A local author's debut novel reimagines Tolstoy's heroine in contemporary Queens. | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A local author's debut novel reimagines Tolstoy's heroine in contemporary Queens.

What Happened to Anna K.
By Irina Reyn
Touchstone: 244 pp., $24


So many attempts to update classic literature can seem like wasted effort, particularly when history has given us a far greater number of mediocre books that could actually use the improvement. Yet such adaptations have, occasionally, produced fascinating spinoffs, succeeding as more than just companion pieces, bland introductions to acknowledged classics.

What Happened to Anna K., a debut novel by Irina Reyn, contemporizes Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. And, with a heightened sense of its own New York locales, the new novel certainly avoids becoming just an overview of Tolstoy. Reyn, who teaches creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh, has taken the plot of Anna Karenina, based it in Queens, and turned it into a considerably shorter novel very much dependent on its present-day setting.

Reyn's Anna K. is a Russian-Jewish immigrant who works in publishing. She has a history of Bronte-obsession and, generally, likes nice things -- good books, expensive clothing, New York food -- that serve only to catapult her wanting to eventually disastrous extremes. Anna's marriage to the bloodless Alex K. predictably detonates, leaving her with David Zuckerman (the new Vronsky), an adjunct writing instructor and enthusiast of Russian literature. This doesn't last, either.

Meanwhile, the contemplative Levin character, called Lev here, once again attains some modest redemption. He's a Bukharian-Jewish pharmacist who, while preoccupied by dreams, doesn't quite harbor Anna's burning acquisitiveness, even though much of his existence centers on an abiding interest in French cinema.

Shorn of Tolstoy's hundreds of pages of alternating despair, exhilaration and internal philosophizing, Reyn's novel itself shared some of its protagonist's superficiality. Brand names abound, and favorite movies and books define characters at least as much as thoughts or actions. Still, Reyn's sociological concerns add some meaningful dimensions to these people. While cultural likes and dislikes might prop up too much of the novel's characterizations, such preferences are shown to stem from the deeper hunger of an immigrant yearning to reconnect with a culture. Where Tolstoy's story deftly pursues psychological complexities within (roughly) one national setting, Reyn's novel finds in the collision of multiple national cultures its own complexities. Her novel asks: "If Immigration was the seminal moment in Anna K.'s life, if it created her, shaped her, as she believed, why was the [immigration] story itself so hazy?"

Anna's entire being hinges on this question, on this self-aware sense of inhabiting a story of cultural fog and disorientation. She obsessively considers her own role in that drama, which for her is a tale of consumption told in strongly physical prose. While having a drink, for example, she has had the thought "that her narrative still sprouted strands, still led to places unexpected. The vodka was crisp and spicy gliding down. Anna wanted to remain at the center of the story."

In fact, she's so consistently described as a selfish consumer conscious of her cultural situation that the materials and cultures around her can be far more enthralling than any study of her character. Her thoroughly pictured Queens, where a restaurant can have "no sign, just a neon egg blinking hot blues and purples," or "mirrored walls" and a "brown-paneled facade," owns this novel as much as Tolstoy does.

In its lucid portrayal of New York and the city's transnational confusions, What Happened to Anna K. couches intriguing ideas in palpable, punchy language. This is an intelligent and compelling novel, despite being populated by hollow and stock-seeming denizens.

The tragedy lies mostly in the insubstantiality of Anna K. herself. She's trapped in her own closed-loop narrative, too self-contained and -absorbed to latch onto a more solid and real one. That condition dooms her from the beginning; this woman never had a chance.


Irina Reyn discusses and signs What Happened to Anna K. 7 p.m. Tue., Sept. 9. Joseph-Beth Booksellers, 2705 E. Carson St., South Side. Free. 412-381-3600.

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