As mentioned on last week’s podcast, and further elaborated on in this week’s one (BTW, you can subscribe to the Three Percent podcast at iTunes), Vladimir Sorokin was one of the authors I was most interested in seeing at the PEN World Voices Festival.
Way back when, I read his short, early novel The Queue in a Readers International edition, and at the time I found it pretty charming and inventive. The entire book is a play-like narrative about an endless number of people waiting in line to buy . . . something. They have no idea what’s for sale, how many will be available, or anything else. But they feel obliged to wait and find out. Out of this sort of dry, Soviet setting, an absurd, Beckett-like story develops in which people fall in love, leave the line, return to line, recite their number in line, stay in line for days . . . In short, a fun, entertaining little book.
Over the ensuing years, Sorokin’s reputation as the contemporary Russian author worth paying attention to has grown in leaps and bounds, mostly due to the portrayal of his books as shocking, offensive, aggressively anti-govermental, all the stuff that we (Americans, literary readers, seekers of the new) tend to gravitate towards.
When Ice came out from NYRB the other year, it was a pretty hotly anticipated book, although in the end, the reviews were fairly mixed, possibly due to its mostly non-political bent. (I’d also blame the fact that this was only the middle part of a trilogy. The book can stand alone by itself, but I think it will benefit from the larger scope of the trilogy.)
So this spring, when both FSG brought out Day of the Oprichnik and NYRB published the complete Ice Trilogy and Sorokin was selected to attend the World Voices Festival, it felt like his time had really come. Add to that this feature in the New York Times and it seemed like this was going to be Sorokin’s coming-out party. His real launch into the American literary scene.
It’ll be interesting to see how this all plays out . . . Day of Oprichnik is interesting, but not exactly what most American’s are looking for. I’m reading The Ice Trilogy
now, and find it more intriguing, but it’s also a complicated book for readers to get a handle on, since there are things about the cult that are simple and good-hearted, and things that are creepy as shit.
But before getting to that, I want to say that I wish the conversation between Keith Gessen of N+1 and Sorokin would’ve gone a bit smoother. Not that it was a bad event, but with Sorokin’s need to be translated and his meticulous, thoughtful, halting style of speaking, the conversation got a bit bogged down and Keith wasn’t really able to get to all the points he had obviously planned on. There was a lot of time spent talking about the beginning of his career, especially about Norma, in which the first 100 pages contain scene after domestic scene in which all the characters end up eating a little package of shit . . . They also talked about the literary underground and The Queue, but most of the new works were left out when time ran out . . .
Hopefully Gessen and Sorokin will do a written conversation at some point. Keith’s a very perceptive reader, and I think he would be able to frame Sorokin’s importance in a very meaningful way that would really help draw people to his works.
Although it was a bit disturbing—because the book is a bit disturbing—I think the performance of Ice worked a bit better. This event took place an hour after the conversation, and much of the audience was the same as at the first event. It was directed by Kornel Mundruczo from Hungary and took place in the Old Gymnasium. Setting wasn’t ideal—the actor and actresses read from a table on the same level as the seats, so for short people like me, we weren’t able to see all that much—nevertheless, it was very well-done, especially considering that their first rehearsal was on Tuesday . . .
Not to give away everything, but Ice (and the trilogy as a whole) is about a cult that aims to “awaken the hearts” of the 23,000 chosen people. They believe that once your heart is awoken, you can understand all the “heart words” and that once all 23,000 members are found, the world will be transformed into something beautiful and hippy and stuff.
All sounds pretty good, right? Well . . . the way they determine whether you’re “chosen” or not is by pounding the shit out of your chest with a hammer containing a piece of the ice meteor left by the Tunguska event. If you heart speaks its true name, then you’re saved! If not, you die. Creepy, no? And all the chosen people have blond hair and blue eyes, naturally.
The coolest moment of the performance was at the end, when the cult’s workings have been revealed and they’re expanding their search for the 23,000. At that moment, a screen dropped down and the best faux informercial I’ve ever seen was projected on it. The ad was for the ICE Machine, which looked like a rubber s&m sort of chestplate with a chunk of ice over your sternum, which, when plugged in, would repeatedly pound you and awaken your heart. It was perfectly spot-on in the way it kept cutting away to an image of the ICE Machine floating against a black background, available for only $230 by calling 23-23-223-23-23 . . .
As intended, this performance got me psyched to read the whole trilogy, so expect a formal review at Three Percent in the next few weeks . . .
Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .
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Let’s not deceive ourselves, man is nothing very special. In fact, there are so many of us that our governments don’t know what to do with us at all. Six billion humans on the planet and only six or seven. . .
“Rambling Jack—what’s that?”
“A novel. Novella, I guess.”
“Yeah, it looks short. What is it, a hundred pages?”
“Sorta. It’s a duel language book, so really, only about… 50 pages total.”
“And this—what. . .