The evil wizard in Gogol’s story “A Terrible Revenge” struggles with his mad daughter, trying to take away the knife she holds and, in the process, kills her. This climax—coming after the wizard murders her Cossack husband, demands that she “marry” (i.e., have sex with) him, murders her infant son, his grandchild, and then she descends into madness—is so unremittingly bleak that I have trouble reconciling the story with my previous idea of Gogol’s fiction and I go to the internet which is what we all do these days when confronted with things that don’t jibe and there I discover another story, B. Alquit’s charming mid-century “Gogol’s Ring” and then, beneath that, an article chronicling the history of the Syrian crisis and the rise of ISIS, offering the lonely figure of John McCain on the Senate floor in 2012 appealing for intervention in a genocide. Both the article—Abe Greenwald’s “On His Watch”—and the story appear back-to-back in the Neoconservative Commentary, a publication I generally wouldn’t read, but that’s Google for you, flinging you willy-nilly into the maelstrom of hyperspace where everything is connected to everything else.
The Jewish narrator of “Gogol’s Ring” muses on the differences between Gogol and Dostoyevsky—author of some of my favorite novels from my twenties such as Crime and Punishment and Notes from the Underground. The Brothers Karamazov was one of those big—in both senses of the word—books that made me want to write a big book myself. The narrator of Alquit’s story—like me, eventually—prefers Gogol’s less-complex fictions to Dostoyevsky’s, despite both authors’ rabid anti-Semitism, because of their humor and, at Gogol’s grave, body about to be exhumed to make way for a Soviet subway, literati and other gawkers crowding around, he loudly forgives the author his slurs. That brings me then to Greenwald’s article—juxtaposed probably by accident, based on an algorithm choosing the “must-reads” of the magazine—which is incapable of the ambiguity of fiction because he has a political argument to make, in this case that President Obama is the one responsible for the atrocities of Assad, the rise of ISIS, and the resultant refugee crisis. I vaguely remember McCain urging us to do something in Syria years ago and, though no one—either the president or McCain’s fellow Republicans—seemed to agree with him, I believed that what was happening there—soldiers firing on peaceful protestors, torturing of dissidents, barrel bombs dropped on civilians—should be addressed in some way. But, like most Americans, I had been beaten down by thirteen years of war in two different countries and the violent overthrow of a sixty-year dictator in another, acts which didn’t seem to improve anyone’s life pretty much anywhere and so, like many people, I thought a good place to sit, for a change, might be on our hands.
John Talbird is the author of the chapbook, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar). His novel The World Out There will be released in 2020 by Madville Publishing, and his fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Apalachee Review, Ploughshares, Grain, Juked, Potomac Review and North Dakota Quarterly among many others. He is a frequent contributor to Film International, on the editorial board of Green Hills Literary Lantern, and Associate Editor, Fiction, for the noir online journal Retreats from Oblivion. A professor at Queensborough Community College-CUNY, he lives with his wife in New York City.
Show John some love via PayPal at JTalbird(at)qcc(dot)cuny(dot)edu.