Monday, July 12, 2010

Where the Grass Isn’t Greener: Rubanov’s Chlorophyllia

The publisher of Andrei Rubanov’s Хлорофилия (I’ll call it Chlorophyllia) makes a pretty big promise on the novel’s back cover: “Эта книга взорвет ваш мозг” – “This book will blow your mind.” My head is still very much intact, thank you, but Chlorophyllia was an absorbing book, just the thing for hot summer reading.

Chlorophyllia describes 22nd-century Moscow, where tall plants have taken over patches of free soil. The grass is so tall that people need to live dozens of storeys up to have natural light. Lower floors are dank and mildewy, and their residents eat the pulp of the plants. They don’t need to eat anything else, and not everybody works. China does the labor and even pays to use Russian territory. Most Russians have chip implants so the nanogovernment (so-called for its use of technology) can keep track of people, paying subsidies for behaving, and deducting for misdeeds.

Among citizens, nobody owes anybody anything – this is repeated many times – though there is a barter system among one group of people. Some people, like Savelii, the book’s main character, live on sunny floors and work, but they often (ab)use plant pulp, too, in processed forms that enable them to eat meat and drink alcohol so their addiction goes unnoticed. They often give themselves away, though, by drinking lots of bottled water and hogging sunlight by windows. The plant pulp and pills are illegal but generally regarded as safe (apologies to the FDA).

Savelii and his fiancée are magazine journalists; Savelii is promoted to editor. There are plenty of details about a tabloid culture where everyone’s famous for a few minutes thanks to reality TV, and Rubanov mentions some of our contemporaries. There’s even a street named for Russian TV executive Konstantin Ernst. That humor seems a little too easy.

What’s most important is that things fall apart, as things are wont to do in this type of book. And what type of book is it? I guess I’d call it a dystopian novel with satire and tinges of morality play thrown in. Russian critic Lev Danilkin thinks it might be closest to a dystopia- parody of disaster novels and social novels, among other things, and I can see his point: there is plenty of disaster and plenty of social commentary.

On the social side, the idea of receiving stipends for doing nothing, along with not having to eat, reminds of some familiar slogans (variations are here), from the Bible to TANSTAAFL. Rubanov describes various vegetative states that people live in: a young “grasseater” woman from the 21st floor that Savelii picks up for a ride (and, predictably, sees again later, for sex) is plant-like in her empty-headedness. That feels cozy for Savelii, the working pill taker.

Some of the novel’s characters and turns of events felt contrived, schematic, genre-driven, and/or undeveloped to me, particularly toward the end, and Rubanov’s conclusions about what it means to be human felt pretty shopworn, too. (This may be another point for Danilkin on parody…) Oddly, those shortcomings weren’t fatal, and I still enjoyed Chlorophyllia.

I guess that’s partly because I almost always like a peculiar dystopia. It’s also because Chlorophyllia addresses the celebrification of just about everything (Lindsay Lohan’s manicure, anyone?) and people begin to resemble, yes, potted plants with limited intellectual needs. Still, there’s an irony at the root of Chlorophyllia that makes me a little uneasy: the novel leaves me with the feeling that I’ve read something entertaining but pretty light, not a pithy future classic that steers the brain away from that dreaded vegetative state... Of course I may just be too serious, too much of a ботаник: botanik, the Russian word for botanist, can be translated as geek, nerd, or dork.

Reading level for nonnative readers of Russian: Not too difficult, 2 or 2.5/5. Reads easily.

Rubanov’s first novel, Сажайте, и вырастет, is available in English as Do Time Get Time. Andrew Bromfield translated the book, an autobiographical novel about white collar crime and punishment.

Illustration credit for cross-section of woody stem: Jeffrey Winterborne's Hydroponics - Indoor Horticulture, via Wikipedia's Plant Morphology page.


  1. Хлорофилия reminded me of nothing so much as a Russian-language Fight Club. Same punchy writing (no pun intended), same shopworn nostrums.

  2. Hi Lisa,
    Thanks for the entertaining review. I find dystopias intriguing too, even if they're flawed (and they usually are). Have you read Aleksandr Chaianov's oddball utopia, Puteshestvie moego brata Alekseia v stranu krest'ianskoi utopii? Incidentally, I never knew that botanik could mean 'geek' - I wonder how long the word has had this connotation? Chaianov was using the jokey pseudonym Botanik X for his fiction in the 1920s.

  3. Thanks to both of you for your comments...

    Alex, I agree about the combination of punch and shopworn. I haven't read Fight Club but should probably take a look one of these days since I've heard/read so much about it.

    Russian Dinosaur, no I haven't read Chaianov at all but he sounds very interesting... particularly since he was calling himself ботаник X! I'm glad you commented: I was happy to learn about your blog.

    I don't know how long ботаник (or the shortened "ботан" version) has been in use for the geek/nerd/bookworm meaning, but I could swear I first heard it back in the '80s.

  4. May I suggest reading Бойцовский клуб in Russian? I made it farther in the translation than I did in the original. It picked up a very different timbre when I read it as an anti-Western polemic.

  5. This sounds sort of fun. if it comes out in English I'll look for it.

  6. Thanks for your comment, Marie. It is fun, and I do think it would read well in translation. Who knows, maybe it will appear at a future Readercon!

    Alex, it sounds like you weren't thrilled with Fight Club in either language. I'm most likely to take the English version out of the library.