Originally published in The New Yorker, October 14, 2013; D
I hate to be reductive, but then again, the very act of writing about a short story of thousands of words in a blog that spends only a handful of hundreds on it can’t help it. And so some of the rich textures, the build-up of the pacing (which covers nearly eleven years), and the the characters get shortchanged in order to better discuss the theme, and whether it works or not. And so: the title “Katania” refers to the imaginary country created by the protagonists–two poor Russian girls, Tania and Katya–and inhabited by dolls. Because the two girls have so little–at one point, Tania judges freedom not by the number of rooms you have, but by the ownership of a key that lets you enter and exit those rooms at will–they compete over the smallest of things: the “correct” color of teacup, or, in the crux of this story, a male doll. The significance is immediately clear: fathers were in short supply, we’re told, and Russia covered this up, as they did most shortages, by refusing to acknowledge them (hence the father doll coming from an uncle who’d recently visited Bulgaria). And so when Katya shows Tania the doll, she lashes out with a jealous anger, belittling the doll’s lone imperfect, a bad hip. Why should her best friend get to have a father figure, no matter how shabby, when her own father has defected to the United States and been absent the last several years? In case it wasn’t clear, Vapnyar specifies this by cutting ahead ten years, with both girls having immigrated to the U.S. and catching up over Facebook: as Tania brags about her home and husband, Katya can only observe that “Tania had built herself an exact replica of my old doll house, down to the chicken coop” and that her husband “walked as if his left leg didn’t work. He walked as if it were detached at the hip.”
OK, so perhaps I don’t hate to be reductive when circumstances call for it. Really? Girl who pines for better things in life goes out and unconsciously builds herself the childhood fantasy. That’s it? This is compounded slightly by the ten year jump that allows Vapnyar to reach her pat little ending, and more so by all the meaningless asides given (and repeated) earlier in the story. No wonder it’s so hard to reconcile Katya’s mother–like her daughter’s doll (“naked, bald, vaguely female, made of hard shiny plastic”), the sort of person who “kicked [Katya] in the ribs simply for crawling around on the floor and meowing while she was on the phone; a stern teacher, disdainful of fantasy (on the dollhouse: “‘Isn’t it a picture of happiness!’ my mother exclaimed, and I didn’t like her sarcasm one bit”); or the sort of mother who lovingly takes off from work (which can’t be easy on her salary) in order to take her on picnics and outings so enjoyable that “We always stayed a little longer than we’d planned and had to run to the station to catch our train back to Moscow.” The grandmother’s doll looks like a hedgehog, which doesn’t make sense given the way she’s described (“She would watch me from the window, and as soon as she saw me she’d put dinner on the stove and rush to open the door”)–heck, even the father figure is a stretch, given that Katya knows nothing of the man, save that he’s dead, and hardly seems to care for him. Even the dolls are sort of beside the point, with Katya constantly growing bored with them.
The problem is, “Katania” is a story that’s written specifically to reach an ending, earned or not, and the padding sticks out as dishonest or, worse, irrelevant. (Katya’s so poor that she’s scavenged parts for her dollhouse out of her own clothing? Who cares?) As for the pieces that are relevant, they’re repeated, as if Vapnyar isn’t quite sure you’ll get the point, and she begins her story by describing both the father doll and the relevance of absent fathers, lest either of these things take us by surprise. The story teeters between irrelevance and obviousness; in this case, I might actually be doing “Katania” a favor to remain so reductive.