Moscow in a tuxedo” on my list of things to do in this life, I could now safely check it off. The sidestreet in front of the theater was a static maze of Benzes and Bentleys, with no place to pull up. Arriving as I was in a regular taxi, the jam gave me a face-saving chance to get off around the corner and hoof it to the red carpet from there.
The Russian GQ had rented out the theater, a hideous 1990s edifice glowing at the sidestreet’s end, to hold its Man of the Year awards: “the unofficial start,” in the breathless tabloid formulation, “of Moscow’s social season.” In New York, I don’t usually get to such events without a reporter’s pad. Here, I couldn’t have a deeper cover if I tried. I was a nominee in the Writer of the Year category.
A few months earlier in 2010, my novel Ground Up had come out in Russia, translated by my wife and myself and rechristened The Coffee Grinder for want of the needed pun in the Russian language. It only sold a few thousand copies, but they seemed to have been the right few thousand copies. There is a certain kind of Muscovite, mostly young, mostly employed in mass media, that eats and breathes New York; they glommed onto the book, which details a yuppie couple’s misfortunes on the Lower East Side, like it was Sex & the City – a guide in the guise of a novel. Given the demographic, the ratio of readers to reviews was close to one.
The other nominees in my category were Sergei Zhadan, Roman Senchin, Mikhail Elizarov, Andrei Astvatsaturov (whose last name I, in case I got the chance to thank the other nominees from the stage, had practiced for hours), Aleksandr Terekhov and Pavel Pepperstein. They comprised a remarkably accurate cross-section of the modern Russian literature.
There are two kinds of serious novel in Russia right now: “extreme” and phantasmagoric. The first kind deals with the most wretched dregs of the
society, which by implication stand in for the society as a whole. The reader, trained by decades of Aesopian Soviet satire, knows that if the novel’s action takes place in a mental ward, that mental ward is Russia; if it’s a prison, the prison is Russia; if it’s a tiny Siberian village populated by, say, cannibals, the village is Russia and the cannibals are the government.
The second kind is a conspiracy fable, devoted to the thesis that the world is run by shadowy magic forces. Supernatural cabals figure in a staggering percentage of Russian highbrow prose – Pavel Krusanov’s Angel’s Bite, Vladimir Sorokin’s Ice, and just about everything by the bestselling Viktor Pelevin, whose 1999 satire Generation P (published in the U. S. as Homo Zapiens) explained that the world leaders are CGI cartoons. In Pelevin’s three subsequent novels, the world government is revealed to be, respectively, a gay mafia, werewolves, and vampires. This mode of thinking has a rather touching teenage tinge. Earlier this week, when the culture portal OpenSpace. ru asked prominent Russian intellectuals to respond to bin Laden’s death, half dutifully answered that bin Laden had never really existed, or was a projection of “naively dualist American consciousness.”
A week earlier, I had asked novelist Alexander Garros – one half of the well-known Garros-Evdokimov writing duo and, conveniently, my high school classmate – how this happened: why, instead of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, Russian scribes in the 21st-century find bedrock inspiration almost entirely in Gogol. Garros was the right man to ask.