Back a few years ago, New York Review Books released Ice, one of the first books by Russian literati bad boy Vladimir Sorokin to make its way into America. After all the hype surrounding Sorokin—for being the star of post-Glasnost Russian literature, for being well hated by the Putin Youth, for writing fairly offensive books involving people “eating packets of shit” and “fucking the earth”—this novel was a bit disappointing. Not that it was bad, just underwhelming.
In a way, it’s unfortunate that Ice ever came out as a standalone volume. Put in context between the novels Bro and 23,000 it feels much more expansive and spooky, making the whole project significantly more fascinating.
That said, this trilogy would work much better as a TV miniseries . . . It’s one of those books that I wish I could edit wholesale. I’d love to cut this book apart, partially restructure it, trim away some of the redundancies, speed up the overall pacing, and really play up the Lost-style creepiness.
So, rather than analyze the book as is, I’m going to spoil the whole thing right here and now by recounting the six-part miniseries version that exists in my mind:
Episode One: Open in Siberia 1908 with a woman in Russia giving birth to a baby boy who is born at almost the exact moment of the Tunguska event. Huge explosion in the sky, crazy colors. Should be disorienting and ominous. Camera leaves the intimacy of the house where Alexander was born to pan upwards to show a huge region of Siberia that’s been totally flattened by this mysterious event. By a huge ice meteor that’s now mostly buried in the permafrost.
In present times, Olga travels to Israel to meet Bjorn, a man that she met through a online message board for people who have suffered and survived the “Ice Hammer.” When they meet, they show each other these strange scars on their breastbones. Every time Olga touches her chest, we get a flashback to a time when she was tricked and drugged and bashed in the chest with an “ice hammer” (a stick with a chunk of ice at the end of it) by some strange blond haired and blue eyed people who keep urging her to “speak with her heart.” She was left for dead, and is now determined to figure out who the fuck these people are.
These flashbacks correspond with the story they hear from the old man they go to meet—a dying Jew who, during WWII, was part of a group of kids pulled from a camp and taken to the woods where several are smashed in the chests with ice hammers. He describes two ancient, almost otherworldly people who seemed to be in charge, and watched the smashing in silence, with serenely creepy looks on their faces. Episode ends with the camera focusing in on their faces.
Episode Two: Alexander (born at the start of episode one) is now in college. He pines after a pretty young thing, but she’s all wrapped up in Kulik, a renegade science professor who is determined to find the Tungus meteor. As a way of impressing the girl, Alexander joins up with Kulik’s latest expedition into Siberia. There are trials, tribulations, and as they grow closer to the spot where the meteor landed, Alexander falls into a fugue state resulting in his being separated from the rest of the group. Wandering around, he is drawn to a particular swampy area where he uncovers the Tungus ice meteor. He falls upon the ice, feels his heart “awaken,” finds out his true name is “Bro,” and hears an otherworldly voice explain how once upon a time there were 23,000 “Light-bearing rays” that created all the worlds of the universe. Their one mistake was creating Earth, which was filled with “disharmonious water.” Because of the water’s mirror-like qualities, the 23,000 rays of light get trapped, become humans, cause violence, fuck shit up, etc. There is a solution though! Once the hearts of all 23,000 “rays” are awoken and learn all the “heart words,” they can form a huge circle and the universe will be reborn in healthy, sublime light. It’s like hippy paradise. (See pages 77-80 for the complete new age description.)
Back in current times, Olga and Bjorn are in Guangzhou having dinner with Michael Laird, another ice hammer survivor. He explains a bit more to them about the Brotherhood of the Light and the way they use the ICE Corporation as a front to find the 23,000 who will awake and turn into light, etc., etc. When Olga asks why Michael and his fellow investigators are in Guangzhou, he explains that this is where the Brotherhood is based, where the 23,000 are going to gather and bring about the new world. They toast to the “resistance,” the Michael puts down his glass without taking a sip, and Olga and Bjorn slump to the floor. A waiter ties up Olga’s and Bjorn’s hands and carry them out of the restaurant.
Episode Three: Bro leaves the swamp with a huge chunk of the Tungus ice, in search of some guidance as to how to start this rebirthing process. He finds a girl; in his eyes, her chest glows. He bashes her with some ice (thank you very much!) and “Fer’s” heart is awoken. They embrace in a loving, still asexual way as their hearts speak to one another. In a Zen bliss that’s as creepy as it is content, they wander Siberia, discovering other chosen people, and indoctrinating them into the Brotherhood by slamming them with ice until their heart speaks their true name. During this phase of the Brotherhood, there’s a lot of “heart conversations” and weeping over the sadness of the world. There’s also a lot of hope—these people truly believe that they will bring about universal nirvana. They are sweet, totally asexual, and operate in a sort of benevolent hive-mind fashion. Their numbers grow slowly, but since Fer & Bro (when together) can see exactly who is a chosen person and who isn’t, they are extremely efficient in their operations. But then Fer dies . . .
Olga and Bjorn are now working in the “Dead Bitches Factory” where they skin dead dogs in order to make the straps for the ice hammers. There are 189 people trapped in this underground factory filled with hanging dogs and sterile jail-cell dormitories. Olga tries to rebel, yelling “Fuck you!” at one of the cameras. A bunch of Chinese men flood into the factory and tase the shit out of her. Fade to black.
Episode Four: After the passing of Fer, the Brotherhood searches for another person with her abilities. Eventually, they awaken Khram, who sort of has the gift of being able to identify other “rays of light,” but not really. So the Brotherhood starts kidnapping and bashing all sorts of blond-haired, blue-eyed people in search of new members and the heartmate that would enhance Khram’s abilities. Bro dies and it’s up to her to lead the Brotherhood on the path toward 23,000. Their numbers increase steadily through random attempts, but it’s slow going through Soviet times when they face persecution from a few sides. Nevertheless, when people’s hearts are awoken, the Brotherhood takes care of them physically and financially, and they all have a chance to do some naked (non-sexual) heart-bonding. And based on the looks on their faces, this is some good stuff.
A really old man invites Olga to sit with him during lunch. She’s still a bit discombobulated from the post-outburst beatdown, but she senses that this man knows more than he’s letting on. The guy—Ernst Wolf—ends up explaining that his father is one of the main leaders of the Brotherhood. Ernst ended up down here after he was bashed at age 17 and it was determined that he was an “empty shell,” and not one of the rays of light. He tells Olga about a time he saw his father and 22 others in a small circle, unmoving, speaking with their hearts, etc. Ernst trying to disrupt the hippy heart speak by hitting his father with a red-hot poker, but his dad didn’t even flinch, even as his skin burned. Ernst believes in the Great Transformation of the 23,000. But he also thinks this could be very bad shit. As he’s carted off to be killed (sub-plot: Ernst has cancer, no one who is sick can remain in the factory, etc.), he slips Olga a note and a key to a possible way out.
Episode ends with an infomercial for the ICE Machine—a high-tech flak jacket complete with an “ice chamber” over the middle that, once you put this on and plug it in, bashes you in the chest until your heart wakes up and you hallucinate a circle of happy people. According to the infomercial, this device will fix all the world’s problems—violence, depression, anxiety, pain—thanks to the special qualities of the Tungus ice. This is obviously an extremely quick way for the Brotherhood to find their 23,000, and a perfect front for all their questionable activities . . .
Episode Five: Opens with a young, possibly mentally challenged boy waking up and searching for his mom. She’s mysteriously disappeared, so he tries to get his own breakfast. As he falls from the stove while reaching for the cupboard, a man catches him. They talk for a minute, and the man reassures the boy that his mom is visiting her sister, that she sent the man to bring the boy there. Everything seems sweet and on the up-and-up. The boy asks what’s in the man’s suitcase: “Nothing,” he says with a laugh, as he gasses the boy and stuffs him into the suitcase.
We find out through conversations among the leader of the ICE Corporation that there are only a handful of people left to find, the main one being a young boy who is pretty much the Brotherhood Jesus. This boy is en route to their headquarters where his heart will be awoken and Khram can pump some heart-knowledge into him. Once he arrives and the last few people are bashed awake, the ICE suits turn some keys in a special circular device, and around the world people are notified via cellphones and whatnot that it’s time for the Great Transformation. They all start heading to China . . .
Olga enlists Bjorn in her escape plan. They use the key to open the special passageway and make a run for the surface. Alarms go off, and after lots of running around in air vents and trying to find a way out via a secret elevator, Michael Laird captures them and tells them that he needs their help.
Episode Six: Starts right where #5 left off. Michael brings Olga and Bjorn into a room and explains the Brotherhood, the joy of becoming light, the rebirth of the world, the end to all problems, how they’re correcting the one great mistake, that this is all good shit, etc. Over the course of this conversation, Olga and Bjorn’s demeanor changes. They seem to be more at peace . . . almost happy. Michael tells them that he needs them to hold the two weaker members of the brotherhood (two children) in the circle so that all 23,000 hearts can speak the 23 heart words 23 times and the world comes to a blissful end. Won over by the simplicity of Michael’s viewpoint and the enveloping calmness that he exudes, they agree.
On a marble covered island, 23,000 naked people start joining hands. All is silent as they assume the lotus position. Everything is peaceful, calm. There is a low level buzzing. Olga and Bjorn are on opposite sides of the circle, each with a young kid on their lap, giving off the best vibes they can. The screen goes white.
Olga is the first to awaken. Everything is extremely bright. She can’t really make out much of anything at first. As her eyes adjust, she notices that everyone around her is unconscious and flat on the earth. She checks the man next to her—dead. As is the woman next to him. In fact, they’re all dead. Everyone except for Bjorn. They repeat “By God” a series of times (“By God?” “By God.” “By God!”), join hands, and walk off.
OK, that interpretation may be a bit self-indulgent, but the point is that there’s something fundamentally interesting about Sorokin’s trilogy. When I saw the play version of Ice in New York last month, I was struck by just how adaptable this material is—a testament to the fact that Sorokin has tapped into something.
(I don’t think I did this justice, but there’s a great tension among the innocent beliefs of the Brotherhood, the sort of latent human desire to witness the end of the world and for this experience to be rapturous, and the hyperviolent and invasive way in which the Brotherhood finds its members.)
That said, this trilogy is loaded with flaws and shortcomings. I mentioned this in my review of Day of the Oprichnik, but Sorokin’s use of italics is baffling and all over the place. For the most part, the prose itself is utilitarian to the point of awkwardness (“Later I dreamed about that lard. Dreamed I grabbed hold of it, but it was like the oat pudding they boil up for wakes—it slipped between my fingers!”), with the exception of three more “experimental” set-pieces, which, due to their brevity and uselessness in advancing the story, seem unnecessary and out-of-place. There’s a ton of repetition in these books, especially when someone’s heart is awoken—there must be two dozen near identical descriptions of how people are hit with an ice hammer until their heart speaks its name, then there’s the pressing of bare chests, the weeping, etc. Finally, the fixedly chronological telling of events can get rather boring, especially since the reader can see the end goal from a very early point and has to wade through all those repetitions to find out what happens . . .
This tension—between the compelling core of the trilogy and the less than amazing way in which it’s related—is what makes the Ice Trilogy so frustrating as an artistic object. It’s powerful stuff, but, at the risk of ending this epically long review with a crappy metaphor, the greatness of this book is like ice buried in the permafrost—chisel that all away and you’d have a very pretty object.