The Goodness of Being Bad – Chicago Review of Books

    The Goodness of Being Bad – Chicago Review of Books


    Maria Kuznetsova’s novel Oksana, Behave! follows the fierce, and fiercely funny, misadventures of Oksana, a character whose every act of aggression and defiance proves how very full of love she is. The book begins with seven-year-old Oksana newly arrived in Florida from the Soviet Union. Called a “baby Bolshevik” by a teacher (after Oksana knocks over a display case of drugs brought by a D.A.R.E. officer), she calls 911 to “see if it works.”

    She moves to Ohio and blackmails her school principal. In New Jersey, her father’s death in a car accident is overshadowed by 9/11. She makes out with the unstable assistant coach of her track team. College brings hook ups and hangovers—and the beginning of her career as a writer. In adulthood, Oksana tries on life as a literary agent, a PhD student in Russian Literature, and a start-up editor for a how-to company—and life brings love with a married man, with whom she cheats at her grandmother’s funeral. Throughout, Oksana’s grief, heart, and bravado tangle in hilarious and tragic results.

    I sat down with Maria over Skype and wine to talk craft, the book’s history, Fleabag, and what’s next for Maria (and Oksana—who will return to us in a new book sometime this decade).

    Megan Cummins

    Let’s talk about the cover. How do you feel about the middle finger?

    Maria Kuznetsova

    At first, I hated it. I thought it was a bit too loud, and wondered how it would feel to have my parents, and one day my daughter, see it. And then I came around to it – I realized that I got the cover I got because of the book that I wrote. When it came time to discuss the paperback, my editor asked if I wanted something new, and I found myself suddenly fighting for it — I couldn’t imagine my book without it. I never wanted an ethnic cover, you know? With the middle finger, it’s poking fun at the ethnic cover in a way, no pun intended.

    Megan Cummins

    I was happy to see the cover was the same for the paperback. I was thinking about the book as an immigrant novel.

    Maria Kuznetsova

    I think the cover also reflects my ideas about the Soviet culture I left behind. I wasn’t even six when my family left Ukraine for America, so a lot of my knowledge of Russian culture and language feels very diluted. As a PhD in Slavic Studies drop-out and a writer who wants to engage with Chekhov and Akhmatova but speaks Russian at a second grade level, Oksana is aware that her experience of Kiev relies so much on her parents’ memories, and her vague knowledge of foods and traditions, but that she spends a lot of time longing for something she never really had.

    Megan Cummins

    I love that the arc of the book isn’t about arriving at behavior or coming to behave. There are great moments of grace and redemption for Oksana, but the book resists the idea of the redemption narrative for her at the end.

    Maria Kuznetsova

    Some readers have told me that she doesn’t really learn anything, and I really resist that.

    Megan Cummins

    Exactly. I think she’s learning things constantly. I think it’s interesting that readers would think you can’t learn things unless you become good.

    Maria Kuznetsova

    In the ending, when she cheats on her husband, the easier thing would have been having her at her grandma’s funeral, pregnant, and she almost hooks up with her grandmother’s student but doesn’t. But it happened and it made sense to me. I wanted the moment where she comes back after her fling and she thinks her brother standing in the dark is really her dad, and he’s judging her for her misbehavior, to feel real. So I didn’t consciously think, oh, she’s not redeeming herself. It just felt like the right thing for her to do. Though I didn’t write the chapters in order, this was the last one I wrote, and by then, I knew it was the only way the book could end.

    Megan Cummins

    How did you write the rest of the chapters? When did you know you had a book?

    Maria Kuznetsova

    I wrote “Light Year,” the chapter when her dad dies when she’s in high school first, and then I wrote the “Yalta Conference,” the chapter when she’s having an affair with her married soon-to-be-husband, and I realized it should be the same character. And then I was like, oh I have that story where a different girl goes to work with her dad, and it would be much more poignant if the same dad dies driving home from Wall Street. And then I thought, what if this is also the same girl in the story about the Duke lacrosse case I can’t seem to finish.

    Megan Cummins

    In “Light Year” she tells assistant coach Benny that “she’s not one of anything.” It’s the first time she bucks against affiliations. But there’s this pull, too, where her dad worked so hard because he had to rebuild their lives in America from nothing. Can you talk more about that conflict in Oksana between her instinct not to be “one of anything” and her feeling that she has to make something of her dad’s hard work?

    Maria Kuznetsova

    It’s definitely a big tension for her. Because she does go to Duke, and then the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which are as establishment as you can get, in some sense. I don’t think she’s really a real rebel in a lot of ways. She’s a rebel within a very conventional setting. She doesn’t really brush up with the law. She graduates on time. She’s rebellious in that she can’t find a job she can stick to, and she hooks up with a lot of dudes, she cheats on some of them, but none of this will get her in jail. It’s about trying to feel rebellious in a way that feels acceptable.  

    Megan Cummins

    She’s so full of love. It’s something I keep coming back to. I was wondering about Oksana’s relationship with women in the book. I feel like most of the honesty Oksana receives is from women, while to her father, Oksana was good, an angel. What are your thoughts on that?

    Maria Kuznetsova

    When I thought of the title, I thought, cute, it’s something people say to a kid, but as an adult she’s still looking to people for how to behave. In the early chapters she looks to Cassandra, the friend, who tells her how to be an American kid and makes her stop playing with dolls or eating meat; and in the next chapter her friend is popular, so she looks to her for how to dress and decorate her room. She doesn’t look to men for that. She looks to men for validation. She admires her high school teacher who likes books. She’s in awe of her writing professor at Duke. And her grandma too. Oksana goes from being a kid and being horrified by her grandma’s behavior to wanting to be like her in the end.

    Megan Cummins

    After we meet her eventual-husband Roman in “The Yalta Conference,” he’s there for the rest of the book. He’s one of the few characters aside from family who’s in multiple stories, and we see the relationship progress. We have Roman saying he’ll leave his wife. And then in the next chapter they’re sending save the dates. Then they decide to have a family, and in the last chapter she’s pregnant, and she cheats on him. What did you realize about Oksana after she found this relationship?

    Maria Kuznetsova

    I think Oksana’s not as bad as she seems. She means well and is full of love. And she’s not perfect. I like what you said, that learning things doesn’t mean being good. She grows but she’s still herself.

    Megan Cummins

    Do you think about where Oksana is now?

    Maria Kuznetsova

    I’ve been cheating on my second novel, which is about an actress who puts on a play based on her grandmother’s World War II story, by writing the next Oksana book.

    Megan Cummins

    Amazing! That’s basically what I was hoping to hear.

    Maria Kuznetsova

    My original goal was to write an Oksana book every ten years and wait for life to happen. But I had a crazy two years with my book and baby arriving around the same time, so I think I have enough material for another book by now, for better or worse!

    Megan Cummins

    I can’t wait to read it. Oksana is a fabulous literary character. Have people been comparing Oksana to Fleabag?

    Maria Kuznetsova

    I was so happy the few times someone compared my book to Fleabag! When I watched Fleabag, I thought, Wait, that’s like Oksana! I love Fleabag. It’s so funny and so dark, but so full of heart. It’s my platonic ideal. On a sentence level, all the banter is freaking hilarious, but what it adds up to isn’t funny at all.

    Megan Cummins

    Oksana and Fleabag share DNA in that way. Oksana says incredibly hilarious things. Opening a coffee shop with her married boyfriend called Grounds for Divorce. I was laughing the whole time I read the book, but when I put it down it left me with something sad. The humor and the sadness are working completely in harmony.

    Maria Kuznetsova

    It’s hard to pull off. I’m still working out how to do the funny-devastating thing.

    Megan Cummins

    It can be a hard line to walk for a woman writer. There’s the thread of what people want after they die. The fact that Oksana’s family’s house is filled with her dead aunt’s paintings, and we hear about what Oksana’s husband’s ex mother-in-law wants done with her ashes in “High Dive,” and Baba wants her ashes spread in Florida. Oksana, who can be irreverent, really respects this.

    Maria Kuznetsova

    In the first chapter, she asks her father what it’s like to have everyone close to you die, and basically he just says, “Sad.” Death definitely hovers throughout this book, kind of like the dead aunt’s paintings. In “Light Year,” it’s not just the dad that died, but the town is grieving because of 9/11. I think it’s partly a Soviet thing, there are these dead ancestors lurking around. There’s a lot of them on the periphery of my life.

    Megan Cummins

    And throughout the book there’s the refrain “Here we go, one day closer to oblivion.” And the beautiful twist on that when Oksana says to her unborn child, “Here we go, one day closer to existence.” I couldn’t not be aware that once existence happens, it’s one day closer to oblivion.

    Maria Kuznetsova

    What a note to end on!

    FICTION
    Oksana, Behave!
    By Maria Kuznetosova
    Random House Trade Paperbacks
    Published February 11, 2020



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