Sunday, March 12, 2017

Feeling Happily Sentimental about Postmodernism: Sergey Kuznetsov’s Kaleidoscope

Sergey Kuznetsov’s Калейдоскоп (Kaleidoscope) is yet another novel that’s nearly impossible to describe: it’s 850 pages divided into more than 30 loosely-but-closely linked chapters that cover 1885-2013 and involve several dozen characters in many countries. Summarizing by saying that Kaleidoscope is about everything doesn’t say much at all. Irina Prokhorova, founder of the NOSE Award, focused more by calling the novel “новейший сентиментализм,” which might be as good a description as any: in a sense, Kaleidoscope is, to translate Prokhorova’s words literally, “the newest/latest sentimentalism,” what with its accounts of various sorts of political, social, economic, and personal upheaval that involve huge shares of pain and joy. A kaleidoscope, after all, involves reflectors and light to create its patterns.

The joy of Kaleidoscope for a reader like me lies in its structure and composition. As an example, Kuznetsov links a noirish chapter-story (echoes of Dashiel Hammett…) set in 1928 to chapters set in Shanghai during the 1930s. Later in the book and in history, there’s a New York master of the universe type (shades of Tom Wolfe…) who resurfaces in Silicon (oops, no silent “e,” Lizok!) Valley and truly does end up master of his own universe; Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters also get mentions. One generation may die but their children pop up later.

Materials—often pieces of glass—shift inside a toy kaleidoscope, creating changing pictures when the cylinders are twisted; in Kaleidoscope, Kuznetsov twists the cylinder of his novel, shifting plot lines, temporal and geographical settings, and characters to show new aspects of life and history. As I jotted down during my reading, there’s a lot to love here because the shards always come together to form a new picture, even when the world seems to be falling apart morally, politically, and/or socially. I think of the book’s subtitle—расходные материалы—as something like “shifting materials” or even “recurring materials” here, though the Russian term often refers to things that need to be replaced, like batteries, toner cartridges, or razor blades.

Part of the novel’s success lies in Kuznetsov’s recurring use of the kaleidoscope metaphor, presenting a child with a kaleidoscope as a holiday gift in the book’s first chapter and then reinforcing the theme—and teaching the reader to read the book—by noting, for example, shards of history as well a kaleidoscope-like key chain in a Silicon Valley scene where someone notes that, “In a/the postmodern world we learn to find harmony not in order but in chaos.” The chapter-stories in Kaleidoscope don’t look random or chaotic for long even though they differ greatly in terms of form and stylistics.

Another one of my notes says that Kaleidoscope “demands/prefers active reader participation to make connections and consider influences.” I should add that I found that aspect of the reading especially fun: Kuznetsov provides apparatus for the book that includes a list of recurring characters and the chapters in which they appear, plus a list of “literature” that includes books (fiction and nonfiction) and films that provided inspiration in various forms (Kuznetsov mentions phrases and observations). This is a wonderfully mixed lot with dozens of titles, including Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, and of course Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. I say “of course” about the Pynchon not because I’ve read it (I haven’t) and found shards in Kaleidoscope (which of course I couldn’t) but because more than one Russian reader recommended Kaleidoscope to me last fall in Moscow, calling it “Pynchon Lite.” Though the Pynchon element may be lost on me, those other titles I listed, plus many others—including Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, which I read a large chunk of years ago before I forgot where I was (I should have read linearly…) and, “of course” again, Ian Fleming’s Bond bookswere not.

Reflected glimmers of those books—along with slivers of history, including real-life characters—are part of what underpin the postmodernist feel of Kaleidoscope and the kaleidoscope of our lives. (Speaking of real, true history, I read up on things like the 1910 Great Flood of Paris and Shanghai in the 1930s and even fractals while reading Kaleidoscope…) Bits of those materials shift and recur, forming patterns involving world wars, revolutions of all sorts, utopian ideas, and, of course, love and partings that result from the afore-mentioned wars and revolutions, as well as emigration.

In the end, it’s hard to express or explain why I loved Kaleidoscope so much and didn’t want it to end—I realized in my last days of reading that I’d been waiting until late in the evening to pick it up. I was subconsciously rationing my last pages, postponing the inevitable end. (The end of history is here, too…) The connectedness of Kaleidoscope’s characters and historical threads is somehow comforting, as are the hope and creativity and love that arise during times of upheaval. Beyond that, the book is solidly composed and Kuznetsov finds very admirable balances when drawing his characters and settings: within the limited pages of each chapter-story, he offers just the right amount of detail to create vivid and simulacrumesque atmosphere and characters, link themes and characters in chapters, and address questions about what it means to be a human being living in the twentieth (plus or minus…) century. (I borrowed “simulacrums” from Max Nemtsov’s review of the novel, which also involves a disco ball…) To come back to Irina Prokhorova’s use of “sentimentalism” in describing Kaleidoscope, I can only say that the novel made me feel sentimental about a lot of things. On one level, I realized how much I love postmodern literature that’s this colorful, and beautifully organized and structured, and—corny though it may sound—able to make me feel so sentimental, so emotional, and so curious, about the human experience itself. That, I suppose, is what I meant when I wrote that Kaleidoscope is about everything.

Disclaimers: The usual, including having met Kuznetsov in person (at least once, but maybe twice?) and on the Internet.

Up Next: The Yasnaya Polyana Award longlist plus at least two novel(la)s by Valery Zalotukha.


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