Sunday, December 3, 2017

Anna Kozlova’s Sharp F20

Anna Kozlova’s F20, which won this year’s National Bestseller Award, feels like an antidote to a lot of things. Back in October, it was the perfect book for fighting inevitable boredom (not to mention weird service) on a transatlantic flight. And thinking now about Kozlova’s fictional account of rough realities—which also have a very darkly humorous side—makes a startling counterpoint to treacly Christmas music at the grocery store and posh holiday gift lists. F20 is smart, immediate, and relevant, making it a harsh but necessary reminder of personal and societal ills. The fact that F20 won the NatsBest is also a nice antidote to this year’s Big Book shortlist, which is both mysteriously lackluster and absurdly all-male… despite F20 making the Big Book longlist.

F20 is the medical code for schizophrenia. Kozlova’s narrator, the teenage Yulia, and her younger sister Anyutik both seem to have it, though only Anyutik, whose symptoms are more obvious, has been formally diagnosed. Yulia opens up right from the start, telling us on F20’s first page that there are broken locks on the little suitcase of genes she and Anyutik received. They come from a broken family, too, and are growing up with their grandmother, their mother, and her boyfriend Tolik, someone she knew way back when… and then ran into years later when she brought Anyutik to the psychiatric clinic for a shot. Tolik and Anyutik share a diagnosis.

To call F20 sad, depressing, or heartbreaking doesn’t get at half of what Kozlova achieves: the novel is all that but it’s flickers of humor, humanness, absurdity, and even suspense that raise it above simple chernukha, that pitch-black dark reality I’ve often found so compelling. Yulia describes cutting German words into her foot when the going gets tough. Anyutik says their mother never should have given birth to them. Yulia decides early on that she has no future or potential. Anyutik’s “best” voices of the six she hears come from a talking dog (shades of Gogol?) and Pushkin. Medication helps, however, and Anyutik serves as her older sister’s pharmacist. Anyutik’s a veritable PDR, knowledgeable on doses and side effects. Toward the end of the book, Yulia serves as a home health aide to an elderly woman and makes a comment about a generation gap in perceptions of carnations, a once-popular flower, now outmoded. The combination of details co-existing in F20 gives the book an almost documentary aesthetic.

Meanwhile, in the story’s longer arc, Yulia is growing up, having sex (and often uses graphic language, something I’ve seen criticized by readers; it’s a criticism I don’t share), learning to drink heavily, and not always coming home. Also meanwhile, Yulia’s grandmother accuses Yulia’s mother of being too permissive and Yulia’s mother even wonders where she and Yulia’s Polish boyfriend’s parents went wrong: why do their children smoke, drink, and have sex? She wonders how they could have allowed that but at least some of the answers seem pretty obvious: maybe the parents didn’t start picking up vices as early in life as their kids, but the four of them manage to knock back a bottle of vodka in forty minutes during a two-family summit. And the boyfriend’s parents even have a fistfight. None of this (none of this!) struck me as unlikely in Kozlova’s telling. Another scene ensues later on, when Yulia and Anyutik’s father visits… and the problems clearly go beyond these two families.

Although certain twists toward the end of F20 felt a tiny bit off to me—the denouement with the elderly client seemed a little hasty, as did Yulia’s visit with her father—that doesn’t negate the book’s effect. I still believe Yulia when she says she is (a) reality and nobody needs her. And I still feel her aloneness in the world, something she mentions after she’s carved the word finsternis into herself. NatsBest jury member Roman Senchin—whom I see as a master of chernukha, thanks to his The Yeltyshevswrote that Kozlova’s writing is “увлекательно написанная жуть” (roughly “fascinatingly written awfulness”), which is just right because what happens is awful but it’s also horribly absorbing. Even if you don’t read Russian, the paragraph he cites in his review—and, yes, I do believe his claim that he selected it randomly—has simple enough syntax that even an online translator will give you a sense of Kozlova’s talent for making such awful things so fascinating and so absorbing. I think it’s safe to say the paragraph also displays why Senchin cites critic Lev Danilkin, who called Kozlova’s writing “ультрашоковая,” “ultrashocking.” The combination of real storytelling and that shock makes for a reading experience that’s both engrossing and worthwhile, something (not to keep grousing but…) I wish I’d felt in more of my 2017 Big Book reading.

Disclaimers: The usual. NatsBest secretary Vadim Levental wrote Masha Regina, which I translated. Not a disclaimer, but huge thanks to translator Reilly Costigan-Humes, who came to the 2017 ALTA conference bearing books from Moscow for a bunch of book-starved, US-based translators he had never even met… This was a very generous thing to do—printed books are heavy, after all—and I’m especially grateful because F20 was among the books he hauled. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting Reilly and his translation partner Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler in Minneapolis: they’ve already translated Serhiy Zhadan’s Voroshilovgrad (previous post on Zaven Babloyan’s Russian translation that I read) and they’re working on Lena Eltang’s Cartagena (another previous post). Hmm, they seem to like books with toponym titles. You can read more about Reilly and Isaac here.

Up next: Russian Booker and Big Book Award winners. Sukhbat Aflatuni’s lovely Tashkent Novel; Vladimir Medvedev’s polyphonic Zahhak; and Yulia Yakovleva’s entertaining Tinker, Tailor (Вдруг охотник выбегает), which is set in Leningrad.


  1. I wasn't sure whether to believe Senchin that the quote he picked was random, but his review got me to read the book, and after reading it, I absolutely believe him! I see what you mean about the pacing of the part with the elderly client, but I think I like it - the book kept surprising me in new ways, including with what happened there and how quickly.

    1. Thank you for checking in on F20, Erik! I'm glad Senchin convinced you to read F20, it really is masterfully done. (That awfulness!) I still think back to it, which is saying something since so many books just fade away.