- Writers Retreat
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Ah, to be in Moscow in 1997, where the men are rich and virile, the women stiletto-clad sylphs, and the economic landscape infinitely fertile. With a fresh divorce and MBA in hand, the heroine of Vica Miller’s Inga’s Zigzags returns after a decade in New York to make her fortune in the capitalist playground Russia has become.
The epigraph is from Ayn Rand, and Miller gives Inga a Randian sense of superiority; she’s a Barbie-proportioned beauty prone to being stunned by the originality of her own thoughts. America, full of shallow men and pudgy rubes, is quite unworthy of her—so why not head to a city ruled by the hot and hungry?
It is somewhat refreshing to meet so confident and ambitious a protagonist, the writerly default being more of a self-doubting dabbler in the arts. Once in Moscow, irresistible Inga is soon courted by a formidable lesbian power couple. Alexandra Veil publishes something like the Russian version of Vice magazine, while her partner, Emma, is nominally involved with the company but primarily functions as a self-infantilizing yes-woman. Inga has only dated men before, but she’s not too conflicted when she falls into their bed: the sex is great, she’s the center of attention, and she’s got a VIP ticket into Moscow society.
These women exist in a privileged interregnum between Soviet homophobia and Putin-era rightist homophobia. (Miller never nods to the present dire state of LGBTQ rights in Russia.) Their lesbianism is not a political identity. Alexandra and Emma aren’t out to their parents, they try to keep their personal lives from the press, and they seek to rule the world around them rather than change its structures. A same-sex lover is one among many luxury goods newly available to the wealthy.
In this environment, it makes symbolic sense that the trio’s romance is also a business partnership: Inga agrees to join her girlfriends in creating an advertising agency to lure Western brands into the market. Hearts and dollar signs in their eyes, they traipse through nightclubs and New York and Miami, downing champagne and making love, at one point on a pink bed surrounded by teddy bears.
It’s easy enough to understand Inga’s infatuation, but harder to see why she calls it love. We learn a lot about her girlfriends’ bodies and little about their thoughts, and the relationship between Alexandra and Emma seems more queasy than appealing even at the outset: “Emma might be there if she behaves herself,” Alexandra tells Inga upon inviting her to a party for the first time.
But then, Inga can be remarkably unreflective. When she rhapsodizes that she “relished the thought of working toward the same profound idea as Russia’s most ‘Western’ tsar—opening the world to Russia while reintroducing her to the world”—does she find no irony in equating Peter the Great’s career with her own “profound work” of opening an ad agency? When she muses, “Had I not left Russia, I might have become a perfect product of the land of deception, an insignificant speck in the gray machinery of party slogans”—can she truly not see advertising as a language of deception itself?
The same resistance to self-examination runs through Inga’s love life. Her easy sexual fluidity surely reflects many women’s experience, and her lack of handwringing would be invigorating if it didn’t float atop a submerged unease about other women. She expresses a deep need for male validation that she easily generalizes to all women; it clicks when one of her friends recalls that Inga has said she doesn’t trust women. When one of them drags her to a lesbian bar, she’s inarticulately repulsed: “The most upsetting thing was thinking about it at all.”
It’s no surprise when Inga’s triad begins to unravel. What’s more disconcerting is the speed with which she renounces the qualities that initially made her a compelling character. “We have to lose our ambition to find ourselves,” she concludes, but it’s hard to root for whatever self that might be.
This debut novel might benefit from a stronger editor to ask hard questions and draw out the finer qualities in her prose. As it is, clichés and mixed metaphors distract from lucid images such as Inga’s description of Emma’s smile at a party as “a feather tickling my ego.” And even aside from the iffy gender politics, the ending is likely to damage what goodwill LGBTQ readers might feel toward the book; an epilogue set in 2005 could have been lifted from a pre–Ann Bannon pulp.
There is plenty of originality, however, in the way Inga’s Zigzags adapts the rhythms of a mass-market romance to a relationship you’d never find in Harlequin’s archives. It will be interesting to see where Miller goes from here.
By Vica Miller
Paperback, 9780991383405, 341 pp.