Vassily Aksyonov tells his story of Moscow life of the 1970s as an adventure yarn about a group of dissident photographers who, in spite of KGB schemings, produce an "underground" photography album , "Say Cheese!" and, having failed to publish it officially, smuggle it to the West. In flashbacks between the actions we learn life stories of all the participants of this enterprise, spearheaded by the ringleader of the group, Maxim Ogorodnikov, who walks recklessly through life on a tightrope between his seven ex-wives, his numerous lovers and colleagues, some of whom are KGB informers. His mother's apartment on Gorky Street is full of old Bolshevik memorabilia. His stepbrother, a Soviet journalist stationed mainly abroad, is also a KGB general assigned to the propaganda department.
The hero's physical strength and sexual prowess, his reckless determination and the sheer energy he always exudes make him a natural leader among his friends who, brave and honest as they are, cannot match Ogorodnikov's ability to tackle with the same panache as he does any dangerous confrontation with the authorities. In the course of expanding the official norms of artistic freedom, he makes his way from the basement studios of Moscow's "underground" to a loft party in New York's SoHo. As a result of his James-Bondian behavior, he is eventually deprived of all privileges associated with the Soviet elite. That incenses him so much that he braces himself for a head-on collision (in both the symbolic, and the literary sense) with the KGB. Crippled in a car crash masterminded by KGB operators at the end of his life journey, the hero does not lose his sense of moral superiority.
This tragic finale is a logical consequence of the profusion of cars that crops up from every corner of Aksyonov's book. Each and everyone of them, be it a KGB surveillance vehicle or a friend's banger, is described by the author with feverish obsessiveness and a loving attention to detail regardless of the appropriateness of the occasion. The same absurdly inappropriate attention is given, say, to the hero's clothes, especially to those with a foreign trade mark. The scarcity of goods on the shop shelves means that the opportunity to dress decently or to drive a decent car is the only proof that one belongs to that exclusive class of people who have access to the system of distribution of goods that others in the Soviet Union would not get for any amount of money in the world. Such access is granted to those who are either loyal to the party and system, or related to and affiliated with those who have already passed the exams and received the certificate of being ideologically kosher. Thus, the material aspects of Soviet existence, having acquired an ideological dimension, become part of the spiritual life of the country. Aksyonov's characters with material goods is meant to demonstrate that this corruption of spirit has encompassed the entire country. Nobody's immune. Everyone is either a scoundrel or an outright murderer and informer. Those who survive are changed beyond recognition. Ogorodnikov's life story is the epitome of such change.
In the blurb Aksyonov is quoted as saying that the character of Ogorodnikov in "Say cheese!" is a "composite" of various persons he has known, but acknowledges that he "does look like me, just a little." Intentionally or not, Aksyonov's protagonist emerges from the novel as a rather unpleasant individual. Having read about Ogorodnikov, the reader might expect that once outside the Soviet Union, in the West, away from the accursed Soviet system, without its apparatchiks and lackeys to blame for his own mistakes, the hero would realize his own personal inadequacies. But no, not yet. With an amazing, motherly loyalty to his creation, Aksyonov is always at hand to provide him with emotional assistance to extricate himself from compromising situations.
The world outside turns out to be no better than the Soviet prison. Paris emigre life is run by the Cold-Warmongers who exploit every remark accidentally uttered by Ogorodnikov to whip up anti-Soviet hysteria. New York swarms with shady publishers and greedy gallery owners anxious to make easy money by capitalizing on the suffering of the Russian intelligentsia. This ignorant mob is manipulated by a sinister Alik Konsky. "Everything in his hands. He's a universally recognized authority on Russian photography. Didn't you know that in Moscow? Just imagine, he's started this snob idea in New York that Russian photography requires translation into Western languages . . . . And if you dare say anywhere that it's all bull, you immediately become an Eastern Barbarian and are sent off to the second rank."