Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Of Mice, Golubchiki, and Tolstaya

Tat’iana Tolstaya’s Кысь (The Slynx) is a novel of posts: postmodern, post-Soviet, post-apocalyptic. It describes a Russian settlement, formerly Moscow, that was bombed back to, roughly, the Stone Age. The wheel was just reinvented, candles light huts, and people barter in mice, a valuable food source. The government is repressive, and its leader claims to have written all of what we know as Russian literature. Scribes copy those texts onto birch bark.

Of course there’s much more, including mutations that cause humans to grow tails, coxcombs, and claws, as well as a couple of fairly typical intellectuals who’ve survived hundreds of years to remember the old days and put up a statue of Pushkin. Tolstaya’s main character, a scribe named Benedikt, a fellow with a tail, becomes enamored with books, but he’s a bit of a blockhead so reads everything from poetry to crafts books without truly differentiating their meanings.

Despite loving dystopian novels and views of the future, I found that Tolstaya’s imaginative descriptions fail to become compelling: she creates a vivid setting but skimps on characters. Instead of creating real people, she tosses out figures to represent positions. Her primary focus is on language.

Tolstaya’s linguistic pyrotechnics in The Slynx have earned her praise from some Russian reviewers, but I found them distracting, just as I find extensive use of regional accents distracting in American novels. Characters in The Slynx make more mistakes with Russian grammar and pronunciation than typical Russian 101 students because they're barely literate, and Tolstaya invents new words to fit her “reality.”

Tolstaya’s preoccupation with language doesn’t end with spelling and grammar. The book is arranged like a primer, with each chapter named for a Cyrillic letter, some obsolete. The book is more about language, cultural literacy, and misinterpretation than anything else but these cultural aspects of the book are probably more difficult to feel in translation than in the original: two New York Times reviews (here and here) do not even allude to them.

Tolstaya quotes frequently from Russian literature, fairy tales, and other cultural materials, making the book resemble a parlor game for catching literary allusions. Tolstaya’s Big Point is stated in multiple locations: people must understand their primer basics, both for reading and life. Books are more than just collections of letters.

I agree. But the problem – and bitter irony – here is that the novel depends on superstructure plus familiar messages that, despite the originality of the setting, feel recycled from previous dystopian novels and history itself. Those don’t magically add up to good fiction any more than 26 Roman alphabet letters equal Shakespeare.

The Slynx has fans among Russian and Western readers who like wordplay and dystopias, but this reader grew impatient with its literary devices. I wanted to like The Slynx but the book's occasional moments of literary clarity and satirical humor – some of which are excellent – don’t compensate for hundreds of pages dominated by heavy-handed, self-conscious technique and messages.

SUMMARY: Recommended for readers who enjoy postmodern books where form and linguistic tricks trump or determine content. A very deep knowledge of Russian literature is a big plus. Not recommended for readers squeamish about the idea of eating mice. (Disclosure: we dispose of mice trapped in our garage and attic.) People with little patience for exclamation marks and sound effects (Eeeeeeee!!!) in fiction may also experience anxiety while reading this book.

Mentioned in this posting:
Slynx on Amazon


  1. Lisa--

    Did you ever read Russell Hoban's "Riddley Walker"? RH made his name as a children's author, but remade himself through his midlife crisis (a childhood friend of mine grew up knowing RH and his first family until the bustup) and became a much more experimental writer. It's a post-apocalyptic dystopia set in the UK in densely experimental language. It's been 25 years, but I remember a captivating plot in which Punch and Judy figures prominently, and wild dogs, just the thing to make Brits very unhappy.

    --Stiva O.

  2. Hi, Stiva,

    Thanks for your comment! No, I've never read "Riddley Walker," but the samples on this page ( would seem to indicate that the "devolved" language he employs has something in common with what Tolstaya does in "The Slynx."

    Your comment also made me think of another British novel that makes use of experimental language, in both Russian and English: "A Clockwork Orange."