Christina Nichol has done the legwork for us. Since growing up in the Bay Area, she has lived in India, South Korea, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, and Georgia – and the latter is the setting of Waiting for the Electricity, her first novel.
Nichol brings the curiosity and critical eye of the seasoned traveler to her debut, keenly observing both her Georgian protagonists and the Americans they idealize. In her capable hands, Waiting for the Electricity does what all armchair travel literature should aspire to do: it immerses you completely in the consciousness of another culture and makes you think, first about people very different from you, and then about yourself.
At first glance, Nichol’s story seems to be just another bleak glimpse of post-Soviet stagnation, torn from the headlines. Slims Achmed Makashvili is a young maritime lawyer who dreams of bringing American modernity to his disheveled and dysfunctional country. He hasn’t received a paycheck in months, the government shuts off the electricity on a daily basis, and his best friend resorts to kidnapping a visiting Englishman in order to obtain a car. But Nichol conjures hilarious, quirky details that quickly draw us deeper into Slims’ world. At work, he contends not only with inadequate pay, but also with his buffoon of a boss, who is obsessed with an American fax machine. The vagaries of the electricity create a new form of superstition amongst Slims’ friends – whenever the electricity comes back on, it’s taken as a sign that whoever was speaking last is correct. The attempted kidnapping devolves into an uproarious banquet held in the Englishman’s honor.
When Slims finally achieves his dream of visiting America, Nichol’s tone turns from comic picaresque to outright satire – not of the hapless Georgians, but of the uptight and misguided Americans. Slims arrives in San Francisco excited to learn about law enforcement and economics from his American hosts, but once the shock of the big city has worn off, he starts to notice how anxious and repressed his new acquaintances are.
After gently poking fun at Slims’ chaotic, eccentric family, Nichol encourages us to laugh at ourselves as well. After all, seeing the humor in life is Slims’ own lifeline. He earnestly aspires to change the world but also recognizes the comic impossibility of his dreams, observing, for example, the irony that Georgia’s oil export is saving the country’s economy while destroying its ecology.
Nichol’s sense of humor — her knack for revealing a character through one outlandish metaphor, her perfect ventriloquizing of Slims’ shoddy English — is what makes Waiting for the Electricity so much fun to read. Drawing us further in with each successive chuckle (and quite a few laugh-out-loud moments), Nichol lays out a nuanced portrait of a country many of us will never visit. Slims has to go all the way to San Francisco to understand what America is really like, but Nichol offers us the chance to experience a totally different world through the pages of her book.