Saturday, January 22, 2022

An Inelegant Potpourri: Fun With Genres for the n+1th time

Nancy Drew mysteries – along with A Wrinkle in Time – were some of my favorite books as a kid and I suspect they’re at the root of my continuing love for books that are commonly considered genre fiction. I’ve written before about my enjoyment of detective novels, science fiction, eighteenth-century Russian sentimentalism, and, yes, even socialist realism and am likely to write more on those topics in the coming months. That’s partly because last winter I bought an assortment of Russian genre fiction that, for better or worse, I set aside because of work-related reading. I’m now slowly working my way through that bin of my book cart, where there are, of course, some new additions. Here are some brief notes on a retro detective novel and a work of Soviet science fiction, plus a bonus book that was written in English.

I don’t often use the word “preposterous” to describe anything at all but I’ve found myself saying and writing it recently because it fits Alexander Belyaev’s Продавец воздуха (The Seller/Vendor of Air or The Air Seller in a translation by a certain Maria K.) so perfectly. The brief plot summary: meteorologist Klimenko and a local guide named Nikola are investigating odd changes in the weather in Yakutia but (suddenly!) are held against their will in a strange underground compound where a megalomaniac and proud capitalist named Mr. Bailey is condensing air with the intent to sell. Klimenko is pressed into service in a lab, where he fancies a young Swedish woman whose scientist father is a key part of the operation. Two mild spoilers: Klimenko doesn’t like being held captive and tries to escape and, yes, the Red Army saves the day in this novel from 1929! And the ultracold temperatures needed for the condensed air are put to, hm, interesting use. I had a million questions about practical issues like how this compound could have even been engineered and built (permafrost is only one concern) not to mention the plausibility of this one facility, which doesn’t sound very large, having such an impact on the climate that it affects atmospheric pressure and causes deaths. Maybe all that preposterousness is why I kept reading? That and the fact that there’s an odd genre blend – science fiction with an environmental twist and, in a sense, socialist realism – aptly sums up The Air Seller’s odd effects, though it did require me to suspend a lot of disbelief. Wikipedia has a plot summary with more details, including a big old spoiler on the modes of death for two important characters. I’m sure there will be more Belyaev on the way: I was finally able to find a copy of Amphibian Man.

Anton Chizh’s Опасная фамилия (A Dangerous Family/Surname) is also a peculiar blend of genres: it’s contemporary fiction, a retro detective novel set in 1897, but it’s also an homage, even (almost?) an alternate literary history sequel to none other than Anna Karenina. I bought the book because it was the earliest of Chizh’s Rodion Vanzarov series that I could buy. I didn’t read the description so imagine my surprise when I saw the cover illustration with a locomotive, a woman, and a portrait of Tolstoy... And then opened the book and found Karenins and Stiva Obolonsky in the first pages. The fun here is that Chizh picks up with Tolstoy’s characters twenty years after Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and investigator Vanzarov meets Serge Karenin, a suspect in the murder of his own father. And then Vanzarov starts having doubts about certain aspects of Anna Karenina’s death. Maybe I’m a mean person but I took great glee in finding that Levin’s not very popular. (And oof, poor Dolly and Kitty!) Chizh tosses in many subplots and includes the ballet business, railroad matters (!), country houses, and loads of St. Petersburg sites and atmosphere, adding up to lots of fun.

Since we’re on the topic of Anna Karenina and since there seem to be enough derivatives of the original Anna Karenina to claim there’s a genre of sorts, I’ll also add a quick note on Irina Reyn’s What Happened to Anna K., which I read last year. Reyn transfers the basics of Tolstoy’s plot to modern-day New York City, where Anna K. is married to a Russian-Jewish businessman. An early chapter called “The Great Russian Soul” felt almost eerily familiar and the book feels very much of its time and places thanks to mentions of (random page here) things like Borodinsky bread, Boris Akunin’s mystery novels, and Okudzhava’s music. Somehow – perhaps (maybe even probably) because What Happened looks so much at identity and cross-cultural matters? – Reyn works all sorts of New York and Russian details into the novel without making them feel gratuitous. Even better, though I knew how the book would end, how it had to end, it still got me. Reyn combines comedy and tragedy to good effect throughout.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual.

Up Next: Books by Dmitry Danilov and Kirill Ryabov, which both balance comic relief and serious incidents. And Leonid Yuzefovich’s The Philhellene. And, eventually, more genre fiction, with a historical novel about the Moscow plague riot in 1771.