Still Here by Lara Vapnyar tells the story of 4 Russian immigrants whose relationships resemble those of incestuous siblings – 30-something year old friends who have all dated each other and even the same gender friendships are described with vague homoerotic tones.
Vica and Sergey are married to each other but before that, Sergey dated Regina. Vadik is Sergey’s best friend but he and Vica have had at least one romantic encounter and there is a strong possibility that Eric, Vica and Sergey’s son is actually Vadik’s biological child. Regina and Vadik are platonic friends but only just barely. Now Sergey is hoping to sell his app to Bob (Regina’s American husband), he obsesses about Bob like a schoolgirl hoping for a date with the quarterback. Added to that, Bob makes passes at Vica but only when he’s tipsy so he can blame it on the alcohol.
Still Here? Good because that’s the title of the novel so here’s the real reason for it.
Sergey is obsessed with Nikolai Fyodorov, a Russian philosopher who predicted cloning – that pieces of various persons’ souls would be collected to create one conglomerate thereby achieving some semblance of immortality from collected experience. Fyodorov suggested that it was the son’s responsibility to resurrect his father who would then resurrect his father, and Sergey’s idea for an app is to write a code that would gather piecemeal information from a person’s online activity that can be used to continue that person’s virtual presence even when they have died.
The novel explores how technology can achieve an idea of immortality and Vapnyar writes from a third person narrative to introduce the friends as a unit and then follows each one to show their perspective on death. While the novel alternates between presenting the good and bad in each character, it is still possible to cast each one in a distinct role – Sergey as protagonist and flawed hero for desiring to save not just himself but the human race from the silence of death; Vadik as antagonist for suggesting that Sergey is wasting his life by spending it resurrecting someone else’s; Vica as damsel in distress and heroine for sacrificing her dreams to allow her husband to follow his but then, finding herself in a quandary, taking over the task of solving her own problems; Regina as the symbolic character representing the immigrant who leaves her country and her roots behind and, finding wealth in her new country, hesitates to be shackled to the problems of her past.
And in Still Here, Vapnyar addresses the plight of the immigrant and the duality of his roles – to represent his former life while also trying to assimilate into a new one. She broaches big topics like mortality and science and man’s struggle to master the machines he has created while also seeking to use technology to outwit even himself. She explores relationships and the limits of family and friendships – what we get from them and what they take from us. It is an ambitious novel that falls just short of its mark but is still a well told story, if one overlooks the repulsive behavior of the characters and focuses on their motives instead of their actions.
The major weakness of the novel comes in its resolution where the author paints her characters in a corner where none can help the other and where after exposing the unattractive underbelly of each one, this reader found herself empathizing with no one, where some of the darts that have been tossed fall outside the bulls eye and fail to be captured in the mass sweep that comes at the end of the story. There are plot points that appear to be significant that are not addressed at the end of the story and what should be a resolution is just a relocation and an abrupt ending. Still Here? Not anymore.
- Title: Still Here
- Author: Lara Vapnyar
- Publisher: Hogarth Publishing
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 329
- Literary Recognition: NY Times 100 Notable Books of 2016
- Other: Extra Libris edition, including an author interview and guided questions for readers
- Affiliate Purchase Links: Amazon | Book Depository
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book from Blogging For Books in order to complete my review.