GINA OCHSNER has enough imagination to cover Siberia. The characters of her first novel, The Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight, defy dreary Russian surroundings with homemade escapes. In dreams and reclusive havens they flee the garbage piles, bullies, and toilet smells of their crumbling Soviet apartment building.
Yuri, a shell-shocked young veteran, spends large chunks of his time in a cracked army helmet, catching fish and envying their current-directed existences underwater. Olga, his mother, is a translator/censor for the conservative Red Star newspaper, where she composes a government-approved reality without any "miners' hunger strike," "banking crisis," or other terms deemed "pointless." Tanya finds release in her post at the All-Russia All-Cosmopolitan Museum, where she sculpts and paints their fourth-rate exhibits. (This museum's most touted feature is its lavatory.)
Ochsner's descriptions are brutally funny, especially in their absurdly pathetic details. When a small philanthropic group, the Americans of Russian Extraction for the Causes of Beautification, considers donating money to the All-Russia, it stokes the group's fantasies and mobilizes their meager resources.
Elements of magic realism are peppered throughout the novel; Ochsner uses these flights into the surreal as opportunities to flesh out the true natures of her characters.
"I think that's the way story works for me," she says. "It starts with character, and then if I can hear a voice, if I can hear somebody say something like, 'He looks like he has a hedgehog up his ass,' then I know that it's their voice and not my voice. And then I just allow them to be navigated into positions where they can do something."
I spoke with Ochsner from her home in Keizer, Oregon, a rural area outside Salem where she has lived nearly all her life.
MERCURY: What was the inspiration for the book's American characters?
GINA OCHSNER: I'm really fascinated with benevolence and how complicated it can be, both to be on the giving end and the receiving end.... [The Americans] had no idea that once you make an offer to help, the expectation is that offer will be good forever, and so to say no later is extremely bad form. That's a different concept for westerners.
Olga seems especially real to me. Was she based on someone in particular?
There are 1,000 Olgas out there at jobs they hate. Many of them work at news bureaus. They call them translators, but really they're being asked to censor by way of euphemism. I haven't met an actual Olga, but through friends of friends I have heard of many.
Have you had any unexpected reactions from the book already?
Yes! The mayor of Perm [in Russia] has a chat room and he was so upset because he thought that I had written a book that made Perm sound bad. I have friends in Perm and they say some wonderful things about it and some pretty awful things. Every city is like this; it's got its beautiful face and its armpits.... But oh, he was irate!
Maybe it's the New Yorker in me, but you sound absurdly happy. Do people say that often?
What they say is, "Gina, we've read your work about all the dying people, but you look so cheery. You're not at all what we expected." That's what I hear... I promise it's not the Prozac.