AUGUST 27, 2021
UNRAVELING IN THRILLING threads of prose, Yelena Moskovich’s new novel, A Door Behind a Door, follows the lives of Soviet immigrants in 1990s Milwaukee as they venture through a dark, surreal realm that leads to the door to Hell. Reading this sexy fever dream of a book, so visceral and poetic, I was forced to think about how I’ve viewed my own body over the years — what it’s meant for me to inhabit the female form.
As in Moskovich’s previous two novels, The Natashas (2018) and Virtuoso (2020), the writing here is fresh and vibrant and the story features an unlikely group of impulsive and curious characters. It begins with Olga, the first of several narrators (all equally disturbed and endearing), who is on a quest to save her brother Moshe, who is being held in some strange version of jail on allegations of murder. In the process, Olga comes to realize, having lived a few years as an immigrant in the United States, that her “body is a state-issued shape.” Her body is that of a female filled with desire, fear, and anticipation — all sensations not entirely within her control. She pines for her partner, yet even when they are lying in bed together, she desperately wants to “break through the skin of this lifetime.” As an immigrant, she is displaced not only geographically and culturally but also as a corporeal being.
Tanya, who meets Olga unexpectedly in a place like purgatory, faces a different struggle with her body: an inability to contain herself within the boundaries of the flesh. She is always horny, always ready to hump any living thing she sees. Like Olga and the other female characters, Tanya seems to be enduring her body as a kind of punishment. Her experience raises the question of what it feels like to lust so much, so uncontainably and uncontrollably, that you hate yourself. Moskovich demonstrates this battle via queer relationships and seemingly unrequited love, providing glimpses of Tanya’s coming of age and discovery of her sexuality. These sorts of explorations of the body are a trademark of Moskovich’s writing: she presents them in a way that is so elegant and engaging that you can’t help but fall in love with the characters and their struggles.
All of Moskovich’s characters have skewed relationships with their bodies, whether due to a lack of physical control (Tanya’s constant randiness, Nicky’s inability to constrain his violent impulses) or because of some obscure cycle of reincarnation in this strange fantasy world. With each page, a “feeling of anachronistic dread” builds for character and reader alike, as complex, heart-wrenching testimonies weave together and a clear sense of time fades into a wash of bright fluorescent lights.
Olga and Tanya are among the narrators who speak from the present moment, looking back on the past (whether near or distant depends on the chapter), while others such as Vaska, a mystical Soviet canine, speaks of a long-gone moment as if it is just now unraveling. On one occasion, someone who is assumed to be dead speaks to another body: “Why don’t you wake up like me? […] I smell like lilacs. I smell like lollipops. I smell like death.” Despite this constant shifting of narrators, time periods, and settings (from dank city diners and dark street corners in Milwaukee to a sunny beach in Odessa), Moskovich manages to sustain a thread of visceral, physical despair.
In his play No Exit, Jean-Paul Sartre creates an afterlife that similarly involves the body as punishment, though his version of hell is much less visceral than Moskovich’s. While Sartre’s afterlife involves a lack of sleep, an immersion in harsh reality, Moskovich’s is dreamlike: jagged, surreal, and bereft of smooth continuity. Still, it is easy to imagine Sartre’s characters agreeing with Olga when, overwhelmed with a sense of being wrongly attached to her body, she concludes that “the only thing that makes this body bearable is that we can get out of it.” Olga’s journey toward the doorway to Hell involves the same kind of empty rituals and mind games that Sartre explores: explosive flirtations, hazy questions with hazier answers.
The content and form of A Door Behind a Door are jarring at times, which is part of the point — nothing as dark, unexpected, and sexy as this should feel like anything other than a fever dream. This is, too, a physically beautiful book. The cover features Moskovich’s own illustration of a naked woman bending into herself at the edge of a bed while she looks with a deep and mournful gaze straight into the eyes of the viewer. The pages that follow demonstrate a reverence for white space, with text chunked into careful sentences and fragments. In this way, A Door Behind a Door more closely resembles the script of a stage play than a traditional novel, which makes sense given the author’s background in playwriting.
Moskovich’s experience writing for the theater, as well as working in a number of other art forms, culminates in a genre-bending work that isn’t quite like anything I’ve ever read. A Door Behind a Door challenges the most basic desires and beliefs of its readers. Those who enjoy experimental forms, thought-provoking material, and a good thrill will delight in this haunting novel.
Katya Buresh is a writer of poetry and literary criticism living in Maryland. She previously served as senior editor and poetry editor of Grub Street Literary Magazine, and also as an intern with Baltimore’s Mason Jar Press. Her work can be found in The Rumpus, Ligeia Magazine, Metonym Journal, and other publications. Find her on social media at @katyanburesh and at sincerelykatya.com.