Sunday, August 15, 2010

Plenty Up His Sleeve: Kliuev’s Something Else for You

I thought a lot about my old Moscow apartment building when I read Evgenii Kliuev’s Андерманир штук (Something Else for You). Though I lived just inside the Garden Ring Road, I often talked about my building and street using words like forgotten, deserted, and unnoticed. My street, 6-ой Монетчиковский пер., intersects the Ring Road but few people seemed to know it existed. And, as the 6 in the name suggests, several other small streets share a name, but not a number, with mine. Kliuev writes a lot in his long, chatty novel about forgotten, hidden places – including clusters of streets like mine – depicting them as secret and unmapped until the fall of the Soviet Union.

Mentioning my former building is probably a stalling technique: I don’t know how to describe, let alone assess, Something Else for You. I hope this post won’t end up as unwieldy as the book but this much is easy: Something Else is about circuses, magic, supernatural powers, and strange institutes, and their borders with the official, obvious world. Kliuev’s characters include a circus performer; his daughter, whom he regularly saws in half; and her son, Lev (“Lion”), who is born covered with black fur, sleeps with his eyes open, and converses with his dead grandfather. Other figures include Vladlen, a Party member and retired Metro booth attendant who finds religion; Ratner, a Kashpirovskii-esque psychic; Lev’s mother’s lovers; and Lev’s girlfriend Liza, who creates perceptive paintings. Some characters disappear.

I wouldn’t disagree if you were to tell me this sounds a bit precious. It can be, and I quickly wearied of one of Kliuev’s verbal tics: exploding words into syllables to e-nun-ci-ate. A little goes a long way. So do Kliuev’s instructions on sleight of hand and illusion. Something Else for You often felt wordy, repetitive, uneven, and unedited [edit: or maybe underedited?], and I yearned for some of the subplots to intersect earlier or more often. Some of the events toward the end of the book felt rushed.

Despite all the muddle, much of the book was very engaging. I wouldn’t recommend Something Else to impatient readers or people who prefer fact to fantasy, but many of its chapters felt paradoxically familiar and real. I guess you could say I was open to some of Kliuev’s messages and welcomed his strange interstices, whether they were between life and death or just two streets. Of course I lived some of this – in the transitional “sociophrenic” Russian era and odd geography he describes – but anyone who’s ever discovered an urban shortcut, restaurant, neighborhood, or atmosphere, only to never find it again will know what his characters feel as they fall and crawl in and out of strange geographic and psychic places.

Lev’s grandfather uses the book’s title words, андерманир штук (andermanir shtuk) many times to mean “something else for you” in a way that reminds me of “And now for my next trick!” Sometimes I thought Kliuev had too many rabbits in his hat or couldn’t quite pull off his illusions, meaning Something Else for You, like Vladimir Orlov’s Danilov, the Violist (previous post), never turned into my perfect novel. I’ve read enough not-quite-satisfying books about circuses, magic, and illusion to wonder if, heaven forbid!, I’m the problem or if writers think all the words in their works about magic will be transformed into successful novels by some sort of alchemy.

Danilov and Something Else both draw energy from Moscow settings, and both combine magic, reality, and humor, leading me to wonder if Kliuev’s Lev’s last name, Orlov, is an homage to Vladimir Orlov. Both books are also very goodhearted. A reader on rightly mentions that Something Else is positive and a breath of fresh air compared to чернуха/chernukha, that intense naturalism I seem to read so often and like so much.

Something Else wanders geographically and psychically, covering lots more topics than I’ve mentioned, but a simple message about everyday human powers of observation is one of its most consistent. Illusions and magic are about deceiving a willing spectator, and the modern world loves to divert our attention. Toward the end of Something Else, Lev’s grandfather tells him that all Russia is on tranquilizers, be they sleeping pills, Swan Lake, television, or newspapers. “Ты спишь, Лев, с открытыми глазами спишь,” he tells him, “You’re asleep, Lev, you’re asleep with open eyes.”

You can read Андерманир штук, and its fellow Big Book finalists, online here.

Up next: My reading of Big Book finalists continues with Oleg Pavlov’s Асистолия (Asystole [Flatline]). I’m even more excited to have finally found and ordered Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Чертово колесо (The Devil’s Wheel).

P.S. My new blog, Lisa’s Other Bookshelf, has been online since July. Today’s post about three debut novels includes thoughts on Broken Glass Park, by Russian-born German writer Alina Bronsky.

P.P. S. The cover review for today’s New York Times Book Review is Olen Steinhauer’s fairly positive take on Martin Cruz Smith’s Three Stations.


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