Sunday, May 1, 2011

Sorokin’s Ice Prequel: Chillin’ with Bro

Vladimir Sorokin’s Путь Бро (Bro) (sorry, no italicized Cyrillic allowed today on Blogger...), the first novel in Ice Trilogy from New York Review Books, translated by Jamey Gambrell, is a prequel that prehashes much of the core of Sorokin’s Лёд (Ice), a book I read several years ago (previous post). Sorokin wrote Ice first, then backed up to write its back story. Apparently I’m not the only reader (or writer) who wondered, perhaps grudgingly, why all those blue-eyed, light-haired people were knocking each other in the hearts with ice-tipped hammers in an attempt to gather their brethren, 23,000 chosen people, for a special rapture. I haven’t read 23,000, the trilogy’s culmination, but think NYRB’s summary of the trilogy aptly describes the first two books:
Pulp fiction, science fiction, New Ageism, pornography, video-game mayhem, old-time Communist propaganda, and rampant commercial hype all collide, splinter, and splatter in Vladimir Sorokin’s virtuosic Ice Trilogy, a crazed joyride through modern times with the promise of a truly spectacular crash at the end. And the reader, as eager for the redemptive fix of a good story as the Children are for the Primordial Light, has no choice except to go along, caught up in a brilliant illusion from which only illusion escapes intact.

I found in Bro, like Ice, an irritatingly readable book that I didn’t especially like. I couldn’t put either book down (despite repetition), but Sorokin’s abstractions, though effective on one level, make the books feel, to echo what other readers have told me, a little soulless (intentionally?) even when they compel me to keep reading. And both times I had that sinking Peggy Lee feeling of “Is that all there is?” So… In Bro, the title character narrates his life story: born the day the Tunguska meteor hits, goes on Leonid Kulik expedition to site, knocks heart on ice, realizes he’s found his true self. Now he must find 22,999 others like him who are also capable of speaking with their hearts, eating a raw vegetarian diet before it’s trendy, seeing the rest of Earth’s population as meat machines, and being saved during that rapture I mentioned above. Bro begins by finding Fer, Eve to his Adam.

Part of the paradox of Bro and Ice is that they seem silly – the pulpiness NYRB mentions is obvious, with calendar pages tearing off and heart-related passages so cheesy I wrote “oy” in the margins – as they examine the nature of a group that considers itself chosen and allowed to do anything. (I doubt it’s coincidental that Dostoevsky is involved when Bro dreams about a book…) It’s okay to kill, reason is bad, and books are just paper covered with combinations of letters. Bro sees himself as part of a war to free his brothers and sisters, people of light, from the dark, meat machine masses. Bro’s group are higher beings, enlightened, as it were.

It’s notable that Bro’s stylized language changes over the course of the novel. The book’s opening reads like a classic Russian narrative of childhood and youth but Bro’s last quarter contains, for example, a passage about World War Two that mentions the country of Order, the country of Ice, the country of Freedom. Freedom and Ice beat Order. Weapons are metal pipes. Oh, those meat machines! Another passage also uses остранение, defamiliarization, to describe movie screenings in Germany: a box projects shadows onto white material. It reminded me a bit of Natasha Rostova’s trip to the opera in War and Peace.

Bro brings out the hard, cold totalitarianism of Bro and his crew, showing us how they find siblings in the Soviet and Nazi systems and use their infrastructures. In the Soviet Union, they cruise the streets looking for brothers and sisters, arresting them so they can pop them in the hearts and show them their true natures and make them happy, too. And that’s where Bro and Ice are most interesting: showing how the ice people’s activity parallels and intersects with that of real-life totalitarian regimes. Of course Bro’s people are more chosen than the political regimes’ chosen, and their intentions are (even more) purely selfish: their source and inspiration, after all, are celestial, from meteorite ice, a piece of another world.

I could go on and on about Bro and Ice but will just add a few notes: A big caveat: I’ll repeat that I haven’t read 23,000, which apparently Changes Everything. (See Daniel Kalder’s piece on Publishing Perspectives about Sorokin and the trilogy.)… I think New York Review Books did the right thing by placing Bro first in the trilogy book, even though it was written after Ice… According to an article in yesterday’s New York Times, Sorokin once said literature was just “paper with typographic signs,” thoughts rather like Bro’s… Do I recommend the Ice books? Sort of. If you enjoy abstract novels of ideas with science fiction elements that read easily and offer plenty of oddity, they may be right up your proverbial alley. It’s taken me a few years and a few books to edge into Sorokin’s world.

Level for Non-Native Readers of Russian: 2/5 or 2.5/5 for the reading and words themselves: the book reads fairly easily and quickly.

Disclosures: New York Review Books is a publisher with whom I always enjoy discussing translated fiction. Speaking of NYRB, I thought editor Edwin Frank’s comment in the Times article, about politics and choosing titles, was very telling, especially after conversations at the London Book Fair about politics and fiction. (Previous post.)

Up Next: Aleksandr Snegirev’s Тщеславие (Vanity). Then Mikhail Shishkin’s dense Венерин волос (Maidenhair). I’m also looking forward to reading Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless, which I bought at a reading a few days ago. Valente’s site calls it “a bold retelling of a Russian fairy tale about Marya Morevna and Koschei the Deathless set in Stalinist Russia.” Publisher Tor has excerpts here.

Photo credit: Tunguska event site, 1927, photographed by Leonid Kulik’s expedition. I thought the expedition scenes in Bro were a highlight.


  1. Did you ever see Children of the Arbat? The Tunguska event (picked up from a detail in Rybakov's novel) is used effectively as a leitmotiv throughout.

  2. Thank you for mentioning this, Languagehat! I only watched the beginning of Children of the Arbat but I read the books. And of course I'd forgotten that Tunguska figures into the book until I read your comment; Googling brought up a passage that mentions Kulik. I seem to have a vague recollection that the series expanded the Tunguska theme but could be very wrong.

    Венерин волос also mentions the Tunguska ice.