Sunday, June 30, 2019

Space Oddities: Alexander (“My Favorite Pelevin”) Pelevin’s The Four

Alexander Pelevin’s Четверо (The Four), a finalist for this year’s National Bestseller Award, is something of a wonder. Before I get into the why, I’ll say that I knew next to nothing about the book before reading it and am glad I picked it up with so few preconceived notions. I won’t include big plot spoilers in this post, but I will mention a few of the motifs that I picked up in my one reading. (I realized as I read through my post that I didn’t even get around to one of the big ones. Consolation: that means I won’t spoil it!) Those motifs only partially decoded the novel for me, but even so, I’m glad I didn’t know about them before reading. You have been warned!

So, what makes The Four a wonder? Pelevin writes three story lines from what I consider three distinct genres – futuristic science fiction, retro noirish detective story, and modern-day psychiatric drama – to compose a novel where one of the key glues (and clues) is Гость на коне (“Guest on a Horse”), a poem by Alexander Vvedensky. (Four horsemen of the apocalypse, coincidence or not?) The sea is another form of glue, and this sea is often very elemental, even a sort of primeval goo from ages ago, a living being unto itself. I will say no more.

The first chapter opens in 2154, on a space ship hurtling to the planet Proxima Centaur b, located in a solar system that is (of course!) far, far away from ours. Four astronauts have just come out of eighty-seven years of stasis and it’s time to prepare for landing and research on Proxima Centaur b. The spaceship’s operating system, Aurora, is essentially a super-advanced Siri or Alexa: she’s friendly, seems to know everything, and knows Bowie’s “Space Oddity” in many languages; she’ll recite some Gumilev poetry, too. Shortly after the ship’s commander, Lazarev, refuses Aurora’s generous offer to sing “Space Oddity” in English, Pelevin whisks the reader back to 1938, to Crimea, where a certain Vvedensky ((!) I wrote “such a marked name!” in the margin), a Leningrader, has arrived to investigate a murder; strange scenes and grisly situations, including murder victims with metal stars on them, will follow. I particularly liked an unusually worldly character named Kramer, who has lived overseas, shows a scholarly bent, and feeds both Vvedensky and many feral cats. When we’re zapped forward to 2017, a psychiatrist, Khromov, is working with a patient who claims to communicate with a woman from another planet. (Three guesses where it is…) Khromov has his own issues and would love to just spend some quiet time at New Year’s with his wife and daughter, who seem close to perfect.

Twin Peaks was apparently an inspiration for Pelevin and the Twin Peaks connection does fit with certain aspects of the novel: NatsBest jury reviewer Vasily Avchenko notes, for example, the things-aren’t-always-as-the-seem element. As a long-time fan of Twin Peaks who enjoyed The Four, speaking in the broadest terms, it’s safe to say both endeared themselves to me through their oddness, twisted hominess, smartness, and otherworldliness. They’re stylish and easy to take in but filled with layers of meaning and enigmas that take multiple viewings/readings to sort. Of course that’s fun. And of course I’m missing a zillion references, not just from Twin Peaks. There’s lots from 2001 (I’ve never seen it, though I grilled my husband about HAL) and even, apparently, Aelita, which I read in my pre-blog life (there was such a time!) but don’t remember well.

Thinking back to the atmosphere(s) in The Four got me pondering (yet again) (sub)genres like speculative fiction, slipstream fiction, and new weird, largely because they tend to bend. This brought back Dmitry Olshansky’s NatsBest review, which I’ll summarize as calling The Four interesting but unsuccessful; he reads it as a B-movie sort of thriller with some artsy moments thanks to the Vvedensky and Gumilev bits. I would argue (for starters) that Pelevin’s ability to lift his wonderfully pulpy-sounding material by working the poetry – plus references to classic science fiction books and films – into not one but three plotlines goes well beyond the demands of a b thriller. Even better, Pelevin does all that without making me feel manipulated. To the contrary: I found The Four pretty stimulating and am still flipping through it to pick up on humor, ruminate on genre questions, and track motif mentions and starts of idea threads that I missed because I was so caught up in the plots. And then Pelevin’s play with time – the stasis years are an existential time warp unto themselves, plus the three plots link up – reminded me of, among others, Vodolazkin, who also mentions a plethora of cats in Crimea. (Cats!) Finally, I have to agree with another NatsBest reviewer, Natasha Romanova, that The Four’s Crimean detective track recalls Lev Ovalov’s Major Pronin novels, which I enjoyed three of in my pre-blog life.

I’ll close by saying that a kind friend with a big suitcase brought me another Pelevin novel that I’ll read soon. My recent contemplation of how I read has shown me that I’m more oriented on authors’ worldviews than ever before – books and stories by Alexei Salnikov and Evgenia Nekrasova, which are also about weird places and hidden aspects of the universe(s), are exhibits A and B – so I’m planning to read that (and perhaps Pelevin’s debut novel, too) before returning to The Four. Beyond wanting to decipher more of the novel as a whole, I want very much to be in that spaceship again with Lazarev, so far from home and trying not to think about Earth. (Ah, floaty existential moments!) Perhaps that’s why he balks when Aurora goes haywire for a bit and recites “Guest on a Horse,” a poem whose last sentence, in Eugene Ostashevsky’s translation for New York Review Books, is “I forgot about existence,/ I again/ contemplated/ the distance.”

Disclaimers and Disclosures: Huge thanks to the very kind colleague who brought me a copy of Четверо. (He brought me another NatsBest finalist, too, Alexander Etoev’s Я буду всегда с тобой (I’ll Always Be With You), though I’ve set that one aside, at least for now, after seventy-five pages. It just couldn’t hold my attention after The Four.) Thank you to New York Review Books for sending me, several years ago, a copy of An Invitation for Me to Think, a selection of poems by Alexander Vvedensky translated by Eugene Ostashevsky and Matvei Yankelevich. Ostashevsky’s introduction has been useful since the Vvedensky is clearly a key to The Four. Vvedensky and his бессмыслица (Ostashevsky suggests meaningless, absurdity, and nonsense as translations), which I know so painfully little about, are sucking me in. 

Up Next: Evgenia Nekrasova’s Kalechina-Malechina and stories about more weird worlds.


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