Thursday, January 28, 2010

Heavy Breathing: Samsonov’s Oxygen Limit

How far can testosterone propel a work of fiction? Yes, the fact that I’m asking that question means I think Sergei Samsonov’s Кислородный предел (The Oxygen Limit) is about testosterone. And survival of the fittest and beauty and perfection and attraction and the fear of death. There are even mentions of DNA and nucleotides. I’ve never counted, but I don’t believe I’ve ever read a book with so many uses of the words самец and самка – basically, male and female examples of a species – to refer to humans, though Tolstoy uses самка quite memorably at the end of War and Peace, describing Natasha Rostova.

Samsonov, a writer of around 30 who should not be confused with the Sergei Samsonov who’s a left wing for the Carolina Hurricanes, has compiled an intriguing and energetic but messy and unsatisfying novel about a fire in a hotel and the aftermath for several survivors. They go on a carnivalesque rampage in my favorite passages of the book, celebrating their symbolic rebirth. They then begin searching for a woman, Zoya, who was also in the hotel. One character, businessman Sergei Sukhozhilov (name root: sinew, tendon), left her in a bathtub filled with water before he fell out a window.

Water and fire and oxygen all hint at primal themes that fit with Samsonov’s focus on biological survival and continuation of the species. Sukhozhilov’s competition for the ideal Zoya includes the plastic surgeon Nagibin (root: bend), a world-class specialist in allegedly making people more attractive to potential mates. Sukhozhilov and Nagibin have already had a testy meeting playing soccer: competition and survival in The Oxygen Limit carry over to sports and business. The cast even includes an oligarch.

The Oxygen Limit’s biological and social messages are universal and important, but Samsonov’s execution often failed me. Suffocating me with reminders of his message was one problem. An easy example to cite: what I see as his overuse of самец. This may sound horribly picky, but did he think we couldn’t figure that out from the characters’ behavior and talk about biology? And I know collecting status stuff is common behavior for a certain type of самец, but I can’t disagree with critic Dmitry Bykov’s assertion that Samsonov should cut back on his descriptions of brand-name clothes and cars.

Then there’s the rhythmic prose, which was occasionally so obvious and sing-song that it slithered right off the page at me. It felt contrived. Again, I agree with Bykov: it seems to me, too, that Samsonov resorted to rhythm because he’s not yet able to express himself through precise word choice. (Bykov also says Samsonov’s prose lacks the musicality of Andrei Belyi’s; having not read Belyi in years, I’m unqualified to speak to that point.) [A very hasty next-morning edit: Languagehat to the rescue! Yesterday evening Languagehat posted an entry (here) about Belyi's use of "musical and incantory effects" and repetition in his novel Petersburg. This is wonderful material that displays many aspects of symbolist prose. I am long overdue to reread Petersburg!]

Perhaps the biggest problem with The Oxygen Limit is revealed, inadvertently, at the end of the text, on page 414. “Июль 2008 – апрель 2009” (July 2008 – April 2009). Four hundred pages in just ten months? Critic Lev Danilkin, despite praising the book far more than I ever could, suggests Samsonov has graphomania and wrote the book, with all its undigested material (amen!), in one sitting.

There’s lots, lots more I could add from Bykov and Danilkin but I don’t think it’s worth hyperventilating over The Oxygen Limit. Yes, Samsonov says a lot about human nature, and his writing shows tremendous skill, drive, and promise, but I also feel a disconcerting imbalance that tilts away from discipline. I don’t mean to sound like a scold, but a few months of rewriting might have converted all this energetic but raw material into something far more memorable.


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