In western Russia, a young Catherine Morland-esque woman mingles with “American princes” in exchange for a ticket west. Meanwhile, across the Bering Sea, a refugee couple and their neighbors desperately shuffle into a claustrophobic white van to escape America’s untimely end.
Mark Budman, in his latest short story collection, An Accidental American Odyssey (Livingston Press, 2021), weaves unique voices together to create an immigrant hero’s journey. Budman’s collection exposes the inescapability of the immigrant identity and the perpetual longing for something more secure than that which we already have—a feeling that migrants often carry overseas.
Born in the former Soviet Russia, and currently living in America, Mark Budman is no stranger to the immigrant experience. His first semi-autobiographical novel, My Life at First Try (Counterpoint, 2008), follows Alex and his family as they move from Siberia to America. Similarly, An Accidental American Odyssey further explores themes of migration and the meaning of the homeland by introducing a diverse array of characters. Out of chronological order, each short story details a different phase in a character’s immigration journey. Budman describes the moment Vera Sirotina attempts to make her dreams of leaving Russia come true, as well as the grueling reality of American capitalism that the Titan is subject to at his office job in “The Titan. An Office Romance.” Budman’s collection creates a new hero archetype that centers on the immigrant’s journey while emphasizing the obstacles one endures while immigrating from one’s homeland.
Budman’s witty narrative focus offers a unique perspective on the conflicting emotions that his characters feel when they uproot their lives. His narrative style frequently toes the lines of absurdity—In “Influencer, C’est Moi,” Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov is a minuscule personal advisor who lives behind the ears of kings. He exchanges his advice to Napoleon for the promise of French citizenship. The active choice to retell this story from the perspective of a political advisor who subjects can neither see nor hear hints at the futility that citizens often feel under certain forms of government. Ivan complains that the French rulers ignore his suggestions and fail miserably in their campaigns. He says, “I moved to the US. Everyone listens to you there, if you belong to the same political party, and if you say that the other party’s leader is an asshole” (41). Ivan notes the hypocrisy of American politics, but still prefers the ease with which one can assimilate into the masses. He acknowledges that conformity, as a migrant, allows Americans to take you seriously. Within the collection, Ivan’s story functions as an unfortunate reality check regarding the fact that, although the countries that many of Budman’s characters hail from have corrupt governments, America’s democracy is far from perfect.
In fact, we find his characters in all sorts of strange circumstances. Vera signs up for a Tinder-like dating service, dreaming of being a mail-order bride. In “Scarabaeus Simplex,” Greg Sampson’s dreams turn him into a Volkswagen New Beetle. Absurdist story-telling functions to make abstract concepts like consumerism more accessible to readers. For Sampson, an American who hopes to vacation in Russia while so many Russians must leave, becoming an old German car symbolizes the limitations of American capitalism.
Sampson, like so many Americans, dreams of the material—once he realizes he’s a car, he immediately hopes he is a Mercedes or Rolls Royce. Essentially, his family’s upward mobility is halted because he’s now stuck as a Volkswagen. A recently immigrated couple who “won the visa lottery” purchase him from a car dealership, ecstatic over their brand-new Volkswagen. Budman’s absurdity functions to simplify the actual absurdity of the American dream.
Likewise, many of the collection’s female characters are passive subjects against the overarching “American dream” myth, which subtly flattens them into tropes. We perceive characters like Vera and the waitress through the male gaze—though Budman seems to do this purposefully, exposing the limiting scope of American faux diversification. In “A Perfect Rhyme Translated from Scratch,” the protagonist imagines the waitress “sitting in the lotus position,” questioning if he’s perhaps mistaken about which nation the imagery is from. The narrator admits, “[the restauranteur] forgot if haiku is Chinese or Vietnamese? He has to look it up” (10). The narrator exposes the protagonist as an ignorant authority figure whose “compassion” for a Chinese waitress is entrenched in orientalism, both exoticizing and othering the migrant.
An Accidental American Odyssey recreates foundational myths by centering migrants as new Odysseus and Aeneas-types. When the getaway driver in “The Selfless Quarantine” asks the protagonist where they’re from, the protagonist replies, “our countries ceased to exist”—Budman’s collection implies that, when we leave our countries, we are perpetually in search of a homeland that ceases to exist. An American odyssey goes beyond an immigrant’s arrival to their destination. Like Aeneas, whose founding of Rome is undermined by the empire’s untimely end, Budman’s protagonists discover that their longing for a homeland is made insistent by America’s instability.
Crysta Montiel is an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto in Canada, where she studies English Literature and Philosophy. She previously worked as an editorial intern at Ayesha Pande Literary Agency. When Crysta’s not digging through treasure troves of queries, she’s completing her Criterion Collection bucket list and playing with her cat.