Comedy and Tragedy: A Week in the World of Marina Julia Neary, Book Review: Saved by the Bang: A Nuclear Comedy

An examination and review of Marina Julia Neary’s

Saved by the Bang: A Nuclear Comedy

 Saved by the Bang: A Nuclear Comedy is Marina Julia Neary’s self-described semi-autobiographical dystopian novel, so getting into characters’ heads is a bit of a different process than doing the same in some of her other works—which she does with radiant results—such as those concerned with the 1916 Irish Easter Rising. Having experienced the acerbic wit of those who populate Never Be at Peace and Martyrs and Traitors, I expected more of the same in this Neary go-round, and the author most definitely did not let me down.

bangPossessing any background knowledge at all about the Chernobyl nuclear reactor’s horrific 1986 explosion that released plumes of radioactive fallout into the skies over the adjacent Soviet area and on into Europe, readers might be expecting some calamity at the outset. The novel’s opening line—“If Vladimir Ivanych had any hair left, he would be pulling it out right about now”—however, is Neary’s little teaser, confirmed by that chapter’s date stamp, the day before the catastrophe. As readers progress through the story, they also begin to understand that alongside the theme of tragedy runs another to do with the comedic reactions society and individuals often have in response to particular events.

For the Olenskis, these events relate to their lives as Soviet communism affects and informs them, as well as the rapid succession of minor explosions that punctuate their days. Joseph, serial philanderer and father of Maryana—and another, illegitimate daughter, Anatasia—is of Polish-Belarusian stock and lives with his wife, Antonia—of White Russian and German-Jewish extraction—and their daughter in Belarus. Their ethnic background is important to the story as it links to the Otherness they feel and live in a land not entirely their own and controlled by a central government not that country’s own.

Pianist Antonia, “a transcendent creature without a nationality” plays emotional footsie with Nicholas Nichenko, a Belarussian tenor who works with her in the Gomel Music Academy, the pair of them contributing to the aforementioned inclination on the part of their director to destroy his own head of hair (if it existed). The academy is staffed by elite and supremely talented but entitled and privileged people engaged in degrading, offensive behavior, sexual politics and the resultant scandals. Neary is adept at portraying the webs these behaviors weave, as well as the fraying relationship between the diva and her husband, and their on-again, off-again devotions to one another.

Pripyat marker, courtesy Tiia Monto

Maryana, eight, is a lifelong observer who represents a way forward after the disasters that befall her country—a post-Soviet report states that 60% of the radioactive fallout landed on Belarusian soil—and her family. However, her parents’ behavior toward her is destructive—neglectful and emotionally abusive—and she contemplates her misfortune in being born both ugly and in the wrong place. Wise to the manipulative manner of the state, she sarcastically muses that she would just as soon live in a place like Northern Ireland or Somalia.

Right out of the gate Neary seductively depicts her characters, the telling wrapped around a gooey, delicious center of rolling inner monologue and stream of consciousness prose the author is so supremely suited to. We learn so much about the characters, information given to us that goes beyond them individually, but also hints at conditions relating to society at large. Remembering his initial attraction to Antonia, we learn that “[h]er uterus was not scarred from venereal diseases and frequent abortions, which was a major attraction for Joseph.” This hints at the astronomical rate and normalization of abortion in the Soviet Union, a response to strict czarist ban on the procedure, followed by Bolshevik legalization of it at a time when birth control was unheard of.

Soon after initial scenes featuring mother and daughter, our third major character is introduced on a midnight express train as we move closer to the fateful explosive moment less than two hours away. As Joseph ruminates the Russification of the satellite states and current near-extinction of the Belarusian language, sexual tension seeps through the scene like melted chocolate in a toddler’s pocket. Neary’s subtle and crafty teasing out of tragedy continues as two emergencies are in the making, both caused by the application of false remedies—emergency shutdowns in response to positive systems reactivity, as it were.

perestroika stamp
Wikimedia Commons–Image of Perestroika stamp 1988 from personal collection of Andrei Sdobnikov (click image)

Upon Joseph’s arrival at home he senses something amiss and readers momentarily wonder, Has it happened? Alas, not yet, though Neary expertly fuses our knowledge with the Olenskis’ own tale, resulting in almost explosive tension. Reactor number four’s night shift just over the border, as history now reveals, are at that very moment scrambling to sort out the instructions being reported to them, and Antonia lay on the floor, bleeding out from an ectopic pregnancy triggered by the aspirin she’d been taking for abdominal pain. At 01:00 Dr. Mihalych prepares to remove the lodged embryo before it bursts, just minutes in advance of pressure channels sending shock waves through the reactor core as it too prepares to rupture.

Marina Neary is wont to remind audiences that comedy and tragedy are two sides of the same coin. Indeed, the twain consistently keep each other’s company, as evidenced both by universal response to the horrific events at Chernobyl and her portrayal of the Olenskis’ aftermath. They are a microcosm of the Soviet Union and, like that collection of diverse nationalities, fractured and emotionally far flung. In an era of Gorbachev perestroika seeking not to end but rather improve socialism, Joseph, in terms of his marriage, works in much the same way.

Joseph knew of his mother-in-law’s aversion to anything that had to do with flesh and made it a point to make love to Antonia frequently and loudly. He was secretly hoping that Lily would have a heart attack from disgust and he would finally have her apartment at his disposal.

 Lily is the stereotypical old-school guard against blasphemers, the charwoman figure who either hastily reports or energetically shushes those who speak against the state. She dismisses Nichenko’s reports about the disaster as “science fiction” and utters the standard line one is by now accustomed to hearing in films set in the Soviet era.

“For goodness’ sake, have some faith in the system.” The sight of a terrified male disconcerted Lily. “If something was truly wrong, don’t you think the authorities would’ve informed us?”

It is classic Neary, her subtle ability to utilize cliché, so often dismissed, to deconstruct and wrap it back up as a statement pointing toward, amongst other implications, the marriage of comedy and tragedy she so often speaks of. Certainly there is the gallows humor or lottery tickets using tragic dates; so too do people recognize the absurdity of faith in a secretive government. Yet somehow we fear the open discussion of the tragic side of that realization, but Neary boldly grabs it like a sweetmeat and tears it open to show us what is inside.

What is inside is a government that would not only keep such a deadly and treacherous secret from its own citizens, but also lure them outside for food and advance May Day celebrations for greater exposure to the graphite floaties beneath a drifting plume of radionuclides. Irradiation? Have at it, there’s a Ferris wheel to ride!

The evacuations started at two pm. [. . .] It felt as if the city was going on a spur of the moment field trip to Kiev. An explosion? Way cool. Radiation? Far out. A spontaneous change of scenery, a random chance to escape the drudgery of the daily routine. They were all extras in a direct-to-video, end-of-the-world movie. Cheese sandwiches, bottles of juice and condensed cans of milk were being passed around. Who doesn’t like free food? The children visibly rejoiced over the school year ending one month early. [. . .]

 The euphoria started wearing off when the first symptoms of radiation poisoning set in, with vomiting, nosebleeds, fainting spells and episodes of blindness. The half-eaten cheese sandwiches started coming up in foul-smelling mush. The sentiment went from “Free food—yay!” to “Holy shit, we’re screwed!”

Implicit within is also Neary’s caveat about trust and the at-times tragedy of its consequences. Even more so, of a state that gains this trust by seizing control of citizens’ lives, including their very thought processes. When those processes are directed, especially if from birth, by a specific set and standard of behavior and absorption of approved information, we end up with people who dismiss reports of tragedy and danger, such as the wife of a nuclear physicist who refused to believe her husband’s insistent demands they leave Pripyat, even after he shows her the graphite droplets on her strawberry plants.

Used with kind permission of Pawel 'pbm' Szubert
Abandoned Pripyat Ferris wheel, perhaps the most well-known symbol of the once-thriving town. Used with kind permission of Pawel “pbm” Szubert (Paweł “pbm” Szubert / Wikipedia / CC-BY-SA-3.0)

The author, however, never engages in preaching: she tells one family’s tale during an era that seems apocalyptic and the normalcy they try to engage in, often to hilariously absurd effect. It remains true that life marches on and nuclear disaster or not, the bills still have to be paid. For Antonia’s conceits, these include beauty products and having been away from the region for the summer endangers her position at the academy, triggering thoughts of financial dependence upon her husband. “The thought of having to beg him for seven rubles to buy lipstick frightened her more than all nuclear disasters put together.”

If Neary’s characters are portrayed with nuance and a compassionate directness (despite their numerous flaws), her exploration of Maryana’s growth is downright inspiring. Disregarded by her parents, Maryana in the beginning walks on eggshells around Mama Cat and cowers from her father. Later, when visiting with her anti-Stalinist aunt on a day they are en route to the market, the group are stopped at the border and about to be arrested for trespassing when the young girl waves a tempting jar of her aunt’s marmalade—a smaller jar no less—under the border guard’s nose, distracting him with the smell and subsequent taste of vodka. Neary cleverly utilizes this episode as a turning point for Maryana, who up until now has been watching people, fully understanding many of the implications of her observations, and at last gaining confidence in herself, enabling her to put her self-reliance to work, to persevere through another terrifying situation.

If only she would close her eyes and listen to the sleepy murmuring of the Neris River, she could engage in amicable discourse with the city where the inanimate objects had more soul than the people.

 The spasm in her stomach reminded her that she had not eaten since that morning. Four rubles could buy her a mediocre meal at a bistro or a really kick-ass dessert.

Having learned to weigh her options, Maryana takes charge and begins to make events happen rather than allowing them simply to happen to her. She learns to play along, but is this a symptom of assimilating to the dominant deceptive nature of the society she lives in as governed by “the callused Muscovite claw”? Or does she speak truth in coded language to people too programmed to listen at other levels? As her family is in upheaval—like the union of republics itself, though they do not know this at the time— will reform keep them united, or will they go the way of the union?

Saved by the Bang is a luscious concoction of many flavors wrapped up in one novel: historical fiction, coming of age, literary fiction, memoir, tragi-comedy. Dystopian in nature, it is delectably offensive and the raw power of the characters’ acute observations and many of its outcomes render it an examination of society that also functions as a cautionary tale to be interpreted on individual, familial or societal level. The author’s brazenness occasionally acts as an object we have accidentally tread upon, and Neary challenges us to choose how we respond—wherever we are.

Raw in intensity and simultaneously smooth like chocolate, Saved by the Bang is a meticulously-researched work packed with historical details and written as a novel that will set readers on fire. For those who have never read Marina Julia Neary, this is a fantastic place to start. Prior Neary fans will recognize her style, but with the freshness of different characters that shake it up. All will contemplate what it means to be alive.


About the author

Studio1A self-centered, only child of classical musicians, Marina Julia Neary spent her early years in Eastern Europe and came to the United States at the age of thirteen. Her literary career revolves around depicting military and social disasters, from the Charge of the Light Brigade, to the Irish Famine, to the Easter Rising in Dublin, to the nuclear explosion in Chernobyl some thirty miles away from her home town. Notorious for her abrasive personality and politically incorrect views that make her a persona non grata in most polite circles, Neary explores human suffering through the prism of dark humor, believing that tragedy and comedy go hand in hand.

Her debut thriller Wynfield’s Kingdom was featured on the cover of the First Edition Magazine in the United Kingdom and earned the praise of the Neo-Victorian Studies Journal. After writing a series of novels dealing with the Anglo-Irish conflict (including Brendan Malone, Martyrs and Traitors and Never Be at Peace) she takes a break from the slums of London and the gunpowder-filled streets of Dublin to delve into the picturesque radioactive swamps of her native Belarus. Saved by the Bang: A Nuclear Comedy is a deliciously offensive autobiographical satire featuring sex scandals of Eastern Europe’s artistic elite in the face of political upheavals.

You can find more about Neary and other books at her blog as well as her Facebook and Amazon author pages. The companion novels for Never Be at Peace, Brendan Malone: The Last Fenian and Martyrs and Traitors: A Tale of 1916, as well as others, may also be purchased at Amazon and Amazon UK. A potential addition to follow up the trilogy is entitled The Lily of Ulster.


Photos courtesy Marina Julia Neary unless otherwise noted. 

Grateful thanks to Pawel “pbm” Szubert for his kind reply. 

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