I thought I had given up on Pelevin completely when I abandoned his novel Snuff (still not available in English), which read like clumsy Young Adult sci-fi with marginally funny political jokes and the indispensable chastisement of popular culture by ironic subversion of its memes. Mind you, I used to hold this writer in very high esteem when his first works appeared in the 1990s. That was his heyday. I still think that the best thing he has ever penned is Buddha’s Little Finger AKA The Clay Machine-Gun. However, it’s been a while since I read it, and I have no idea what I will make of this novel if I re-read it. The first review published on this blog, if you remember, was that of Vladimir Sorokin’s Telluria. My main gripe with it was the repetitiveness of the plot, the characters, the ideas, well, pretty much everything. The same could be said about most of Pelevin’s novels since Homo Zapiens. The painfully familiar patterns keep emerging in each new novel whose main character is yet another adept of secret knowledge (e.g. a ‘shroom-ingesting visionary copywriter, a werewolf, a vampire) who exposes the illusory character of what we are accustomed to calling reality and leads us to some zen-like revelation, taking a dig at the most topical political and cultural issues in Russia on the way. Nothing new in this respect could be said of his latest novel. Nonetheless, since I did finish it, and even liked certain things about it, I thought I would share my impressions with you.
The title refers to Sergei Prokofiev’s opera The Love for Three Oranges which is based on Carlo Gozzi’s fairy tale play of the same name. More exegesis-prone readers will correct me, but I think that here the resemblance between the two works ends. If you haven’t guessed it yet, the zuckerbrin of the title is a portmanteau word combing the last names of the Facebook creator and of one of the co-founders of Google. As usual, Pelevin tries to be at the bleeding edge of all the major trends in our society; hence a lot of attention in the novel is devoted to that integral part of our existence which we spend online.
The first deja-vu comes with the narrator. Like so many of his predecessors in Pelevin’s previous works, he also becomes an adept of secret knowledge. By following some meditative practice discovered in esoteric reading matter left to him by a deceased relative, the young man turns into a quasi-omniscient being who can penetrate the thoughts of other humans and influence their actions. The guy realizes that now he is a Kyklops (the spelling of Cyclops dating back to the Greek original), a being of a higher order whose primary task is to keep the world in balance by preventing the occurrence of certain events which can lead to serious historical cataclysms. One of the examples given early on is the fact that the outcome of the recent coup d’état in Ukraine depended on whether a certain woman would take with her an umbrella or not. Everybody who’s at least seen the movie The Butterfly Effect will roll their eyes at this. Yes, and that’s my major beef with the new novel. I don’t know how many readers will learn for the first time from The Love for Three Zuckerbrins about Ray Bradbury’s famous short story, the lepidoptera causing hurricanes, the multiple universes, and the half-dead feline named after the Nobel-winning Austrian physicist. Perhaps they will get excited at the way Pelevin weaves these scientifically charged themes into the fabric of his narrative. As for those who might have heard something about all of this: well, they will have to suppress a yawn or two. Considering the hyper-newness of many events mentioned in the story, this recourse to rather hackneyed tropes massively abused in tons of science fiction novels before does not look very congruent. Especially, if these ideas are presented and “explained” by the Russian writer in a very direct way. It seemed as if Pelevin himself had just recently discovered the popular explications of the basics of chaos theory and quantum physics, and was eager to share these findings with the reader.
The said hyper-newness is, in fact, a staple of any Pelevin novel, and this is something I really like about his works, although, of course, you have to be aware of all the relevant recent events to get that particular aspect of his books. To achieve this effect, Pelevin apparently adds some hot information to the manuscript when the new novel is already finished. What it boils down to is that you read in his books about some event that you have just recently seen discussed on television or in newspapers. You think to yourself: “It happened, like, several months ago, and it is already in a Pelevin book! How come?!” Those with insider knowledge will understand what I’m talking about. Pelevin is really good at provoking such a reaction from his reader. Of course, those reading the translations will never experience anything of the kind because of the time elapsed since the publication of the original. In the case of this novel, the riots in Kiev, the subsequent overthrow of President Yanukovych and the annexation of Crimea by Russia have for the narrator the same topicality as for the readers of the book.
The cosmological premise of the novel is underpinned by the scenario of the insanely popular video game Angry Birds. The Birds in the fictional universe of Pelevin are the archenemies of the Kyklops, believing him to be an evil god, and doing their best to destroy him through other unsuspecting people. However, they cannot harm the narrator directly as they live in a different dimension. The assassination attempts of the Birds are surreally depicted in a subverted Angry Birds fashion because it is the Birds which catapult different human beings at the green pig that stands for the hateful creator who is in reality none other than our narrator Kyklops. It might look pretty madcap to a newcomer to Pelevin’s oeuvre, but, again, those acquainted with his previous works will immediately spot a resemblance with the story Prince of Central Planning in which Pelevin drew heavily on the computer game Prince of Persia. Despite its silliness, I quite liked this use and abuse of the popular smartphone game because, in a way, it does reflect some of the current zeitgeist and definitely can be used as material for an alternative cosmological view.
The following passage describes the flight of one of the human projectiles launched by the Birds by means of a huge catapult:
While soaring in the sky, Nikolai gradually started to notice the traces of the preceding hits against the abode of the Creator — dents left on the mysterious substance of space-time. He didn’t know what it was in reality: his consciousness deciphered what he saw into imagery familiar to humans.
He wasn’t the first live projectile launched by the Birds into the Boar. Around what appeared to Nikolai as the ruins of the circular colonnade lay a multitude of corpses covered in red dust. Earlier he had taken them for outcrops in the soil.
It was an infernal dumping ground of freaks, harpies and chimaeras. Webbing, wings, clawed tails, many-toothed jaws, spines, stings… As if somebody’s evil will experimented with different shapes, trying to pick the lock of the final gate, crossing angels with swine. … The most gruesome, of course, were the small details: the dyed locks of wool, the rings in the forked ears, the jewelry piercing the eyelids and lips. … The garments and jewelry on some of the freaks suggested that the Birds had wiped out whole civilisations and cultures in order to test a new tip for their spear. And those live spearheads must have pondered in the light of the ancient stars: what force and for which purpose had brought them into being?
The novel consists of three novellas written by Kyklops and the meta-story linking them together. The longest novella has the English title Fuck the System and is a disturbing description of a future society with echoes of George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, the Alan Moor of V. for Vendetta and, most pertinently, the Wachowski siblings. The main character of this story portraying a Matrix-like society is a certain Kesha who used to be an inveterate Internet troll in his previous life three hundred years before. He and his social partner (a wife of sorts), like most of the denizens of this brave new world, live in a tiny cell in a cyclopic edifice called “cluster” which is several kilometres tall and from the outside looks like an enormous garbage dump.
It resembled a huge multi-storey installation composed of scratched beer cans, dirty balloons, patched nest boxes and milk cartons turned grey by time: that is how the individual lodging units looked; they had been manufactured at different times and attached to the common anti-gravitational base.
He is connected to the global control system by different cables and tubes which feed him, wash him, and extract his bodily fluids, while special wires implanted right into his brain keep him immersed in virtual reality indistinguishable from lived experience. This rather unoriginal scenario allows Pelevin to vent his sarcastic condemnation of all the major evils of the Internet from addiction to social networks to online pornography. This bleak futuristic world is ruled by the above-mentioned zuckerbrins, which are some kinds of algorithms that transfer power from one to another every second. The main engine of this narration derives from a very peculiar love triangle between Kesha, his social partner Marilyn and the avatar from Kesha’s virtual environment represented as a Japanese schoolgirl. As a corollary to the technological advances of this society Kesha does not have real physical relations with Marilyn as they meet each other and make love in the shared cyberscape, but experience physical pleasure with the help of the devices called respectively Google Dick and Google Pussy. In this particular future, the famous Internet-related services company has developed into a worldwide leader in the manufacture of prosthetic genitals. Kesha’s adultery is effected by superimposing the virtual image of the Japanese schoolgirl onto the virtual image of his wife. This captivating love adventure unrolls among the alarming reports of the cyberterrorist Batu Karayev insidiously wreaking havoc to the matrix by sending viruses to the servers maintaining the collective dream of the cluster dwellers. The nightmares triggered by Karayev’s program are so powerful that many of the dreamers actually die upon experiencing them. As many will rightly suppose, sooner or later the paths of Kesha and the elusive terrorist will cross.
The main events of this dystopian scenario unfolding in one of the countless universes have precedents in the framing narrative of Kyklops set in our time and some interesting reverberations in a completely different future world which appears to be a satirical version of the Biblical paradise. The whole picture may seem a bit confusing, but we shouldn’t forget that Pelevin is a writer who does not necessarily tie all the loose ends.
The novel was mostly panned by the Russian reviewers, and one can clearly see why. In terms of the plot, the characters and the major themes it adds very little to the previous works of Pelevin, and some of the moralising at the end will seem to many rather banal and dispensable. Nevertheless, the book has its moments (some of them very funny) and certainly deserves being translated with explanatory notes, so that the foreign reader will at least have an idea why some passages will make the context-aware Russian reader laugh out loud. By the way, compared to most of the previous novels, you will not find a single swear word in Russian in this novel, which is Pelevin’s sarcastic response to the recent absurd obscenity ban which prohibits swearing in Russian arts and media. So, for example, instead of writing “fucked”, the author left three asterisks with the footnote “the verb beginning with f used in the past tense”. And that is another proof that Pelevin, regardless of undeniable quality issues in his latest effort, still remains the most up-to-date Russian writer you will ever read.