Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Mixing Genres in Luk’ianov’s Deep Drilling

Aleksei Luk’ianov’s Глубокое бурение (Deep Drilling) is an entertaining long story/short novel that begins with a bang, when a meteorite hits the Kremlin. I wouldn’t call Deep Drilling a disaster story, though: Luk’ianov’s blend of stylized reality and the fantastic is less concerned about the fate of the government than with the peculiar, everyday adventures of a group of railroad workers. Deep Drilling won two awards for fantasy writing in 2009: the Bronze Snail for medium-length fiction, and the Noon 21st Century award for prose.

Part of the fun of Deep Drilling is that Luk’ianov, a blacksmith, incorporates his work experiences – even creating a blacksmith and award-winning author named Lyokha – into his fiction. And to good effect: though Luk’ianov’s language was challenging at times for this nonnative reader, it was worth the effort because of his feel for colloquial speech. He also has a way with ribald humor – Deep Drilling includes some talking body parts – that made me laugh out loud, probably because it’s so goofy and readable that it couldn’t offend.

Deep Drilling addresses politics, too, but usually through the eyes of good-natured, humorous people who do madcap things, like drilling to the other side of the damaged earth. (Disclosure: This may appeal to me because I was one of those kids who was always trying to dig to China.) Boris Strugatskii, who wrote in introductory endorsement blurb to the Deep Drilling collection and is the one and only Bronze Snail judge, also likens Deep Drilling to a fish story. I couldn’t agree more, though I respectfully disagree with Strugatskii’s assertion that Luk’ianov had enough material in Deep Drilling for a novel. Maybe that’s true, but I think Deep Drilling would have lost its energy if it had been longer.

Luk’ianov’s honors go beyond the Bronze Snail and the Noon awards: he was also, twice, a finalist for the Debut Prize. He came to the U.S. last month, and I met him in New York at a book launch party for Squaring the Circle, which includes Marian Schwartz’s translation of one of his stories. (Disclosure: I was involved in that book project, too.) I enjoyed talking with Aleksei: he’s funny and sincere, and it was interesting to hear his thoughts on contemporary Russian fiction. During the program’s Q&A, he recommended Aleksei Ivanov’s work, particularly Сердце Пармы (The Heart of Parma) and Золото бунта (Gold of the Rebellion). The Russian-language speech Luk’ianov prepared for U.S. events is here.

On a more global note: Reading Deep Drilling, with its fantastical twists and blend of genres, then following it with two more books that layer fantasy onto reality (or reality onto fantasy?), brought out for me, yet again, the reality of the unreal in contemporary Russian fiction. Yes, I already knew this – the reality-fantasy combination was a big focus of Russian Book Week at the 2010 London Book Fair – but I don’t know if I’ve ever read so many books, in succession, with threads of mysticism and/or fantasy. Before Deep Drilling¸ there were Frau Scar, Moscow 2042, Matisse, Kazaroza, and Light in the Window, all of which, arguably (I know I’m stretching things most with Kazaroza), contained major or minor elements of something mystical, magical, or otherwise unreal.

In case you’re wondering, the first of my two books after Deep Drilling was/is Mariam Petrosian’s Дом, в котором (The House Where/in Which), which I’m sorry to say I set aside for now: it’s a big book (1043 grams, according to Ozon, and 950+ pages) I’d been hoping to settle in with for a while. Unfortunately, its schematic characters, who all carry nicknames like Sphinx and Smoker, and sluggish narrative make it very unsatisfying. On the surface, it’s a book about a House (always in caps) for disabled children and teenagers; the book (or maybe the House?) felt claustrophobic. I think it falls squarely into the “it’s just not my book” category but I will give it another chance. The House has been very popular, so I’m definitely in the minority on this one.

Which leads me to my Up Next book: Igor Sakhnovskii’s Человек, который знал всё (The Man Who Knew Everything), another Bronze Snail winner that, like House, was also a Booker and Big Book finalist. I’m enjoying it much more, though Sakhnovskii’s mixture of genres – the unreal, crime, action, spy, a bit of a love story – feels a little patched together. The basic plot: After an incident with a big electrical shock, the title man has the power to know whatever he wants to know.


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