By Josie E. Davis
“I think it is all a matter of love: the more you love a memory, the stronger and stranger it is,” quotes Vladimir Nabokov in an interview with the BBC discussing his life’s work as a Russian-American novelist. Memories, as Nabokov tells us, are the very essence of immortality. Nabokov might agree that just like his own distant memories serve him to “feel Russia” across the water, there is a strangeness to the ways in which memory embodies the things we choose to love, and forget. But what is a memory without the desire to create, to experience, and to forgive? In her most recent novel, author Cara Diaconoff approaches this question in the eyes of Lucas Tiller, the Mormon Elder and software programmer living in Moscow, Russia. The book, I’ll Be a Stranger To You, is a seductive and raw portrait where-in Tiller comes to terms with his own sexuality, the end of a marriage, the salvation of his priesthood and a lifelong relationship to God, and a handful of unforgettable backstreet Russian encounters thrown in for kicks.
It’s easy to be swayed by fiction and the idea that part of the story is, in fact, a reflection of some literary truth. “Fall mornings in Moscow,” begins Diaconoff. “At seven a.m. the bar kiosk opened, and the men leaned on their elbows on the formica table stands, quaffing their Baltikas or gin-and-tonics-in-a-can or their vodka in paper cups.” Diaconoff wastes no time on vocabulary, for that matter, foregrounding characters and the book’s narrative with carefully embedded research including her own experience as a Russian peace corps volunteer. A beginner’s guide to phrases like Ochen priatno, Dacha, and Yacheika, the book is a chilly embrace from which we are always seeking warmth. In addition, I’ll Be a Stranger To You breaks the leg from behind the Mormon doctrine on homosexuality while maintaining a dignified narrative on the Mormon doctrine at large. At no point does the book level to any political bias, earning Diaconoff stature as a writer within the gay Mormon movement.
The treacherous yet enchanting nature of this book is the longing to be seen, and in return, being seen for the ghost that we are. What we give of ourselves as strangers is both beautiful and wrenching, and of course, human. I’ll Be a Stranger to You is primarily written in the third person, the voice of Lucas Tiller guiding us through his memories as a young Mormon missionary and marriage to his wife, Marianne, to present day life in Moscow and the course of events which lead him back to Boston. Diaconoff narrates the second half of the book by switching voices to the first person and introducing characters who we’ve met as part of Lucas Tiller’s life. Although her technique is solid, the change of pace is jolting and leaves readers feeling detached. Perhaps this is what Diaconoff wants, to shed light on the awkward contradictions and values that comprise the every day relationship. It is in these final pages that the title, I’ll Be a Stranger to You, becomes an emblem for the characters woven within, ceding into a resolution of personal belief.
I want these characters to find themselves, to find what they are looking for. This is the seed that Diaconoff places gently in the mind of the reader, an unforgiving novelist’s snare that makes us all the more a stranger to her book than Lucas Tiller himself. I’ll Be a Stranger To You is filled with inevitable attachment, disgust, and the promise of faith: as the memory of one life is filled with the stark embrace of another.
Additional reading as suggested by Cara Diaconoff can be found online here.
Josie E. Davis is the Managing Editor of PLOP!. She is an artist and consultant based in Chicago, IL. Her current work can be viewed at: www.davisandstrathmann.com.