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Book Review November 13, 2004
 
Lying TogetherMy Russian Affair
by Jennifer Beth Cohen By John Dolan Browse author Email
 
 
Lying Together:My Russian Affair-by Jennifer Beth Cohen

"Lying Together:My Russian Affair"-by Jennifer Beth Cohen

Help the Exile out Jenny's Lover:

Here are the clues to the true identity of Jennifer Cohen's reluctant boyfriend, "Kevin Dillard":

He's...

  • a white American, tall and geeky;
  • worked in Petersburg in the late 90s;
  • Majored in Russian at Emerson College;
  • Was/Is a major drunk;
  • Slit his wrists to get away from the nightmarish affections of Jennifer Beth Cohen.

Name this man and win an eXile t-shirt and a free line of blow! Special offer! If the real "Kevin Dillard" comes forward, we’ll buy you a page 23 whore! We’re serious!

Lying Together is pitiable, laughable and disgusting by turns—like a wet cat. The title is a fraud; Jennifer Beth Cohen’s feckless beloved is not a Russian at all, simply an American journalist who happens to be based in Petersburg. Their "affair" is childish and silly, a desperate embrace between two clods. But when Cohen inadvertently reveals her participation in the rightwing journalist witchhunts of the late 90s, she goes from sad to evil in a hot second.

Cohen, who describes herself with admirable frankness as a "mildly neurotic, man-obsessed, therapy-dependent single [woman]" pushing thirty, becomes desperate for a husband. She’s already dating a "DC Republican," but their relationship is feeble, and her work at a tabloid-style TV show makes it hard for her to meet men. So she decides to fixate on an old college friend, "a man I have never so much as kissed." With nothing more than a series of flirtatious emails full of bad Howard Hawks banter between them, she flies to Russia to meet Kevin, describing him to her seatmate on the plane as "my fiance."

Like I said, it’s painful to read.

And it gets more painful still, as Cohen proudly describes how she and the so-called fiance met at Emerson College (which Cohen aptly describes as "a safety school for Ivy-League wannabes") in the Russian major’s traditional mating ground, the senior-year Slavic Lit course:

"It was the last semester of my senior year, and I signed up for independent study with Professor Dobrak—Russian 502: the Works of Angsty Russian Writers Read in the Original, or something along those lines. He invited another student, Kevin Dillard, to join us. We bonded, the three of us, enamored of our mutual admiration for the mystical misery of Russia…Twice a week the three of us sat in [Dobrak’s] cramped, dusty office in Hull Hall and tried to deconstruct those great literary classics…"

It’s pleasant to imagine poor old Professor Dobrak’s reaction as these two geeks waste his afternoons having the usual epiphanies while reading the usual Russian novels. All academics realize their role as facilitator of nerd romances, and most accept it fairly good-naturedly, but it must have been excruciating listening to Cohen, who is not particularly bright, "deconstruct" Crime and Punishment with an eye to impressing Kevin. Dobrak probably consoled himself that it was easier chaperoning these dweeb twins than preparing a real course.

Cohen has learned exactly what you’d expect from a Russian major of very limited intellect. She’s always quoting some Russian text, and the quotes are always the most familiar cliches available. Quick, what did Churchill say about Russia? Yup, that ol’ "mystery wrapped in an enigma" chestnut. She quotes that. If somebody was going to use the most tired, overworked line in Tolstoy, it would be…You got it, the one about happy and unhappy families. When it comes time to comment on the character of St. Petersburg, she says, of course, that "Saint Petersburg, Russia [as opposed to, say, Ohio]…is a beautifully cruel city, filled with cemented charm and a mystical grace." And I hear there’s a statue there too.

On the last day of the semester, after gathering up a lifetime’s worth of Russian cliches, Jennifer and Kevin bring vodka and practice "being Russian"—ie, getting drunk with their poor professor. Cohen’s description of the aftermath gives an idea of her poor, tame, empty life: "The next morning, for the first time in my sober college career, I had a horrible hangover. I felt giddy with my badness."

Her first college hangover comes at the end of her senior year. And it makes her feel "giddy with [her] badness." Oh, the shame.

Cohen is a typical neo-American in her bizarre hatred of all unhealthy habits. When she goes to meet her long-lost beloved in Russia, she is shocked to find that he…smokes! She’s so revolted her prose rises, briefly, toward poetry: "When you kiss a smoker, you are kissing an ashtray." The fact that he’s trying to quit only increases the horror: "When you kiss a smoker undergoing withdrawal, you are kissing a sticky cesspool of expurgating phlegm and tar. I push Kevin away…"

It’s obvious early on that Kevin is an alcoholic who simply used his fervid email exchanges with Cohen to indulge a sentimental whim, and that he could never live with this insanely overcautious, prim, self-righteous caricature of all the American woman’s most unpleasant traits.

Cohen attempts to depict herself as the trusting victim of this heartless fiend, but comes across more as someone who is actually attempting to transform herself into the Jennifer Aniston character on Friends. She’s looking for a "nice Jewish doctor" to marry; she wants to settle in Moscow, because it’s "the only place we can both push our careers forward"; she eagerly mixes domestic sentimentality with cold-blooded ambition. Here, for example, is her first blissful interlude with Kevin after flying to Russia:

"[W]e were professing our love, discussing names for our children, talking about the books we would write, the trips we would take, and setting up job interviews in Moscow." Cohen’s attempts to write a purer poetry of romance fall with some of the loudest clunks heard since the Tunguska Blast: "No previous boyfriend got me so completely. Kevin said he had never been so completely gotten." It reads more like an ESL exercise than the soundtrack of passion, but these are not great lovers.

What they’re really good at is careerism. And it’s when she deals with her career machinations that Cohen moves from pitiable to loathsome. As I read her story, I was continually struck by the ease with which this woman, who accurately describes herself as "nothing special," is offered job after high-paying job in TV journalism. She admits that it comes easily to her: "I’ve had problems sticking with jobs, but scoring them is another matter. I already have interviews lined up with the Moscow bureaus of CNN, NBC, and WTN."

One reason Jennifer does so well in her chosen profession is that she’s more than willing to let herself be used by Fox Network-style producers to go after liberal targets. In order to further her wretched email romance with Kevin, she needs to get to Russia. But her producer wants her to stay stateside in order to go after the Monica Lewinsky story, to which the rest of the staff is already devoting all its energies. So Jennifer comes up with the inevitable "Russian sex slave" story, hoping it’ll be sleazy enough to interest her producer.

He, however, refuses—until she hears that Kevin has a receipt for a whore’s visit to Strobe Talbott’s Moscow hotel room. Then he’s all for it:

"[My producer] shook his head. ‘If Clinton was sleeping with these sex slaves, sure. But right now, that’s the only way you’re going to sell it…’

"‘What if I could give you…Clinton administration officials using taxpayer dollars to party with Russian whores?’

"Bill’s ears perked up."

Bill perks up to the extent of giving Jennifer the funds to finance her sad, ridiculous expedition to Petersburg. Once there, she harries her "fiance" to the point that the poor bastard takes up drinking again and ends up cutting his wrists in the bathtub, telling her to go home—please.

Forced to admit defeat, Jennifer flies home to a job with Fox News. It’s a happy ending: "I see myself…I see Jennifer, a young woman who has some regrets but who remains fairly confident about the future."

What I see, after reading this silly, dismal book, is Jennifer’s inadvertent revelation: a nation of pitiful monsters, who don’t think twice about collaborating in crazed ideological persecutions while imagining themselves the heroines of grotesque, infantile romance fantasies.

Thanks, Jennifer. Your story really helped me understand.

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dolan@exile.ru
 
 
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