Yelena Moskovich’s Two Dollar Radio novel Virtuoso, reviewed by Hayley Neiling

Yelena Moskovich’s Virtuoso weaves together the stories of several women. Zorka and Jana grow up together in Prague under the oppression of Soviet communism. Struggling to find their identities and sexuality amidst the chaos and hardship of their everyday lives, eventually they go their separate ways, but not without leaving lasting impacts on one another. Meanwhile, in Paris, Aimée and Dominique meet in a nightclub, Aimée still just a teenager, and begin to navigate a relationship fraught with both great happiness, mental illness, and infidelity. Virtuoso tells the separate stories of what made these women into who they are, painting intricate portraits of their lives. All the while, some force seems to conspire to bring together those who are meant to meet.

This novel is structured in a series of images. Moskovich uses these images that she creates to paint the portraits of every character in the novel. Even the most minor characters are painted in the most intricate detail: “Erki stood with reserve, his flat reddish-blond hair parted perfectly in the middle, slicked down just passed his jaw and tucked neatly behind his ears. In one earlobe was a thick metal ring, and in the other a stud. His bottom lip stuck out from his underbite.” Through these series of images, Moskovich paints portraits of queer people and their lives, giving insight into their identities and what makes them who they are.

While each and every character is given painstaking attention, entire chapters are spent creating portraits of the most pivotal characters and their stories. Jana’s life is laid out in detailed images for the reader to witness. In an intimate moment, we see Jana set on the path that will define the rest of her life: “Zorka was long gone then, her father buried, her mamka moved out. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I started memorizing proverbs at an incredible rate. We got more dictionaries in the house. I got into the high school specializing in languages and impressed everyone by doing nothing but studying, all the time, big books gasping open all around me.” Pictures of these characters in the most defining moments of their lives give us such a vivid sense of who these characters are and how to expect them to act. In order to understand where they end, we must first understand where these characters came from, and while it seems farfetched that some of these people should ever meet, the universe ensures that those who are most compatible do indeed end up in each other’s lives in the end.

In a similar way, Moskovitch paints striking images of places and cultures, not through scenery, but through the people who exist in them. From the drab building in Prague of Jana and Zorka’s childhood full of overworked, anxiety ridden adults who were too exhausted to really care for their children, to the nightclubs of Paris full of young women exploring their sexuality, pursuing each other in drunken and drug induced states in order to feel something real, these cultures are brought into stark reality through Moskovich’s careful construction of relationships between the people who are there. Near the end, the subculture in which Zorka finds herself is described as “The Eastern Bloc, who were romantic cowboys of their countries’ cultural and economic isolation, and put their childhood disparities into fabrics, cuts, and fashion statements. In the folds, seams, zippers, leather, those memories became Western fetish of the failed communist dream.” This one passage exemplifies these concise images of culture that Moskovich illustrates for us. She captures the essence of the culture through the way these people embody it, through their shared history, through their art, through their queerness.

Throughout the creation of these images, it is the careful choice of language that imbues these moments with meaning. These images are constructed through rapid fire sentences full of descriptions such as “[t]he party noises were slapping against each other, but in the kitchen, it was a solemn display, a modern sort of nature morte, with a stack of white plastic cups, scattered bottle tops belly up.” The tension and vulnerability in the room is made obvious by phrases “slapping” and “belly up.” In creating a series of images in which the language sets the tone of the moment, Moskovich is able to capture something much more nuanced than a simple scene or picture, she creates moments in which the atmosphere is palpable.

Throughout all of this, elements of the postmodern tie this story together. Moskovich’s dreamlike prose and fragmentation make the introduction of the surreal feel natural in the world she has painted for us. In a club with Zorka near the end of the novel, Jana finds herself in the middle of a circle of children: “Jana followed the succession of their heads, the lips forming the same phrase, over and over and over again, like a carousel, and then, that’s it, that is what they were singing, and she touched her own mouth, because it was singing along with them, kde domov mûj? Where is my home . . .?” Moskovich uses this and other surreal elements to imply a larger mysterious force that helps to drive these characters’ lives. In this way, she pushes us to question their own free will and position in the universe. This force works to weave together the lives of these characters, and in doing so, illustrates how our relationships with other people give our lives meaning and drive us to where we are meant to end up.

Virtuoso, by Yelena Moskovich. Columbus, Ohio: Two Dollar Radio, January 2020. 272 pages. $12.74, paper.

Hayley Neiling is master’s student of rhetoric and composition at Winthrop University. She lives in Rock Hill, South Carolina. She works for Winthrop’s Writing Center as Assistant Director. She has presented at conferences such as SAMLA, SWCA, and IWCA, and is excited to see where the world of writing takes her.

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