Conspiratorial Realism: On Vladimir Sorokin, Victor Pelevin, and Russia’s Post-Postmodern Turn
By Maya VinokourAugust 23, 2017
This post-postmodern turn in Russian fiction reflects recent cultural developments both inside and outside of Russia. Far from hastening the final collapse of narrative, social-media-fueled information overload and the discrediting of traditional sources of authority have given it new life. After decades of fragmentation, emotional detachment, and winking irony, conventional storytelling is back with a vengeance. It’s in your YouTube vlogs, inspiring you to follow the lives of internet strangers with earnest enthusiasm. It’s in your fiction, getting you to suspend your disbelief and feel something real for a change. And, of course, it’s in your politics, lurking behind every newly influential Breitbart headline.
In accordance with this trend, Sorokin and Pelevin center their novels on the life and death of all kinds of stories, from literary canons to state ideologies. Sorokin’s Manaraga, named after a peak in the northern Ural Mountains, takes place in a not-too-distant cyberpunk future. As one character helpfully notes, it has been 92 years since the historical rupture of 1945, meaning it is 2037 — a scant two decades ahead of the extradiegetic present. Having eked out a narrow victory in an apocalyptic conflict with an unspecified Islamic foe, the West is tentatively beginning to reconstruct itself. Desperate for entertainment after years of privation and bloodshed, the global elite has turned to “book’n’grills,” in which outlaw “chefs” prepare thematic feasts over flames kindled with first editions of literary classics, colloquially known as “logs.”
Conventional books are now the purview of museums, archives, and enterprising lawbreakers, like Manaraga’s first-person narrator, Geza Yasnodvorsky. In the absence of books themselves, humanity’s thirst for narrative is undiminished. It’s just that, as Geza puts it, “the age of Gutenberg has ended with the triumph of electricity.” At first, scorching books for fun and profit was perfectly legal. Within half a year’s time, however, “humanity had to declare the book’n’grill a crime not only against culture, but against civilization as a whole.” It was then that Geza and his fellow “chefs” were forced underground, and into narrow professional specialties.
Geza’s forte is Russian literature, though he has never read a single Russian novel. Luckily, he “knows all the classics by heart” — thanks to expensive subcutaneous implants known as “smart fleas.” Like Douglas Adams’s intergalactic hitchhikers, residents of Sorokin’s 2037 have centuries of accumulated knowledge at their neuron-tips, though not everyone can afford the privilege of a fully electrified brain. Geza’s own erudition comes at a steep price: he must periodically upgrade his “fleas” or risk losing the mental acuity that enables him to stay one step ahead of the law.
Sorokin uses his peripatetic protagonist to take us on a picaresque tour of the brave new world of 2037. This technique recalls the gallery of grotesques Nikolai Gogol unfurls in his classic picaresque epic Dead Souls (1842), a work Geza speculates would go great with a nice rib eye. But the amusing vignettes that fill the first half of Manaraga are mere appetizers for the conspiratorial main course. As it turns out, there is a plot afoot to render the artisanal book’n’grilling perfected by Geza and his peers obsolete. Deep within frosty Manaraga, a renegade chef named Henri has created a machine that will mass-produce first editions, starting with Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada — itself an alternative history set on an anti-Earth called Demonia.
After luring Geza to his lair, Henri drugs him and surgically divests him of his “fleas.” Geza’s mind becomes slow and plodding, which simultaneously frustrates Henri’s attempts to engage him in Bond-villain-style repartee and aptly illustrates the pitfalls of intellectual outsourcing. Henri’s dream of transforming book’n’grills from an illicit luxury into a widely accessible, decriminalized bourgeois amusement does not impress the purist Geza. Realizing that his rival will never join him voluntarily, Henri knocks him out again and implants him with a new, more agreeable “flea.” Resistance becomes not merely futile, but literally unthinkable.
At first glance, Sorokin’s novel appears to cap off a series of postmodern experiments that began with The Norm (1979–1983), which reimagined Leonid Brezhnev’s Russia as a place where every citizen is required by law to ingest a daily “norm” of human feces. Many of Sorokin’s other novels caricature cultural consumption by equating it with cannibalism or drug addiction. No less opposed to pure aestheticism than one of his own frequent targets — Leo Tolstoy in his dotage — Sorokin has spent much of his literary career trying to break readers’ dependence on narrative convention. Marina’s Thirtieth Love (1982–1984), for example, is a seemingly ordinary bildungsroman — until its heroine joins the Party, whereupon the novel abandons all pretense of plot and dissolves into leaden bureaucratese. Since the early 2000s, Sorokin has deployed his postmodern toolkit of puns and pastiche to larger allegorical ends, as in Day of the Oprichnik (2006), another near-future dystopia that follows a member of the neo-medieval tsar’s inner circle as he goes about his daily routine of murder and rape.
If Oprichnik is post-postmodern prophecy, Manaraga belongs to an equally atavistic genre: the manifesto. Beneath its postmodern trappings, Manaraga cries out against the injustice of corporate fat cats co-opting high art for personal gain. Never mind that Geza’s “art” is itself destructive, reducing to pork-flavored dust the remnants of a global cultural legacy already decimated by war and neglect. This twist demonstrates that Sorokin is still a master of postmodern irony, who is fully conscious of the cultural degradation his generation inherited. Depressingly, the virtual illiteracy of his characters only encourages their obsession with “the classics”: their obliteration of volumes by Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky is predicated on a primitive, unreflective reverence for these authors. Meanwhile, the literature Geza and his clients deem second-rate — including Soviet-era Socialist Realism and everything written after 1991 — is priced in bulk or simply left to biodegrade. By drawing a clear parallel between the technological annihilation of Geza’s consciousness and the commodification of his craft, Sorokin suggests that the grand cultural narrative ends not with a bang, but with a whimper: not in an orgy of postmodern experimentation, but with the triumph of cold, hard cash.
Like Sorokin, Pelevin made his name by concocting baroque postmodern confections. His mesmerizing dreamscapes typically modulate a seemingly genuine engagement with Russian history and Eastern philosophy with heavy doses of sarcasm and pop-cultural reference. Whereas Sorokin tends to focus his attention on the present or near future, Pelevin’s works often creatively reinterpret key episodes in Soviet and post-Soviet history. The short story “A World of Crystal” (1991) attributes Lenin’s infiltration of Petrograd in October 1917 to the inattentiveness of two Oskar Spengler–quoting, cocaine-addled officers, while the novel Generation P (1999) ascribes the chaos of the Boris Yeltsin years to the political elite’s allegiance to the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar, locally incarnated in ads for fizzy drinks and shady financial services.
The Lamp of Methuselah, or the Cheka’s Final Battle with the Freemasons is Pelevin’s most expansive project to date. The extravagantly titled four-part opus casts present-day Russia as an appendage of its own state security apparatus, especially the FSB (formerly the KGB, formerly the NKVD, formerly the GPU, originally the Cheka). The FSB, in turn, turns out to be in league with Freemasons, bearded hipsters, and otherworldly “reptiloids.” For all this apparent arbitrariness, Pelevin’s tale manages to be unusually communicative, as though the author ventured too far into the enchanted forest of postmodern irony and emerged on the other end as a sincere version of his previous self. In Methuselah, the conspiracy that links his many freakish characters and set pieces has assumed such vast proportions that it threatens to engulf the author himself. If readers can look past the surprisingly detailed descriptions of sex with planks of wood or the exhausting reptiloid monologues that occupy so many of the novel’s pages, they might find themselves wondering if Pelevin has started to believe in his own inventions.
Methuselah’s plot follows three generations of the Mozhaisky family, whose best-known real-life member was Imperial Navy admiral and aviation pioneer Alexander Mozhaisky (1825–1890). At the time of his death, Mozhaisky seems to have been mere months and perhaps one more government grant away from creating the world’s first steerable aircraft. Had he succeeded, he would have beaten the Wright brothers by at least a decade, a tantalizing possibility Soviet commentators rounded up to full heroism. For Pelevin, Mozhaisky’s status as a tragic also-ran, misunderstood in his own time, epitomizes Russia’s long history of poor timing. Though Alexander Mozhaisky himself never appears on the scene, his fictional namesakes inhabit an alternative history in which his steam-powered monoplane (outfitted with parts imported from the future by time-traveling FSB general Kapustin) really does take off. One of Methuselah’s central conspiracy theories, then, merely embroiders a fanciful Soviet “what if,” underscoring the protean nature of political ideology.
Wishful thinking animates many of the novel’s subplots, though it never seems to do the characters, or Russia, any good. The first part of the Methuselah charts the exploits of a self-described “minor lieutenant of Mammon,” the pornographically named Creampie Mozhaisky. A trader in gold by day, Creampie moonlights as an FSB informant and enabler of insider trading. After one of his tips robs his clients — including General Kapustin — of a significant sum, Creampie decides to commit suicide. But instead of killing him, the pills he takes transport him to an alternate dimension inhabited by giant golden beetles who obligingly return him to the world of the living. There, he finds himself barred from further gold trading and plagued by an uncontrollable lust for trees. Eventually, the beetles help Creampie overcome his affliction, and he lives happily ever after as a financial journalist on the Kremlin payroll.
Part two reads like a drug-fueled rewrite of Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler. Hapless 19th-century nobleman Markian Mozhaisky, having gambled away his meager funds and alienated the lady of his heart, is drinking himself to death at his dilapidated country estate. His superfluous man routine is suddenly interrupted by General Kapustin and friends, who arrive from the future to promise Markian untold riches in exchange for his cooperation. The FSB intends to bring Alexander Mozhaisky’s dreams of flight to fruition, giving Russia a head start in its 20th-century competition with the United States. (The FSB is unable to use the actual Alexander Mozhaisky for this purpose, Kapustin explains, for complex reasons relating to the logic of time travel.)
Eager to return to the roulette tables of Baden-Baden, Markian happily agrees. Soon, however, a group of 21st-century Americans shows up to call the Russians to account. We then learn that Russian Chekists and American Freemasons are fighting a proxy war between two alien civilizations: the so-called Beardos and a race of reptilian Feminazis, which Pelevin uses to immolate the straw man of “American political correctness” with Reddit-worthy zeal. Ultimately, the best-laid conspiracies of FSB agents and their bearded space patrons go awry: though the FSB succeeds in building a functional version of Mozhaisky’s aircraft, an impartial higher power neutralizes the historical intervention, leaving the present unchanged.
The penultimate section of Pelevin’s opus masquerades as a review of an academic volume by the fictional historian and philosopher I. P. Golgothsky, who has uncovered the true fate of Russian Freemasonry in the Soviet era. According to Golgothsky, after 1918 the Bolsheviks imprisoned all remaining Freemasons in a special gulag on Novaya Zemlia, an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. Instead of dying out, the inmates began to build a mystical portal into the next world under the leadership of Markian Mozhaisky’s son Methuselah, actually an agent of the NKVD. Under that agency’s patronage, the Freemasons toiled unmolested until shortly after Stalin’s death, when Nikita Khrushchev had the site bombed to smithereens.
The only artifact of this entire episode is the titular “lamp of Methuselah,” which, like Creampie’s “lumbersexuality,” is not a metaphor at all. Crafted from Methuselah’s tattooed skin, the lamp languishes in obscurity until the 2010s, when the FSB gifts it to the Western Masons in a botched attempt at rapprochement. This faux pas reignites the feud that plays out elsewhere in Pelevin’s novel — including in its final section, which sees General Kapustin taking a hallucinogenic journey to the seat of global Masonry, where his celestial overlords hasten to remind him of Russia’s insignificance. If the country disappeared, they claim, no one would notice; after all, Putin’s much-vaunted “Russian world” is “just that part of Facebook where they’re discussing the latest Star Wars film in Russian.” Russia’s role in world history, the cosmic deities continue, is neither artistic nor political. Rather, Russia is the “bear in the china shop” that creates just enough chaos to keep other nations in line. Meanwhile, it is the dollar, not the ruble, that actually rules all.
Unsatisfying though this assessment may be for Kapustin and his FSB colleagues, it represents the deepest point in Pelevin’s conspiratorial hall of mirrors — an inner sanctum his previous works tended to conceal or ignore. For all its outlandish bells and whistles (philosopher beetles! time travel! feminist lizard people!), Methuselah pursues the age-old agenda of the Russian intellectual: diagnosing the ills plaguing the “Russian idea.” In the past, Pelevin’s diagnoses have read as farcical send-ups of this cultural stance: as a diagnostician, he was never as dedicated to verisimilitude as he was to puns. By contrast, Methuselah’s network of FSB psychonauts, irascible Freemasons, and space reptiles seems so dedicated to internal consistency that it reads less like satire and more like the Unabomber manifesto. Pelevin’s apparent seriousness combines with his unwillingness to offer any prescriptions for the ills plaguing the contemporary world, leaving an impression of undiluted pessimism.
Like the classic 19th-century authors whose stylistic idiosyncrasies they so liberally sample, Pelevin and Sorokin take as a given that the world is fallen and see both fictional and political narrative as shorthand for civilization. Manaraga depicts a humanity that escapes extinction but fails to maintain more than the empty carapace of cultural production, while Methuselah dismisses Russia’s culture altogether as an embarrassing boondoggle. Yet their own contributions belie this diagnosis; both authors speculate on the demise of culture while taking full advantage of narrative’s explanatory potential. By building the elements of their respective stories into conspiracy theories they never get around to deconstructing, Pelevin and Sorokin implicitly acknowledge the reemergence of narrative as a useful tool for making sense of the world. Indeed, their latest offerings are perfectly suited to our post-factual moment.
For if you scratch the surface of our shiny new post-truth, you will find the old anxieties lurking beneath. Fatigue with informational fragmentation may have set in, but actual fragmentation continues apace, with niche products and identities trapping individuals in their respective filter bubbles. And distaste for old metanarratives has not diminished our instinctual craving for grand explanatory schemes. The result is a hybrid condition in which a voracious hunger for coherence coexists with a lingering mistrust in “mainstream” sources of information. Far from creating savvy consumers insusceptible to the temptations of narrative, postmodernism has primed us to believe in even the most outlandish nonsense, provided it tells a good story. We are now living in the age of informational parasites, from the viral “news” story to the bizarre conspiracy theory. Against this background, Sorokin and Pelevin have transformed their own postmodernism(s) into conspiratorial realism.
Maya Vinokour is a writer, editor, and translator based in New York City. She is the co-translator and co-editor (with Ainsley Morse and Maria Vassileva) of Linor Goralik’s Found Life: Poems, Stories, Comics, a Play, and an Interview (Columbia University Press, 2017).
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