Release Date: 2011
Guest reviewed by Bronwyn Mauldin
You’ll never save the world if you can’t even save yourself. That’s the hard truth at the heart of Cara Diaconoff’s novel, I’ll Be a Stranger to You.
Each year, thousands of young American Peace Corps volunteers strike out for places like Lesotho, Kyrgyzstan and Bolivia, full of heady idealism about saving the world. After two years of trying to make their small corner of it a better place, they return home with a certain ambivalence about their experience. I got a lot out of it, I’ve heard them say, but I don’t know if I helped anyone else. “Teach a man to fish,” the saying goes, but they’re sent to places where people have been making their livelihoods from fish for millennia.
The Mormon missionaries of I’ll Be a Stranger to You stand in striking contrast to the returned Peace Corps volunteers I know. Diaconoff’s novel is set in Moscow in the 1990s, a few years after the Berlin Wall has fallen. The political, economic and social order of the former Soviet Union is unraveling, and these fresh-faced, young American Mormons are certain they have the answer to what the new Russia needs.
All except Lucas Tiller. Tall, thin and lopy, Lucas stayed on in Moscow after finishing his mission, launching a small tech business with financing from his wealthy father-in-law. That business is on the brink of failure, as is the country’s currency and economy. He has laid off most of his staff – all of them Russian – and is trying desperately to hold on to the few small contracts he still has. He hasn’t paid himself a salary in months. He is, by turns, trying to save his business, his marriage, and himself. Lucas, his hair in a ponytail, too long for a missionary, tells the head of the Mormon mission in Moscow, “Well, you’ve come to the right source, then… if you want humble. I gave up all my high ambitions months ago.”
It’s not just his failing business he’s thinking of. Lucas is also struggling to come to terms with his sexuality. He’s a closeted gay Mormon who thinks his secret is safe. His wife, Marianne, has returned to the U.S. for an extended visit. They’ve told each other it’s temporary, it’s because Moscow is too foreign for her. He knows she wants to go back permanently. What we will learn is that’s only part of what she wants.
Walking through the metro on his way to work one morning with a copy of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People under his arm, Lucas passes a “samovar,” a quadriplegic veteran propped up on a skateboard. “Back home, if you saw such people, they at least rode in wheelchairs, or maybe even had artificial limbs – the point was they had things around them, a whole cushioned apparatus, so that you could more readily accept that behind their eyes still resided a brain and a soul that functioned just like yours did.” Lucas tries to strike up a casual conversation with the man, who responds by asking for cigarettes. He briefly imagines sitting in the park with the samovar, talking and laughing under a tree filled with twittering birds. Lucas imagines lighting a cigarette for him, putting it in his mouth for him to smoke. Though the brief scene can be read with sexual subtext, it is Lucas’s sense of loss and loneliness that shine through.
Diaconoff’s novel offers a peek behind the scenes of the missionary experience. Thousands of young Mormons go through intensive language training (Lucas turns out to be particularly adept) and are sent each year to proselytize around the world in their white shirts, black pants and ties. Lucas and the other young missionaries refer to each other as “Elder” or “Sister.” When the challenges they face threaten to overwhelm them, they get on their knees together and pray. Their earnestness matches the Peace Corps volunteers’ belief in their own power to save the world.
The story is told primarily from Lucas’s point of view, though occasionally we get brief glimpses of what other characters are thinking. A significant section is devoted to his wife Marianne’s perspective back in the U.S. It runs long, giving more back story than is perhaps needed, but it pays off when Lucas fails multiple times to get a crucial piece of news. Lesson: always check your phone messages, even when you’re expecting bad news. It could be worse than you expected.
A number of scenes take place in seedy Moscow nightclubs. Lucas’s attempt to end his friendship with an older openly gay Englishman named Clyde begins at one and ends with the two of them in jail, Lucas dressed in a woman’s silk pajamas and pancake makeup. His effort to save his business takes him into a different nightclub where he meets with the Russian mafia. This, too, does not end well.
At the center of I’ll Be a Stranger to You is a collection of people seeking to save what cannot be salvaged. Marianne returns to Moscow and attempts to save her marriage, even as Lucas falls in love with Adam Held, another Mormon missionary. Lucas tries to save his business in the midst of a collapsing economy. Adam tries to save a young army deserter because he is in love with the soldier’s prostitute sister. Lucas tries to save himself from his own sexuality. Nearly all of them will fail. The memory of their struggle will stay with you.
Bronwyn Mauldin is the author of the novel Love Songs of the Revolution. She won The Coffin Factory magazine’s 2012 very short story award, and her Mauldin’s work has appeared in the Akashic Books web series, Mondays Are Murder, and at Necessary Fiction, CellStories, The Battered Suitcase, Blithe House Quarterly, Clamor magazine and From ACT-UP to the WTO. She is a researcher with the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, and she is creator of GuerrillaReads, the online video literary magazine.