FEBRUARY 28, 2019
“ZORKA. SHE HAD eyebrows like her name.” Thus enters one half of the female duo that forms the core of the deliciously mysterious Virtuoso, the second novel by Ukrainian-American author Yelena Moskovich. The succinct observation about Zorka displays Moskovich’s peculiar synaesthetic gift: a vision of the girl is etched in your mind, her angular eyebrows pointing to the sky.
Virtuoso follows Jana and Zorka from their shared childhood in communist Prague to the America and Paris of a post-Soviet world. In the overbearing environment of their communal Prague apartment, we watch the girls spy conspiratorially on their drunk mothers, listen to adults talking about the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and steal razors to shave their newly grown pubic hair. Their coming-of-age narrative is, however, interrupted by subplots of other relationships and off-the-wall interludes that often defy comprehension. When we return to them later in the novel, Jana and Zorka are young women living radically different lives, but they are bound by their girlhood experiences in a country that no longer exists. Like Moskovich’s dark debut, The Natashas, Virtuoso depicts stark, casual brutality toward women. But sexual exploitation isn’t the star of this show. The range of themes — dislocation, exile, capitalism, and LGBTQ love — are all explored in such depth and visceral detail that it is impossible to determine a main theme.
In the 1980s in Czechoslovakia, paranoia is the order of the day: “[T]hey tapped telephones, opened letters with their steam apparatus, crawled through the veins of the city and pulled people out, out of their own biographies. People disappeared, reappeared, confessed, reported others…” Jana is bright and studious, and with a loving brother and supportive parents leads a conventional life. Her friend, the raven-haired Zorka, nicknamed Mala Narcis (Little Narcissus) by her mother, is unruly and disturbed, a non-conformist in every way. To the chagrin of her “mamka,” Zorka’s rebellion is writ large across her every action, from burning her mother’s fur coat in the hallways of their communal apartment, to her “pee trick” — letting the contents of her bladder stream down her legs onto the carpet while her mother brutally slaps her. Having been subjected to electroconvulsive therapy after a botched suicide, Zorka’s mother is particularly sensitive to her daughter’s unwonted behavior in a system where only conformists seem to survive. “Please, please please, my love,” her mother coos, “don’t be weird.”
The germ of female friendship, its comfort and generative power, begins with Jana and Zorka — “I reached out my hand and Janka took it, and that was enough, and actually, it was incredible, to hold onto something instead of wetting myself” — and then blossoms throughout Virtuoso. In the face of the sometimes deranged and threatening masculinity of the novel’s periphery characters, the female bond — expressed in both friendship and sexual intimacy — becomes unassailable armor. The threat of molestation and sexual predation is ubiquitous, and Moskovich treats it in an eerily businesslike manner. But the girls know they have each other. When Zorka’s geography teacher pulls a fork from his pocket and threatens “that he’ll scrape my little cunt out,” she seems unfazed. In contrast to this violent crudity, the two girls’ bodily self-discovery, taken up together, is full of a humor and a liberal use of the word “cunt” that my younger self instantly recognized. “Slain but standing” and “Agnus Dei and the Jans,” the names Zorka and Jana give to their vaginas, emerge as an endearing demonstration of the power of humor and imagination to subvert omnipresent misogyny.
Virtuoso isn’t a “start-to-end” novel, in that it doesn’t rely on a build-up of momentum to achieve its goals. Many of its most dramatic, profound moments are spliced into the narrative, rather than waiting for you, like a reward, at the conclusion. Moskovich deftly flicks between narrators, timeframes, and tone. This intensifies the invigorating sense of disorientation already established by the abundance of surreal metaphors and the peculiar use of English. You’re liable to have your senses both soothed and, just as quickly, assaulted. Not knowing which effect will be achieved next puts us in the same position in which Jana and Zorka often find themselves — robbed of power, exiled, and dispossessed.
As an adult in Paris, Jana experiences the invisibility of exile, and thanks to Moskovich’s evocative style, we too are made to feel what she feels:
She passed these people, as if behind a glass wall, where no one saw her, and if they did, she was just an unperceivable mistake in the scenic exhibition of their lives, a misspelling in their autobiography. But they were to her, as well, a scenic exhibition, a dreamy mass of ways of belonging, which she was not a part of. It was a languorous experience of her loneliness, to be an observer of a world for which she was both too special and not special enough.
Nabokov’s “untranslatable” toska is present in Virtuoso, though among a digitally connected youth it manifests itself in curious ways. Whether experienced as a profound existential longing or simply a sense of boredom, toska is usually a response to something missing. For the children of communism, the loss of a homeland is an ever-present reality. There is no going back, and although neither Jana nor Zorka has any desire to revisit their Czechoslovakian childhood, they still carry with them a kind of void. It is destabilizing, but it is also generative, a blank canvas on which a new identity can be formed. Toward the end of the book we meet Erki, a Paris-based Estonian fashion designer and founder of EB, or “Eastern Bloc,” an entourage of “romantic cowboys of their countries’ cultural and economic isolation, [who] put their childhood disparities into fabrics, cuts and fashion statements. In the folds, seams, slippers, leather, those memories became Western Fetish of the failed Communist dream.” They, like Jana and Zorka, are the spare parts of an engine scrapped 30 years ago, unmoored and scattered in a hyper-globalized world. At a time when Eastern brutalist architecture and the harsh aesthetic of Russian youth culture are ripped from context and commodified in Western fashion magazines and photography books, Moskovich’s swipe at the banal consumption of communist tropes is devilishly pleasurable to read.
Undergirding themes of capitalism and dislocation is a visceral evocation of the experience of queer relationships, carried primarily through Aimee and Dominique, who open the novel. In a cinematic, hallucinatory opening worthy of David Lynch, we meet the couple in dire circumstance: Dominique’s corpse is on the hotel bed, while her stricken wife Aimee is trying, in vain, to resuscitate her. As the narrative shifts back and forth in time, we piece together a moving, sensitive portrayal of a couple, one half of which is a young woman trying to find a place in the world, the other a woman in the clutches of a depression that eventually claims her life. The intensity of female communion is portrayed in a different guise by two African-American girls the teenage Zorka befriends in the United States, all three outcasts from the “American mould.” Zorka notices: “These girls could feel each other’s emotions like drops in the same river.”
Moskovich wanders quite far down the path of the weird but stops short of the absurd; there’s always meaning and intention in the characters’ lives — love, companionship, loyalty, fun. Nevertheless, the stream of episodes that reel with a riotous unpredictability may knock even the most steady reader off course. Inexplicable transcripts of a relationship conducted via a lesbian internet chatroom between an 18-year-old American girl and an Eastern European wife, house-bound by her husband, recur sporadically throughout the book before ending in a bizarre, inconclusive dreamscape. Aimee is convinced that she is being followed by a blue haze — cobalt-rimmed dishes, a dark blue bathrobe, Gauloises Bleues, her bruises. And in the most puzzling scene in the book, four children emerge and surround a character identified as Mr D, pinning him motionless to the ground while “the lanky girl takes my cock and puts it in her blue hoodie pocket and takes out a shiny red apple and hands it over.”
Perhaps the best joke in the book concerns the title. Not a musician or artist of prodigious talent, Virtuoso is instead a mattress. Better than the Eleganza 3 bed or the CliniCare 20+, more coveted even than the EffectaCare 20+, the Virtuoso comes complete with a one-hand-operated CPR system, suitable for patients “on the precipice of expiration […] requiring a sort of organic reunion with their own gravity, a homecoming to the distribution of their mass,” according to the Czech salesman for whom Jana interprets at a Paris fair. For Parisian businesses and American teens alike, the post-communist East is at best a place for the cheap mass production of the West’s absurd necessities and at worst a place where housewives are chained to their provincial homes.
Virtuoso is powerfully mysterious and deeply insightful, a page-turner precisely because you have no idea what to expect. In the era of #MeToo, Moskovich’s arrestingly close and complicated view of lesbian relationships and female friendship seems more urgent than ever before. But it’s perhaps the novel’s defiantly surrealist style that is its greatest triumph; it is in itself a stirring endorsement of transgression on all fronts. Virtuoso has the effect of a good poem — inexplicit, mystifying, and sometimes impenetrable, but in the end producing a vivid and visceral impression of the subject. The true virtuoso, in both substance and style, is the author herself.