‘Ivan and Misha’ by Michael Alenyikov

The connection you share with another person, however brief or seemingly insignificant, can leave a lasting impression, if not with you then perhaps on those close to you. Michael Alenyikov’s interesting story collection, Ivan and Misha (TriQuarterly/Northwestern University Press), centers on twin Russian brothers living in New York City at the beginning of the new millennium, and a supporting cast of characters—each with his or her own story to tell—that has an especially profound effect on them.

The 22-year-old fraternal twins came to the United States with their father, Lyov, who now goes by Louie, after the death of their mother, Sonya. The bipolar Ivan drives a cab when he isn’t devising his next get-rich-quick scheme. Misha works as a gofer for a film producer and lives with his young boyfriend, Smith, who changes his name with the seasons. Louie recently suffered a stroke which has left him in the care of a group home, where he befriends Leo, a fellow Russian immigrant, and Estelle, a possible love interest.

Ivan and Misha are close, much like best friends, but their relationship is arguably strange. Ivan’s behavior towards the men in Misha’s life teeters between admirably protective—primarily because Misha is HIV positive—and eerily envious. Misha’s endless worry about his brother’s potentially destructive mood swings repeatedly takes its toll on his relationship with Smith. The melancholy Louie conveys fatherly concern for his boys, yet realizes there is little he can do in his weakened state and has to trust that they’ll take care of each other.

The family dynamic provides enough substance and detail for an entire novel.  Instead, characters that may have been mentioned in passing become a focal point, and their stories are told either as an aside or flashback, with each chapter presenting a different voice or point of view.

Much like the Oscar-winning motion picture Crash, and Jennifer Egan’s recent Pulitzer Prize winner, A Visit from the Goon Squad, which both explore the premise that we are all connected in some way, this novel’s author creates a distinct universe inhabited by these two brothers and offers a glimpse into their surrounding world.

Although the fate of select characters is left unknown, the writing is always precise and each of the intertwining stories is compelling and purposeful.  Alenyikov deserves praise for crafting an especially daring novel that explores issues of family, sexuality and loyalty.

Ivan and Misha
by Michael Alenyikov
TriQuarterly/ Northwestern University Press
Hardcover, 9780810127180, 196pp.
October 2010