Sunday, January 19, 2020

NOS(E) Award Winners

Last week, NOS(E) Award jurors debated finalists (shortlist post) and announced three winners. The main jury prize went to Alexander Stesin for his Нью-йоркский обход (New York Rounds), about a doctor working with diverse patients in New York and New Delhi. Readers’ chose Alexei Polyarinov’s Центр тяжести (Center of Gravity); the novel concerns a journalist, a hacker, and an artist. Finally, Linor Goralik won the critics’ award for her Все, способные дышать дыхание (All/Everybody Capable of Breathing a Breath), a mysterious book, both formally and thematically, that also made the Big Book shortlist but (alas, also “mysteriously”) just didn’t grab me.

Up Next: Two books in English (really!) and Mikhail Elizarov’s Земля (Earth).

Disclaimers: The usual. As a Big Book juror, I received an electronic copy of the Goralik book.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Another Angry Young Man: Khanov’s Rage

True to its title, Bulat Khanov’s Гнев (which could be Rage or Fury or Anger in English, take your wrathsome pick!) is anything but cheerful: this short novel is about an angry young academic who’s a specialist on the Russian avantgarde, a not-so-pleasant husband, and, well, a real jerk for much (maybe most?) of the book. Then again, though Gleb (holy martyrdom!) Veretinsky (yes, often mispronounced as “Vertinsky) may be an ass with a lot of “issues,” I can’t help but agree with him on certain things. Like irritating diminutives, which “recode” reality (“коньячок,” a diminutive of “cognac” gets his goat even more than it gets mine), or telling off his in-laws after they dis the meal his wife, Lida, made for her own birthday dinner. True, she’s made “navy macaroni” with a very non-traditional teriyaki sauce, but it is her birthday.

Lida, by the way, tells Gleb early in the book that he needs treatment (“лечиться надо”) and that he should be put in a cage, isolated. She tells him this after asking him to stop calling her “woman,” which isn’t a very polite form of direct address in Russian. Gleb says she’s gotten to him (“достала”) and then tells her to knock it off with her childishness, though, as I noted in the back of my book, Lida seems to want Gleb to parent her; but, then again, one of the book’s main plot threads involves her desire to become a parent. Getting there isn’t particularly pretty for several reasons and, anyway, Gleb seems to, let’s say, prefer more solitary pleasures.

Their real problem – you can probably already see patterns emerging here – is, to borrow from Valeria Pustovaya’s detailed “Счастливый хейтер” (which I have to call “The Happy Hater”) afterword, that Lida’s skirmish with Gleb shows (her) instinct butting heads with (his) “слово,” which can mean word, speech, and even, broadened, literature. Pustovaya is, of course, right: Gleb lives mostly within his own head but Lida’s all about flesh and blood, particularly since her job entails processing sales of food, the stuff that fuels and builds the body. No wonder they have such a love-hate relationship! This mind/body division is layered throughout Rage since Gleb tends to do well with thinking but not so well with getting along in real life. Speaking of which, social media come into play, too. As do, given Gleb’s specialty, Apollo and Dionysius.

I’ve cherrypicked and emphasized this layer of Rage for the sake of brevity. Khanov’s melding of an academic novel with dysfunctional relationships, Internet-inspired alienation, and a stark portrait of a generation (millennial) with Lida and Gleb as its representatives makes Rage a thoroughly unpleasant book on some levels. But it’s the sort of thoroughly unpleasant book that I tend to lap up, even if the flavor leans toward bitter or sour. Khanov sweetens everyday existential horror (like gift-giving, ouch!) with humor (see the afore-mentioned macaroni), Gleb’s occasional tenderness for Lida, and (oops, nearly forgot this!) satire. I may never have been an academic or cashier in Kazan, like Gleb and Lida, but many of the observations on human nature feel wretchedly familiar.

Given Gleb’s specialty, of course there’s plenty of discussion of the arts, too, particularly literature, but Khanov never allows anyone to natter on too long. And therein, dear readers, lies one of the reasons I took substantial pleasure in reading this unpleasant book, which strikes me as another example of what I see as a new, slightly cheerier and far more, hm, obviously fictional-feeling wave of chernukha, that realism I love even though it feels like watching a dark documentary. Rage is punchy and loaded with great material that Khanov smartly divides into relatively short chapters that lend themselves to well-placed and -paced pauses for digestion (I’m thinking like both Lida and Gleb here). Khanov sets the book over three months in 2017 and even if I’m still not quite sure what I read – I have unresolved and contradictory thoughts and feelings about Lida, Gleb, and their messages so feel the need to reread for more clarity – this short novel still won’t quite leave me alone, whether I think of it as Rage, Fury, or Anger. As a bonus, Khanov’s many wise formal decisions in Rage make me particularly interested in reading more of his work.

Disclaimers: The usual.

Up Next: Two books in English. Mikhail Elizarov’s long, long Земля (Earth). NOS(E) Award winners.