Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Big Wheel Effect: Salnikov’s Chilling Department

Alexei Salnikov’s Отдел (The Department), the author’s debut novel, is one of those marvelously maddening books that’s nearly impossible to write about because the experience of reading was so total, so all-consuming, and so invasive that it moved in and occupied my psyche. The visit may be permanent. Thanks to dark humor, a macabre plot, and Salnikov’s portrayal of twisted normalcy in a place that seems irreparably fragmented, The Department is a painfully (in an almost physical sense) tense book to read. Although it’s easy enough to recount plot basics – Salnikov knows how to tell a story – it’s far harder to interpret the novel because Salnikov packs in so much, so many layers: writer Shamil Idiatullin’s blurb on the back of my book offers five possible takes on The Department (including a dystopia that reinterprets/revisits American and Soviet writings or “we were just following orders”) and I could add several more, including an old favorite, the absurdity of contemporary life.

The gist of the story is that a man, Igor, who lost his job long ago, finally succeeds at finding work in a certain murky office (the department in the title) located in an old heating plant. He has a few coworkers – his boss’s first two initials are SS, leading to a nickname – who are also, for various reasons, unemployable outcasts. They all know they’re a bit off. The most immediate reason, I suppose, has less to do with their backgrounds than with their jobs, which involve killing. Sometimes they do that by making house calls, sometimes they do the job in the department’s basement, which they call Hollywood. Either way, Igor has problems at home, too. Mild spoiler: his wife (who’s pretty successful at work, frustrated with Igor’s job situation, and even mentions PMS and menopause – I think Salnikov is one of the first Russian writers I’ve read who mentions пэмээс) will end up bailing on him, taking their son with her.

For Igor, that’s something of a relief, particularly given the nature of the department’s work, which is a strong, stressful force that serves to bond the guys: they take smoke breaks together and drink together, like lots of co-workers do, making them seem pretty normal for much of the book. At least until the next killing assignment. For me, anyway, this, another variation on the banality of evildoers, is at the root of the tension I mentioned in my opener: Salnikov shifts between relatively mundane things – bureaucracy or a wife’s affair – and that killing, resulting in contrasts that remind me of nothing more than the scene in The Shining, where Danny rides his Big Wheel over bare floors (noisy) and rugs (quiet). It’s the sound that matters there, jarring the viewer each time those big wheels hit the bare floor. In The Department, the killing sure seems pointless (slight spoiler: Igor’s job is to read dozens of inane questions to the victim, for a weird interrogation about things like fear of heights, frequency of sharpening kitchen knives, and the like) and about all that we know is that it’s brutal. And that we don’t want to look. It’s as if the plot hits that bare floor, jarring the reader’s nerves and sensibilities after the soft rug of, say, Igor talking with his son (even if there is a mention of guns, aliens, and terrorism). I should add that Salnikov made a brilliant choice in choosing Igor’s part of the killings. Allegedly the victims are threats – one is a young woman and at one point, Igor wonders who will be next: someone disabled, a child, a cancer patient, or even a panda – but the killers themselves have no idea why. They even wonder if they’re aliens. As, of course, they are themselves in their society: the department’s location isn’t even on the map. What’s scariest is that Salnikov constantly forces the reader to ponder how bad these characters’ actions are, forcing the reader to ponder what they would do in, say, Igor’s place.

All that pondering – you know what they’re doing is wrong but yet… – has a Big Wheel effect on the reader, too, and ratchets up the suspense because the reader becomes so involved. Salnikov builds a world that’s ours yet not (we hope, we really hope) ours, a place where horrible things that are part of some larger plan are hidden, occult, and in the shadows at a derelict heating plant, along with characters who aren’t clued in. Salnikov wraps up the novel’s epilogue with Igor telling a small lie, a lie he wants to believe. The novel’s final paragraph speaks about lies and illusions that, essentially, hold the world together. It’s horrifyingly homey. Ignorance is bliss. Better the sweet lie than the bitter truth.

Having recently finished Salnikov’s Опосредованно (which I think I’ll continue calling Indirectly) and having picked up his Петровы в гриппе и вокруг него (The Petrovs In and Around the Flu) again yesterday, I think what endears Salnikov’s books to me is his ability to combine harsh realities – almost a variation on чернуха (chernukha) the dark-dark reality I read so much of some years ago – with humor, ordinary foibles, absurdity, and what’s hidden, be that in an occult sense or in an almost parallel world. I think there’s a new wave of very creative chernukha, thanks to writers like Salnikov, Evgeniya Nekrasova, and Elizaveta Alexandrova-Zorina (previous post), who incorporate humor, irony, and even folk motifs and occult-like elements into their writing. Their works are frightening but also playful, making them scarier.

The fragmentation I noted earlier is present in all three of Salnikov’s books, thanks to fissile nuclear families, personal and societal alienation resulting from secrets, and even structural compartmentalization in the novels themselves. I won’t be writing about Indirectly just yet because I need to reread it, in a printed edition, but now that I’ve read The Department and Indirectly, I’m appreciating and understanding The Petrovs more. I suspect the more linear Department and Indirectly showed me the way into Salnikov’s universe more efficiently than the chunked Petrovs, where I’ve always admired the material – particularly (again!) the dark humor and sharp social observations – but felt puzzled by a certain amorphousness that is beginning to make sense for me now that I’m more at home (scary thought!) with Salnikov’s writings, which are so very, very thick with observations about the twists and turns of contemporary life.

Next-day edit on The Petrovs: After learning last night about how and why Petrova is losing her mind, I’m all the gladder that I picked up The Petrovs again after reading Salnikov’s other books. I’ve long thought, perhaps even known, that the order in which I read an author’s books can be a crucial factor in understanding but this example really clinches it. I’m also very much enjoying seeing how Salnikov’s three books fit together, through common motifs/tropes/thematic elements, rather like Vodolazkin’s novels do. Best of all, I’m now feeling almost as unsettled reading The Petrovs as I did when reading The Department, in large part because I’m more attuned to the rhythms of Salnikov’s writing. I suspect the Big Wheel Effect will come back to haunt us all.

Up Next: Evgeniya Nekrasova’s Kalechina-Malechina, which I’m glad I went back to finish (I think I needed to read it in two chunks because of a big change in the middle), plus some shorter works.

Disclaimers: The usual, including collaborating with Salnikov’s literary agency. I received a copy of The Department from the organizers of the Russian stand at the London Book Fair, thank you! Salnikov was a member of the LBF delegation.


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