The beautiful truth about novels is that they can be so many things: a letter, a life, the contents of a drawer. Gina Ochsner's debut novel, The Russian Dreambook of Color & Flight, is many things all at once. It's a Bad News Bears–style narrative of a group of unlikely heroes who try to band together and save the day, it's an elaborate and ridiculous joke told by an Eastern European woman with a filthy sense of humor, and it's a disheveled apartment building stacked high with stories of poor post-Soviet Russian people who are trying the best they can to carve a life out of the moldy, used-up dreams they've been given.
The novel is structured like the apartment building it documents. It opens on the roof, where Mircha, a one-armed drunk, falls to his death, and it slowly pans down through the building, pausing to study the various inhabitants (Mircha's wife, who can't bury her husband's body in the frozen ground and so stashes him in a snowbank and hopes nobody will notice; a veteran who refuses to take off an unwieldy aviator's helmet; a pair of feral twin children; a woman named Tanya who works at a museum whose exhibits are made of trash, reshaped and rebuilt into rough approximations of items of historical interest and value).
Ochsner peppers the book with dark humor, ghosts (Mircha half-assedly haunts the building until he can get a proper burial), and sublimely Russian observations, such as Tolstoy's belief that you should keep a hint of death in your living room so you'll better "appreciate life" and Ochsner's own ideas about the disappointment of cooking:
A cookbook was a fantasy, another form of a lie, promising things that could never happen in ordinary kitchens: that an onion sliced a certain way would not weep and neither would the cook who cuts it, that a miracle will boil up from beans if only one remembered to throw off the first three farting waters.
By the time the book finds its conclusion, all the way down in the building's courtyard—where the inhabitants come together to try to impress some wealthy Americans who are offering grants for suitably depressing Russian museums—we understand the point Ochsner is trying to make. Nothing in life, she says, is ever as good as the fantasy, but sometimes the fake opulence we muddle together out of Popsicle-stick shavings and aluminum cans is exactly what we need.
Gina Ochsner reads Sat Feb 27, Elliott Bay Book Company, 2 pm, free.