MOSCOW BUT DREAMING – Ekaterina Sedia

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The first short story collection by award-winning author Ekaterina Sedia! One of the more resonant voices to emerge in recent years, this Russian-born author explores the edge between the mundane and fantastical in tales inspired by her homeland as well as worldwide folkloric traditions. With foreword by World Fantasy Award-winner Jeffrey Ford, Moscow But Dreaming showcases singular and lyrical writing that will appeal to fans of slipstream and magical realism, as well as those interested in the uncanny and Russian history.

More magical realism than fantasy, melancholy across the board, and if Sedia’s House of Discarded Dreams was your cup of thing then this should be too.

This is a collection of twenty-one stories, which is to say it is quite a lot–and it is somewhat uneven, which is kind of a nature of the beast what with short story collections. But there’s a leitmotif to most of the stories that justifies their presence in being collected in one place and which lets them cohere, as opposed to the haphazard kitchen sink approach of most collections.

Reviewing collections is a bit peculiar, especially one in which each story stands on its own despite the thematic common grounds. There being so many in Moscow But Dreaming it’s particularly difficult to go through each and everyone one by one, but I’ll try to cover most of them.

“A Short Encyclopedia of Lunar Seas” does just what it says, and quite fascinating as a new-weird/slipstream thing.

1. The Moscow Sea (Mare Moscoviense)
Moscow is one of the most landlocked cities on Earth, but whatever disappears from it ends up in the Moscow Sea. The local inhabitants see a certain irony in that, and celebrate every new arrival. They cheered when the churches burned by Napoleon appeared and stood over the shallow waters of the sea, reflecting there along with the sparrows and the immigrants. They greeted the dead priests with coppers on their eyes, the hockey teams, the horse-drawn buggies. They are still waiting for the jackdaws, but the jackdaws are resilient, and they stay in their city.

Several of the stories are ghost stories–”Tin Cans” and “You Dream,” and arguably “By the Liter”: there’s a definite fascination with the afterlife running through the collection, whether it is in the ghosts of tortured girls, the souls consumed via beer, and a haunting that brings a woman back to her childhood home.

“One, Two, Three” and “There is a Monster Under Helen’s Bed” both concern adoption, the first of an infertile Russian couple, the second of an American couple who adopted a girl from a Siberian orphanage. Like all of Sedia’s fiction, “There is a Monster” is political–

Helen, on the other hand, perks up and sticks her head out of the window, smiling and waving. Janis purses her lips and pulls her inside, and rolls up the windows. Helen has to learn English, not to cling to a misplaced remnant of the life she had left.
The doctor is Russian too—he laughs with an avuncular roll, and reassures Janis in his heavily accented English. He takes Helen to his office on the third floor of the office building, where the windows offer up a view of the adjacent strip mall. Janis follows even though she cannot understand them. They seem to conspire against her—the doctor at his ostentatious mahogany desk (he sits next to it, not behind it) and Helen, sunken into a plush red chair, a box of tissues thoughtfully placed on the small stand by her elbow. Janis sits awkwardly on an uncomfortable ottoman by the door, feeling like a poor relation, an unwelcome intruder.
The doctor and the girl look at her simultaneously, laugh, and resume their conversation. What an ugly language, Janis thinks. There are no tissues by her ottoman.

–and sharply critical (yes, Helen may be blonde and blue-eyed, but she won’t learn English).

Sex and sexuality are recurring themes, and it’s interesting that heterosexual sex in this collection is not a thing of joy or even pleasure. In “Citizen Komarova Finds Love” it is directly connected to murder; in “You Dream,” “Tin Cans” and “There is a Monster Under Helen’s Bed” there is rape; in “Ebb and Flow” heterosexual love is a traitorous. Only in “Kikimora” is the sex something two consenting adults do together for fun. It is, of course, lesbian. There’s also a focus on letting go–of life usually, as many of the characters desire suicide, but also of all the other things that trap them in ordinary life, which probably explains Yakov’s instant fascination with and sympathy for the crows in “Yakov and the Crows.”

The highlights of the collection are the fantastically feminist “Zombie Lenin,” which I’ve reviewed previously, and “The Bank of Burkina Faso,” a novel take on scam e-mails that is not boring cyberpunk/post-singularity bullshit:

“I apologize, my dearest one, my unknown friend, for my mind wanders when I think of such matters. It is of course of no concern to you, but I seek your help in freeing his not insignificant fortune from the bank—the Bank of Burkina Faso, to be exact. I seek your help in accessing these funds, since because you’re a foreign national with no ties to my husband, the operation may be easier for you. I loathe to think about money at such a time . . . ”

The dilemma of trying to withdraw money from a bank that is very, very difficult to reach is solved in a peculiar but entirely (internally) logical way.

Overall, full of meaty writing that’s elegant without being florid, and under total control of the author.

3 thoughts on “MOSCOW BUT DREAMING – Ekaterina Sedia

  1. I have to read this book very slowly, one or two stories a day, for they invoke a resonance I don’t usually experience. if ever. Each story brings to the surface memories I thought long forgotten, in a way reconciling my Russian and English speaking selves.

    A lot to digest. But I’m infinitely thankful it exists.

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