Summer Reading, Part 1: Idov’s Caffeinated Comedy

Have you noticed things a little lighter here at RA lately?  You’re not imaging it.  Bob is currently spending some quality time with the family before his very existence slips the minds of his daughters, while I have been assigned to a number of, um, maintenance issues, such as figuring out whether I can fix our blog comments by myself or recruit some competent coding muscle.  In the meantime, Bob and I promised to swap duties on some book reviews to fill the blog over the next week.

Blessed with this rare opportunity to stray away from my bailiwick, I made a meal out of it, posting here what is probably this blog’s first review of a work of fiction:  Ground Up by Michael Idov.


Idov’s name is likely to be well known among Russia followers, though this is his first novel.  A career journalist, contributing editor to New York magazine, founder of RUSSIA! magazine, and freelancer of ideas at large, many of his articles and video interviews around the time of the transition between Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev aroused a lot of debate on the interwebs.

That’s not to say that Ground Up bears the slightest relation to Putin, Medvedev and Kremlinology.  The slim comic novel centers on a young, privileged married couple Mark Scharf and Nina Liau, with an improbably bohemian dream of opening a Viennese cafe in the rapidly gentrifying Lower East Side of New York City.  With almost no experience, no business plan, and delusions of some sort of cosmpolitan utopia, Scharf and Liau quickly learn a lesson the hard way.

In an interview with Time Out New York, Idov describes Scharf as somewhat dislikeable, a character that you will be rooting for to fail.  What makes the satire compelling is its authenticity, as Idov put so much of himself into the character, and without delving too deeply into insincere self-hating, he makes parody of the protagonist’s poor decisions.

Scharf is a lazy and aimless hipster, born to Jewish Russian immigrants living in the Midwest.  He majors in Russian studies, but only because it was the most effortless way to appear intelligent given his mother language – but as he wistfully reflects, he graduated “post Gorby, pre Putin,” at moment in which his skill set was temporarily worthless.  His wife Liau is, like her mother, a potentially devastating and calculating lawyer, but desperate to do something different with her career in order to shake free from her mother’s burdensome yoke.

The two characters are at times totally buffoonish – Scharf self-consciously studies the sports page to regurgiate Yankees gossip in order to ingratiate himself to the proletariat construction workers from Poland.  Liau attempts to strongarm her connection to the community through photo exhibits that the subjects themselves are disinterested in – or even openly rejecting of it. Scharf and Liau are in the orbit of various eccentric personalities of the anti-folk scene, who with less intelligence, no particular passion, limited resources, and much less consciousness of self, are somehow able to achieve tremendous success, rubbing it in the face of their failure.  They try their best to play their presumptive role as hardworking entrepreneurs, but New York just spits them back up.

At some points in the book, it is hard to keep on laughing at these two as the schadenfreude peters out.  Idov wrote this novel after going through his own failed business experience with his wife, when they owned the shortlived Cafe Trotsky.  The characters have a lovely idea for a beautiful and comfortable recreation of the Vienna experience – it’s hard not to fall for the pitch, even if it turns out that what they like and want is not at all in synch with the harsh realities of the market (people like to drink hot milk, and they like it to go).  Ground Up is a comic reminder that you can’t run a business if you’re not in it for the business, and the kind of brutal rejection which awaits us all in the attempt to externalize an absurdly imagined cosmopolitanism.

Idov’s writing is sharply witty with Woody Allen-esque shades of high/low culture, his expertise on Russia enters the story from various directions throughout the book, and even if there is a small dishonesty to all the self-loathing, you’ll still whip through this fun little book in just a couple days on the beach … where we certainly hope you are these last few weeks of August.