Yelena Moskovich’s third novel A Door Behind a Door is a phantasmagoria about immigration, death, and queer desire with a plot that defies easy description. It centers on a young immigrant in Milwaukee named Olga. When Olga was a baby back in the Soviet Union, a boy in her apartment building stabbed an old woman to death, “once, twice, thrice.” Years later, having emigrated to the U.S. and settled in Milwaukee where she works temp jobs while cohabiting with her beloved girlfriend, Olga is awakened by a phone call in the middle of the night. She quickly recognizes the voice on the other end as belonging to Nikolai, the boy who committed the murder and was long ago dragged off to prison. When Nicky claims to have information about her missing brother, Olga is quickly drawn into a criminal underworld.
This is not a novel for those who want clearly defined borders between the real and imaginary. As the reader moves through the book, events become increasingly surreal, and what initially seem like hints about an organized crime underworld might refer to a more literal underworld. Is the diner where Olga takes a job an actual diner or a waystation to the afterlife? Is the young woman with whom she at one point shares a cell dead or alive? In the best surrealist tradition, Moskovich makes us sense that both may somehow be true at the same time. A Door Behind a Door feels psychologically resonant even when its events swing thoroughly into the realm of the mystifying and fantastic. Narrated in brief sections that propel the reader through its pages, the novel is short enough to read in a single sitting but demands multiple readings to piece together its elliptical narrative. Certain motifs recur, including the number three. There are multiple references to the poem “A lonely sail” by the nineteenth-century Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov, and several of the characters sprinkle their speech with Russian phrases, including some choice swear words.
Though Olga’s perspective dominates the first and longest section of the book, in later parts the narrative baton is passed to seemingly peripheral characters, some of whom are alive, while others are not. One of them is a dog. The result is a dense, polyphonic text reminiscent of Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo. What holds this demanding work together is the strength of Moskovich’s barebones prose, which has a simplicity that belies its lyricism:
“IT’S NOT EASY TO CRY
For nobody. Even a baby has got to use all the force in its little body when it wails. It’s got to shake and quake and shimmer and go red in the face with tears and snot. It’s got no choice. This is how we ask to stay alive.
It’s not easy to ask for life. Not for girls and not for boys and not for women and not for men, and not for nobody who was birthed and left asking.”
Moskovich was born in the USSR, in Ukraine, immigrated to Wisconsin as a Jewish refugee in 1991, and currently resides in Paris. Like Moskovich, Olga is an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, and A Door Behind a Door feels at times like an extended metaphor for the immigrant experience. Olga is half-Jewish, half-Georgian and a lesbian—an outsider three times over. Isn’t immigration, the novel seems to ask, a kind of death? What happens when the country you left behind ceases to exist? “To get to Hell,” Nicky tells Olga, “they take you through America. There is a door behind a door.”
As tempting as it is to slot Moskovich’s fiction in with other works of the Soviet diaspora, the most salient feature of her work is its originality. Her previous novels, The Natashas and Virtuoso, have dealt with similar themes while drawing comparisons for their surrealist elements to the films of David Lynch. In reading A Door Behind a Door, I found myself thinking of Bob, the mysterious, violent spirit who possesses the characters in Twin Peaks. Some similar entity seems to be at work in this novel—and it likes to stab people “once, twice, thrice.” Not surprisingly perhaps, the novel culminates in a final act of tragic violence.
In A Door Behind a Door, Moskovich has written a perplexing yet powerful work of literature that is likely to haunt the reader long after its last page.
A Door Behind a Door
By Yelena Moskovich
Two Dollar Radio
May 18, 2021