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Super Sad True Love Story

Vladimir Sorokin stands atop a list of Russian novelists, along with Tatyana Tolstaya, Victor Pelevin, and Victor Erofeyev, who have married an old-school sci-fi sensibility with American cyberpunk hipness to constitute the vanguard of literary social criticism in Moscow.  Sorokin’s Ice Trilogy not only established him as a progenitor of the form but garnered for him a reputation as Russia’s bad boy literary star, whose brazen challenges to authority and occasional pornographic content compelled the Putin Youth to dump his works into a giant makeshift toilet. His latest work, Day of the Oprichnik (translated by Jamey Gambrell) imagines a Moscow of 2028. The Red Troubles (presumably the Soviet era) are over, as are the White Troubles (whatever those might have been) that followed them, and the czarship has been restored. It is The Russian Revival, or, as characters refer to it, “Nowadays.” The oprichniki are the defenders of the oprichnina, literally “the place apart,” the moral core of the Motherland. This was an actual group, comprised of brutal enforcers during the reign of Ivan the Terrible in the middle of the 16th century. You can see where this is going.

When you enter a world like this, where an alternate history shapes an unexpected and probably fucked up future, when you have to piece together strange events and align them with those from your own world, you have to ask yourself two questions: what’s different, and how did it get this way? From the first scene we are thrust into an autocratic, nationalistic, Orthodox, and downright brutal government. All the old icons and superstitions have returned. The czar (who has repainted the Kremlin its old white) is hailed continuously, and God is impulsively and perpetually thanked for this unnamed leader’s political guidance and moral clarity. Technologically, people get their news from “bubbles,” speak on mobilovs, and drive Mercedovs (oprichniks fasten the severed heads of vicious dogs as grill ornaments, who snarl and bark in lieu of sirens). The news and the entertainment industry are monitored closely by representatives from the slew of government departments such as The Culture Chamber, The Literary Chamber, The Inner Circle, The Mind Department, the All-Russian Equine Society, The Association to Promote Air Flight, The Society of Russian Fisticuffs, The Malachite Chamber, and, of course, the Good Fellows.  Dissenters are punished, severely and thoroughly.

I love these genres because of the level of detail an author can engage. For me, this is the test of quality, and it operates down to the sentence and word level. It’s a writerly genre that can stimulate without too much attention even to its political elements. Sorokin subtly slips in bits of technology, film, radio, law and references to that alternate history  with a phrase here, clause there, that serve as a textured backdrop to the political commentary and plot. Here, that political and economic causality is engaged in interesting ways. It becomes very clear early on why Russia has reverted to its old paranoia. The oprichniks joke, “We drive Chinese Mercedovs, we fly on Chinese Boeings, His majesty likes to shoot ducks with Chinese guns…We make children on Chinese beds! We do our business on Chinese toilets!” In short China (much like in Gary Shteyngart’s recent novel Super Sad True Love Story) has reached the global economic hegemony that seems more and more inevitable. But the czar is able to sustain some autonomy via the Far Eastern Pipeline, which runs natural gas from East Asia to Europe (through the nicely renamed St. Petrograd). It is protected by The Road, a.k.a. The Guangzhou-Paris Highway, the nexus of the Russian economy, where slippery Chinese industrialists are fended off by the oprichniks, crooked business agreements, and The Great Wall, extending from Eastern Europe, across Siberia, to China.  In vintage totalitarian fashion, the protection of New Rus’ economic interests is framed as duty to God. The oprichnik general Batya explains it, in a nice stylistic flourish from Sorokin, toward the end of the novel:

Now you, my dear Enochs, you’re wondering, why was the Wall built, why are we fenced off, why did we burn our foreign passports, why are there different classes, why were intelligent machines changed to Cyrillic? To increase profits? To maintain order? For entertainment? For home and hearth? To create the big and beautiful? For fancy houses? For Moroccan leather boots, so everyone could tap their heels and clap? For all that’s good, true, and well made, so that there’d be plenty all around? To make the state as mighty as a pole from the heavenly tamarind tree? So that it supports the heavenly vault and the stars, goddamn it, so the stars and moon would shine, you sniveling scarecrow wolves, so that the warm wind would blow-not-stop-blowing on your asses, is that it? So your asses would stay nice and warm in your velvet pants? So your heads would feel cozy under their sable hats? So you sniveling wolves wouldn’t live by lies? So you’d run in herds, fast, straight, close together, most holy, obedient, so you’d harvest the grain on time, feed your brother, love your wives and children, is that it?

Batya pauses, inhales a good snort of white coke and washes it down with vodka.

Now you see, my dearest Enochs, that’s not what it was for. It was so the Christian faith would be preserved like a chaste treasure, you get it? For only we, the Orthodox, have preserved the church as Christ’s body on earth, a single church, sacred, conciliar, apostolic, and infallible, isn’t that right? That’s why His Majesty has built this magnificent Wall, in order to cut us off from stench and unbelievers, from the damned cyberpunks, from sodomites, Catholics, melancholiacs, from Buddhists, sadists, Satanists, and Marxists; from megamasturbators, fascists, pluralists, and atheists! For faith, you sniveling wolves, isn’t a change purse! It’s no brocaded caftan! No oak club! What is faith? Faith, my noisy ones – is a well of spring water, pure, clear, quiet, modest, powerful, and plentiful! You get it? Or should I repeat it to you?

Again, we know where this is going. And this is the sentence Sorokin seems to be muttering to himself as he watches Putin at work. But as readers we are as preoccupied with the rudiments of this other world as we are with the political message behind its depiction. Thus, the story that occurs within this world, a day in the life of oprichnik Andrei Danilovich, need not be overly plotted. We’re dealing with a tableau of events that unveils both the particulars of New Rus and how it came to be. In that sense it reminisces of Solzhenitsyn’s masterpiece One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and is no less frightening.

It begins with a dream, “always the same dream,” a rude awakening, and a swift hangover cure, as Andrei prepares for another day on the beat, enforcing government policies and punishing the crooked and malcontent. After he cleans up, shaves, dresses, and his butler fastens a wolf head to his Mercedov, he zips off to his first job – the seizure of a nobleman’s home, the beating and hanging of said nobleman in the front yard, the gang rape of his beautiful wife, the shipment of their children to an orphanage, and the firebombing of the property. As a first-person narrator, Andre reminds us of Burgess’ Alex from A Clockwork Orange, reveling in barbarity, justifying it with faux philosophy. But he has the simplicity and regular-guy attitude of a Murakami or Bolano narrator, walking you through his day routinely, providing sparse commentary on the tedium of certain activities. From the opening “purge” he moves on to prayer, then to a bath house where he injects a hallucinogenic goldfish called a golden sterlet into his brain (which induces, a la Alex, fantasies of future rape), to a shady bargain on The Road with Chinese industrialists, to a cultural monitoring session at the opera house, to a fortune-telling session with a clairvoyant who announces that Russia will be “all right,” to a foiled disruption of a dissenters’ rally, to a meeting with the czar’s wife (who rises at sundown and breakfasts for dinner). The day culminates at the oprichnik mess hall with a rompish ritual so grotesque and shocking (mixed with demoniacal justifications like the one quoted above) as to remind us of the true nature of these types of regimes.

This is all obviously about Putin, and what he could do. It reminds me of Brian McHale, who heralded science fiction as “the ontological genre par excellence.” But allegory aside, these types of genres are a narratologist’s dream, because one can spend an inordinate amount of time (even in a 190 page book like this one) teasing out the tiniest components of this unfamiliar world.  Sorokin manages this deftly here, and combined with his urgent social message and twisted scenes of brutality, this would make for a chilling film. The opening and closing scenes alone solidify this belief. A lot is at stake with this novel, and Sorokin pulls no punches. But for us on the outside, it has the simple pleasure of just being so cool.

Why do we make lists?  I tend to agree with Paul Tankard, who wrote in Prose Studies, “[A list makes] an implicit truth claim that subverts prose…a list in a novel is part of the fiction, a list in a poem is part of the poetry, but in both cases the list introduces a pragmatic element. What a list does in pragmatic circumstances it will seem to do in a literary circumstance. It stops us reading and starts us counting…It moves the reader, for a moment, outside literature.”  Or perhaps Umberto Eco’s thesis of his book on literary enumerations is more to the point: “we like lists because we don’t want to die.”

That pretty much accounts for the pragmatic elements.  But what about this “stepping outside of literature” business?  Every year around this time (especially since the advent of Twitter) we are flooded with Best-of-the-Year-Books lists.  This year was the first time I saw a few Best-of-the-Best-of-the-Year-Books-Lists-Lists.  Why?  Any discerning reader knows that you can’t just rank your favorite books, that nothing stacks up in a neat little row like that.  We need individual books to fulfill individual needs, and some do certain things really well that certain others can’t, or don’t intend to.  That’s the beauty of literature.  But here we are, and here I am, delivering my list.  I’ve been doing it independently since ’08, but I am glad to share with you my year in fiction.  The reason I (we?) do this is not too far from Eco’s – namely, we can take stock of how much we have read, but in doing so don’t we always become even more morbidly aware of how much we haven’t read, and how many more years like this there are to go?  Death would be a rather unfortunate inconvenience in the yearly reading campaign.

In the past, I’ve posted my broad results of yearly reading.  The lists included any book that I read that year, young or old.  This runs the risk, in the long term, of becoming repetitive.  That is, anytime I read Underworld, Infinite Jest, or The Brothers Karamazov (which I hope will occur often), they will automatically make the top five.  It’s nice to flaunt, but it’s completely unhelpful to a reader looking for my opinion on the best fiction of a given year (that is why you’re here, right?)  Now, I wish I could be like Maureen Corrigan or Ron Charles and have a hundred books delivered to my door every week for review. I wish I could come from a place of having read all the relevant novels of the year.  That’s not the case.  I missed new ones from Tom McCarthy, Emma Donoghue, Jennifer Egan, David Grossman, Louise Erdrich, and John Banville, among many others. Still, I feel like I’ve been lucky enough to have read five novels that many would agree are “Best Of.”  But since I don’t have high authority, I feel unqualified to label this a “Best Of” list.  So, like Oprah, I give you my Year-End Favorites.

The first question most newspapers, magazines, and blogs have asked is, “Will Freedom make it?”  The literary event of the year has made mine, perhaps because of its literary-event-of-the-year status.  It’s too important to ignore.  So, I’ll begin there.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.  Franzen may not be The Great American Novelist the way Time has set him up to be (only Time will tell if that is true).  But he is a great stylist, and his sentences make the book.  His characters are deplorable and spend most of the novel engaged in one Girardian mimetic triangle after another, repeating the mistakes of their parents, with potentially ruinous effects. I have friends who hate the novel on the grounds that they believe that Franzen actually likes these people and hates pretty much everyone else. A certain snobbishness does pervade, but it can be overlooked thanks to the same type of page-turning fun that characterized The Corrections and the scathing satire of his near impeccably crafted sentences.

Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields.  So, I cheated.  Shields’ portentous rap against the state of fiction in favor of memoir is technically nonfiction, but it’s so artfully produced that I must comment.  Namely, he argues that contemporary fiction, forty years after Barth’s “Literature of Exhaustion” is, finally, exhausted.  Memoir, in its emotional authenticity and basis in fact, is gaining more steam by the year.  While he’s at it, he spends a good deal of time addressing the issue of plagiarism, i.e., if we’re dealing with memoir, how much can be made up, borrowed, stolen, etc.?  In his opinion, anything goes.  The content of the argument is relatively compelling, but about halfway through the book you have an epiphany.  It has to do with the structure.  The book consists of twenty-six chapters, each named after a letter of the alphabet and dealing with issues of nonfiction (“overture,” “mimesis,” “reality,” “memory,” and “blur” are just a few of the chapter titles). Each chapter is comprised of a series of aphorisms ranging from a sentence to a paragraph in length.  There are 618 such aphorisms.  But, halfway through (or earlier, if you’re sharper than me), you realize that Shields didn’t write any of these aphorisms.  They are all lifted from somebody else.  No quotation marks, no citations.  I can’t tell you how much this added to the reading experience.  I hadn’t encountered anything quite like it.  To Shields’ dismay, he was forced to include a works-cited appendix at the end, slightly undermining his argument for total and credit-less sharing.  I was still compelled, if not convinced.

Solar by Ian McEwan.  “The Master of the Macabre” surprised me here with an homage to Updike and Rabbit Angstrom in the figure of Michael Beard, a Nobel laureate who is charged with the task of solving global warming.  He has more than a few problems, though, mostly pertaining to the amount of potato chips (and women) he consumes.  This sets the stage for a Rabelaisan romp that, stylistically as well as structurally, provides laughs at nearly every turn.  Ultimately, the bureaucracies whose job it is to solve the world’s problems are bitterly satirized here in a refreshing turn from the recent darkness of On Chesil Beach.

Zero History by William Gibson.  “The Bigend Trilogy” concludes with a journey into London’s underground fashion trade.  At the center of it all is multi-billionaire Hubertus Bigend, whose single goal in life is to fulfill his many curiosities. Here, it is, in an elaboration on the idea of pattern recognition (also the title of the first novel in the series), a fascination with predicting trends in the market.  That fascination manifests itself in an attempt to corner mass produced military wear for civilians.  This is vintage Gibson, a commentary on the simulacrous state of consumerism, the invisible workings of desire and demand.  But can those workings be manipulated?  In addition to all this, Gibson is so enjoyable because he brokers in cool.  Apple products and Twitter pervade the novel, as well as a good amount of motorcycle courier-ing.  His comments at his reading in D.C. this fall tell us the most, however.  “For anyone serious about writing,” he asserted, “genre is only useful as a narrative strategy.” This best sums up this recent trilogy.  He deftly made the transition from out-and-out SF into what a London writer called, in reference to Spook Country (the second part of the trilogy), “one of the most important books of the decade.”  Count that for all three.

And the winner is (but who’s counting?)…

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart.  I will re-post my review from the summer here:

Until three days ago, I had not read anything by Gary Shteyngart.  But, true to form, the YouTube trailer of Super Sad True Love Story (released July 27) intrigued me enough to spend my birthday money on it. I was aware of Shteyngart’s propensity for hilarity, and this novel delivers.  But it was layered in unexpected ways.  It is the story of Lenny Abramov, an – ahem – middle-aged Russian-American with a taste for books.  Only, in Lenny’s America, books have become physically repulsive (they stink), and every citizen is perpetually linked to his or her apparat, a media streamer good for all things data and entertainment.  Reading has been replaced by “text scanning for data”; dollars are now “yuan-pegged” due to China’s global economic dominance; Credit Poles are set up in public spaces, which flash people’s credit scores as they walk by; people are subsequently divided into HNWI, and LNWI groups (High/Low Net Worth Individuals), your membership of which determines your social prospects; similarly, women’s “Fuckability” and “Personality,” their apparently only two appealing traits, are broadcast by their apparats; like David Foster Wallace’s near-future, Shteyngart’s is saturated with acronyms and product placement, with the vulgarity turned way up.  JK (“just kidding”) is replaced with JBF (“just butt-fucking”), and name brands such as Polo and J. Crew are replaced with AssLuxury and JuicyPussy. Americans get their news from Fox-Liberty Prime and Fox-Liberty Ultra (“the Fox”). This alone indicates the hyper-conservate policies that run Abramov’s America, a nicely woven sub-plot that comes to a surprising head by novel’s end.  Citizens are constantly screened for their credit ratings and, if returning from abroad, for how many foreigners they’ve slept with. Almost precisely this happens to Abramov, whose story centers on his love for Eunice Park, a Korean-American he falls for while abroad in Rome for a year.  The narrative is told from their alternating perspectives – one chapter will be comprised entirely of his diary entries, the next by her e-mails and online chats.  A nice dichotomy between old and young, literate and “post-literate.”

And ultimately, that’s what this book ends up being about.  The gaps (emotionally and technologically) between generations (Abramov works for a company that helps people try to live forever), and the (im)possibility of love, romantic or otherwise, between them.  Amid his satirical romp that lampoons, cleverly, the future of American political and consumer society, Shteyngart rounds the narrative out to address what Abramov realizes are life’s only two truths: my existence and my demise.  This novel shows us that how we get from the former to the latter is, yes, a super sad true love story.