Sunday, March 11, 2012

Roman Senchin’s New Information

I think the key to understanding Roman Senchin’s new novel, Информация (The Information) is on its back cover. Below a photo and a bio, Senchin says, in a quote from an interview with the Agency of Political News, that he watches a lot of TV, particularly sports and dumb [reality] shows that aren’t good for the psyche. And he mentions bread and circuses. I’ll work my way back to this, including some mild spoilers as I describe the book…

The Information begins when a nameless first-person narrator, a Muscovite from the Volga region who works in media buying (медиабаинг, some information-based field I don’t truly grasp in either language), sees his wife received a text message from another man, wishing her a good night and calling her рыбка (how about “my little fish”?). After intercepting this information, our anti-hero storms out, gets drunk, and ends up with frostbite that nearly results in amputation. Marriage over. I can typify much of the rest of the novel with a long, messy list: Nameless Guy gets a new apartment, sees old friends that include a driver named Ivan and a writer named Svechin who also form a rock group called Bad Omen (echoing Senchin’s own experience), attempts a relationship with the temptingly named Angelina, goes to Dagestan for a work assignment, and nearly marries a woman with all sorts of emotional problems.

Senchin is, fortunately, still Senchin so nasty complications arise to make Nameless Guy’s life even more of a living hell. Samples: legal and financial problems related to apartments, a bender that causes hallucinations, and a traffic cop planting white powder in Nameless Guy’s Celica. What I like about Senchin so very much is that I can’t say he’s unfair. Nameless Guy is one of the most unsympathetic and obnoxious narrators I’ve had the (dis)pleasure to read in a long time. Nameless Guy drinks himself way beyond stupid more than once, admits to cheating on his wife (prostitutes are okay?), and describes his feelings for women in ways that make you suspect he’s incapable of respect. He’s typing up his story—his “information” about events—in a darkened apartment because he’s hiding out. He thinks several people want to kill him.

I could cite many books that feel like The Information’s thematic and formal ancestors—from Lermontov’s Hero of Our Time and Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground to Sergei Minaev’s lighter Soulless and Oleg Pavlov’s heavier Asystole—plus Nameless Guy compares his imaginary self to the title character of American Psycho and mentions enjoying works like Sartre’s Nausea and Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night. I read (and also loved) Nausea years ago and found that the Wikipedia page description for Journey could almost describe The Information, too, thanks to its nihilism, misanthropy, and cynical humor.

Existentialism is crucial here: with his behavior and his hiding, Nameless Guy essentially crosses himself out of a meaningful existence, both in the lives of his friends and family, and in the larger world. Not that his life has had much meaning during the years he describes; this superfluous man for the noughties has had ideas to do good things, like establish a literary journal, but that’s forgotten early in the book because all his drama, much of it self-inflicted, interrupts plans to build a normal (normal!), comfortable life as a middle-class office worker.

What amazes me most about The Information is that it works beautifully, as a diabolical combination of realism, satire, parody, and the grotesque. Nameless Guy tells his story in colloquial language that is almost painfully unpretty at times. And the story itself is horribly lumpy, chronologically confusing, and angry. The Information’s narrator is so appealingly unappealing that I couldn’t put the book down—I’m one of those rubbernecker readers who loves to observe jerks involved in psychic accidents—though I was initially disappointed in the book’s structure and TMI, thinking Senchin had let me down with The Information after the social and formal precision and concision of his Yeltyshevs, which looks at some similar themes using very different settings, characters, and style.

But then Nameless Guy began criticizing his own writing and explaining his minutiae. And then I focused on the quotation on the back of the book and began reading The Information as a twisted confessional novel about life in the age of reality programming, where everyone knows absolutely everything about everyone else’s business (right, my little fishes?), the global financial crisis wreaks havoc on jobs, and a generation of young adults is still trying to figure itself out after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The most devastating aspect of The Information was reading the last page and closing the book, wondering if anybody in Nameless Guy’s life would even care if he ceased to exist. I also wondered if the threats were real: did any of those threateners really care enough to want to end Nameless Guy’s existence? It’s unclear, particularly given that this century’s superfluous men learn of death threats through virtual seconds who use computers and smart phones instead of personal visits.

Disclaimer. I have translated some of Roman Senchin’s work, including excerpts from his Yeltyshevs.

Up Next: List of new and upcoming translations. And Irina Bogatyreva’s Товарищ Анна (Comrade Anna).

And a very special thank you… to my friend S. and her family, who brought me The Information (plus books by Ganieva and Shulpyakov that I’ve already written about) from Moscow this winter. 


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