Book Review: The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko
by Scott Stambach
St. Martin’s Press, 2016
Ivan, the 17-year-old loquacious main character in Scott Stambach’s novel The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko, sums himself up in the deadpan tone that characterizes his entire account of his life at Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children in Belarus: “I’m seventeen years old, approximately male, and I live in an asylum for mutant children.”
The “approximately” refers to Ivan’s extensive radiation-spawned birth defects: he has only one arm (his left), which ends in only two fingers and a thumb; his other limbs are tiny stumps he can only move with concentrated effort; his facial muscles are slack, burying his expressions in a deceptively flat affect; and his skin is sickly-translucent. He’s an orphan who’s been living in his ‘asylum’ for his entire life, and he knows that neither he nor any of the other resident patients can expect much more than the grubby tedium of their daily routines. And yet somehow in this backward morass of bad food, indifferent healthcare, and canned old Russian TV shows, Ivan’s young mind has grown and sharpened to the point where he’s so enormously smarter than everybody around him that his only refuge from ennui and perpetual disappointment is detachment. For page after page of this schmaltzy but very effectively manipulative novel, Ivan is more alien than most of the extraterrestrial creatures over in the science fiction aisle of the bookstore.
This can and often does lead Stambach into passages of John Green-style stiltedly overwritten prose, passages that seem to emanate not from a smart young man marooned in a useless body but rather like the drop-dead gorgeous Hollywood star who’ll be CGI’d into Ivan’s deformed body for the movie adaption of The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko:
As a cripple confined to a wheelchair, and consequently severely limited as to my means of releasing anger, I typically resort to prankery as my primary method for expressing difficult emotions. So, one gray day, the kind that leaves even a whole person questioning the meaning of life, I found myself caught amid the dreary mood I was already in, next to an interview between an Irish journalist named Nigel – whose accent I found like sandpaper to my Hui – and Ridick. Though I did not understand a word of the English they spit back and forth, I found myself wanting to tear both of their heads clear off their necks. Logistically, this was an impossibility, once again, given the limitations of my physical body. So instead I took one of the ketchup packets I stole from the pantry earlier that day, opened it up, and squirted the contents into my mouth. Then I whisked the mixture up with my tongue (one of my few perfectly functioning organs) until it had a nice homogeneous consistency, which could easily be mistaken for blood. Then I started convulsing like I was possessed by Caligula’s ghost.
(Hui, we’re told in a footnote, is “popular Russian slang for ‘dick’”)
But when a new patient arrives at the facility, everything changes for Ivan. Her named is Polina, and she enchants him, and she’s dying. And while this, too, seems archly contrived and hyperbolic in the vein of so many YA emo-steamers in the bookstores today, in Stambach’s careful handling, this doomed young love affair is never simply The Fault in Our Stars with vodka and funny accents, soon to be made into a syrupy movie called Vinovaty Zvezdy starring that dreamy Vasily Stepanov. The character of Ivan is the key obstacle to such an excess of treacle: despite his captivating narrative voice, nobody in the world knows about him or cares about him; he will never go out into that world, and he knows it. His typically Russian stoicism is his armor against the pre-ordained futility of his own life, and the heartbreak of Stambach’s novel comes from watching Ivan feel the worst possible thing a person in his position can feel: the first touch of a yearning for a future.
It’s Polina who makes him feel this, and their scenes of growing personal and even physical intimacy are simultaneously wrenching and touching; when she falls asleep beside him (curved under his one arm), for a few very delicate moments the narration could describe any ordinary (“whole”) young people:
I thought about waking her. I thought about telling her that she should go before someone found us here together. But I decided to let us sleep. And after a few minutes of trying, I realized that my eyes wouldn’t close, so I just held her and let her sleep and got acquainted with the rhythm of her breathing.
It’s calm and charming, but there is no hope, and The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko never cheats on that opening assumption, never deviates from its intention to break its reader’s heart. It’s a truly memorable performance.