Sunday, August 6, 2017

Big Books 1 & 2: Slapovsky and Pelevin

It gives me no joy whatsoever to report that the first two Big Book finalists I’m done with weren’t very satisfying. It gives me even less joy to say that this pair left me so indifferent that I couldn’t bring myself to finish either one. I read most of Aleksei Slapovsky’s Неизвестность, which I guess I’ll continue calling Uncertainty, but could only get to page 41 of Viktor Pelevin’s Лампа Мафусаила, или Крайняя битва чекистов с масонами (Methuselah’s Lamp, or The Last Battle of the Chekists and Masons) before throwing in a frayed old towel. I know it’s time to quit a book when I don’t want to sit down to read.

So. Slapovsky’s Uncertainty was a mixed experience; this is the book that bills itself as “роман века,” which in this case means it’s a novel covering the all-important century of 1917-2017. As I mentioned in my Big Book descriptions, Uncertainty is told through diaries, poetry, and other written materials, including a letter, a court’s death sentence, and interview transcripts. The Russian word for “datafiction” has been used to describe the genre; it’s not inappropriate.

My primary problem with Uncertainty is its tremendous unevenness. The novel is a family saga of sorts—its contributors from a family of Smirnovs span six (or so—I’ll admit I don’t want to go back to count) generations over the course of a century—and the contributors’ contributions vary tremendously in quality, length, and interest. The first chunk, Nikolai Smirnov’s diary (1917-1937), looks at the period immediately after the 1917 coup, examining political and personal (dis)loyalties with varying levels of detail; Volga Germans, the Cheka, and Nikolai’s relationships with women enter into the diary. There is also folk wisdom, such as a mention that the primary fight isn’t between socialism and capitalism or various social classes but between smart and foolish people.

I found the next chunk, a diary written by Vladimir (1936-1941), the most interesting: Vladimir is a teenager who’s very taken with Nikolai Ostrovsky’s novel How the Steel Was Tempered and he addresses many of his entries to Pavka, its hero. Vladimir faces difficulties from being critical in school, troubles with girlfriends, and problems being taken into the armed forces. An eye chart thus makes its way into his diary. So do Stalin’s famous words that a son doesn’t answer for his father. The interview transcripts, recorded in 2016 by Anya Smirnova with her grandmother, father, and mother, follow Vladimir’s diary… and this is where the book began flailing for me. There’s some moderately lively and funny material—asides, one-sided conversations because someone’s out of the recorder’s range—and some contemporary material about teenage Anya’s friendship (or more?) with a much-older man who’s not Russian. But the transcripts are often fluffy and contrived, so I skimmed a bit to get to the grandmother, Ekaterina, who’s one of the book’s most interesting characters: she discusses relationships, abortion, and the family curse, which she says is wanting to please everybody in order to be praised. Toward the end of the last tape, she orders vodka in a café. It’s an understatement to say I think Uncertainty could have benefited from more female perspectives. A fairly brief death sentence for Anton, dated 1954-1962, follows the transcripts.

Skimming changed to skipping when I reached a bulky swath of stories, otherwise unpublished, written by Viktor, an illustrator, dated 1965-2016. I read a bit more than half and couldn’t go on: the stories describe childhood and adulthood, and probably the most affecting involve Viktor’s alcoholism. Not much in the stories felt original enough to keep me reading, though. The novel’s final piece, a 2017 letter by Gleb Smirnov, addresses a familiar topic by focusing largely on Gleb’s relationship with his girlfriend. In some senses it brings the reader back to Nikolai’s diary: for very different reasons, neither of them spells well.

Uncertainty is unsatisfying not so much because it’s so fractured—Ludmila Ulitskaya’s Jacob’s Ladder (previous post) is fractured, too, reflecting fractured times and fractured families, and Ulitskaya makes better use of form than does Slapovsky—but because, perhaps paradoxically, there aren’t enough motifs to reinforce the family ties and breaks that connect and disconnect the various generations, and, most crucially, keep the reader engaged with the drama and tragedy of problems that face the Smirnovs over the century. All that damage and brokenness may be the point here but—and this felt even worse—I also constantly had the sense I wasn’t receiving any new information from the book, that I was reading familiar, recycled material from other novels. It seems as if I read a mishmash of material that started off with some moderately interesting stories about family and history… but then the book became so thoroughly dull and muddled in the middle that I lost interest. I do wonder if Viktor’s stories clarify anything about previous narrators, though I don’t wonder nearly enough to go back and continue reading. There’s a lot of uncertainty about fates in Uncertainty and the long section of Viktor’s stories created a brutal break in momentum. (Critic Vladislav Tolstov called those stories “графоманские тексты,” a graphomaniac’s texts; Tolstov’s final paragraph on Uncertainty, which I read as I was finalizing this post, beautifully sums up my thoughts on the book.) Although I give Slapovsky credit for even attempting to address Big Questions in Russian history, Uncertainty’s inability to hold my attention—I love reading about the human side of history in fiction—is frustrating.

I suppose it’s something of a plus that I was done with Methuselah’s Lamp so quickly that I wasn’t bored for long. That reading followed my familiar Pelevin pattern: after reading a not-so-satisfying book (Uncertainty), Pelevin pulled me in with his narrator’s voice. But it didn’t take many pages for our narrator Creampie’s tale to lose its oomph. The connection of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold-Bug” with Creampie’s prattling about investments and gold didn’t seem clever for long. That, combined with a near-death experience, signaled the beginning of the end of my reading.

Disclaimers: I’m a member of the Literary Academy, the Big Book Award’s jury, and received electronic copies of all the Big Book finalists. You, too, can read most of the Big Book finalists for free on Bookmate, here: nine of the ten finalists, all but Pelevin, are available and the Bookmate platform is easy to use and synch between devices. I’m using it myself for a lot of my Big Book reading.

Up next: I’m still chipping away at Gigolashvili’s Mysterious Year, which looks brillianter and brillianter after these two books. I’m also working on Andrei Rubanov’s The Patriot, which captures a time and place even if it’s not my book. I’m most enjoying Vladimir Medvedev’s Заххок (Zahhok), which I just started.