debut collection of stories Give Me (Songs for Lovers), I feel like I know.
Denezhkina’s collection of 11 short stories show a group of tough-as-nails young people who experience all the things that the early parts of our lives have to offer: falling in love, disillusionment, desire, despair, and hope. There are a few fantastical stories thrown into the mix, one about Death going online into a chat room and another about a young boy who fights off green men that have been terrorizing his neighborhood. “In the spring the green men went wild. They gnawed the rust off the Dumpsters, growling, whining. They found it hard to even move, they couldn’t piss at all, so they puked. They smelled particularly repulsive in the spring. What they wanted were vagrant women. They used to drag the women behind the trash heaps and rape them with their long purple tongues and their thick purple pricks that were just as long.”
Generally the stories show a rock ‘n’ roll, vodka-soaked, pill-addled culture full of jarring slang and barely subdued violence and lust. Sounds just like home, and the similarities are comforting in a way. Young people in Russia are the same as young people anywhere. In Russia, however, they were left with a gaping hole in the middle of their culture when communism collapsed. Some of the characters introduced in Give Me weren’t even alive for the Cold War that shaped Russia. To a certain extent, they don’t get what all the fuss is about. These are tough kids and they have university exams to worry about, TV to watch, boys to date.
Translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield, one of the most striking things about Denezhkina’s work is the seamless dialogue. She plays fast and loose with language, grammar, and punctuation and the result is the reality of how young people talk and act. The title story is about two girlfriends flirting with anything that comes within their orbit as they swish through life, seeking fun. “So we’re standing there whispering, and in the end we wound ourselves up so much we almost legged it top-speed out of the metro. But for some reason, we hung on. Then suddenly I see two boys coming toward us. The one who’s not so tasty is like a Soviet soft toy dog. The other’s Pepsi, pager, MTV, spiky hair, fruit-drop lips, really cocky look. Gorgeous, like a picture in a magazine.”
Denezhkina’s authentic voice might come from her youth (at the time of publication she was 21), but her talent feels deeper than that. There is a current of sorrow running through this work that deepens it from just your typical coming-of-age stories. The insightful look into the lives of Russian youth that Denezhkina gives us is too raw, too real to be just a flash of magnesium. We will be hearing from her again.
Give Me by Irina Denezhkina
Simon & Schuster