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Read July 29th, in a hallway at Otakon, dressed as a My Little Pony (Twilight Sparkle). There are probably pictures of me reading this somewhere on the internet, as people kept asking to take photos of the costume and then saying I shouldn't look up from my book as reading was very much in character for Twilight.

This is early Pelevin, earlier than either of the novels of his I've read, and it feels like a writer trying to find, not his voice, but his genre. The voice is there all right, ironic, snarky, obscene, catching at pop culture from odd angles but with surprising bitter dignity when the time calls for it. The genre here vacillates between relatively straightforward fantasy such as the title story, which is as straightforward and friendly a story about werewolves in central Russia as you can get (not very: I... think there may be a political point about collective farming in it I am not culturally equipped to get), through outright and rather dull allegory (yes, the protagonist has spent his whole life in a prison, we get it, life is a prison, done now), into wildly subjective first-person hallucination, out-and-out surrealism in the classical sense, and something I can best describe as post-modernist post-Soviet up-yours bricolage.

There are werewolves and they are very neat; there are Soviet towns full of unreasoning bureaucracy, fear, confusion, griminess; there is a men's toilet which the Committee transforms into a palace when the cleaning woman discovers radical solipsism. There is an incident in which a man working on an assembly line catches a nuclear bomb when it would have fallen from the conveyor belt, preventing it from going off, and is told that he will be commended in the paper, except that the bomb will of course be described as a large container of creamed corn and his name is going to be changed to be more mediagenic. There's an entire version of the Soviet Union which turns out to be literally taking place in an anthill. Some of this is more effective and some less. All of it is wildly inventive, never trying the same thing twice, grabbing any technique that goes by and testing to see if any of this is working, mercilessly throwing out any gambit that looks like it doesn't.

And then there's the last story, 'Prince of Gosplan', where it all snaps into place, and this is the genre I've seen Pelevin in before, the fully mature writer confident enough to do whatever the hell he wants. There isn't a word for what he's doing here. It's not surrealism, quite, it's not allegory, quite, it's definitely not magical realism; but it pays no attention to the structures and tropes of fantasy as one sees them elsewhere.

The concept of the story is so simple it is laughable, and also brilliant: everyone in the story, employees at various perestroika-era Russian companies, is also engaged in playing, all their lives, a video game. Which game varies with which person. The protagonist is in a Prince-of-Persia-type RPG in which he climbs things and ducks traps, looking for the princess, but he rises so slowly up the bureaucracy what with all the requisition forms, he's been working here for years and is only on level two and he hates those damn body-shears on the escalators and what if he forgot to save last night? Anyone can run out of lives and vanish at any moment, after all... It's an amazing piece of work, funny, touching, bitter, and with an odd coherency to its incredibly insane worldbuilding. The rest of the book is fun and interesting. This one is unmissable.
rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
Based on this and The Sacred Book of the Werewolf, Victor Pelevin ought to be a goddamn rockstar. Maybe he is and I just haven't heard?

Seriously, though, this is a retelling of the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur as an internet chatroom. Thread started by Ariadne, of course.

This is the kind of book about which I make incoherent flaily-hands. I wrote a short story some time ago called 'The Ninety-Two Conceits of the Minotaur', which I need to recall from the market I have to admit to myself is never going to get back to me and send somewhere else, and which is a postmodernist reworking of this myth. I'm fairly fond of Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves*, which is a postmodernist reworking of this myth. Maybe there is something about it which attracts them. At any rate, what I'm saying here is that this is a story I care about deeply, which has already been done pretty well and which I spent a while doing as well as I could myself, and Pelevin's version is totally unlike anything I have ever seen or imagined.

The people who are contributing to the chatroom introduce themselves one by one. They write that they have all found themselves in identical keyboard-equipped bedrooms. Their nicknames are preset, and their conversations are heavily moderated: swearing and any references to real names or occupations are replaced by xxxxing. Outside each bedroom is a different portion of the labyrinth, with personalized symbology appropriate to the person whose room it is, so that you get the bit that looks like an old maze screensaver (all brick walls and felt fake rats), the bit that's a church full of displays of every labyrinth that has ever appeared in a church, the bit that's just a bedroom where Ariadne dreams of metaphysics and paradoxes.

There are two obvious questions: which is Theseus? And which is the Minotaur? A non-obvious question: do Theseus and the Minotaur know who they are themselves, if this is an enacted myth, where ordinary people take on the preset roles?

This being a Pelevin novel, the attempts to find out ramble through surrealism, pop culture references, parable, something I swear is Borges' garden of forking paths, discussion of emoticons, discussion of where everyone's handles come from, roundabout revelation of past lives and histories, and dirty jokes.

The thing is, the answers aren't what you expect. I don't care what you're expecting. It's not that. This novel is intentionally trying to confuse you-- that is part of what labyrinths are for-- and it's very hard to write about, therefore, because a lot of the point is the ways it's confusing, the blind alleys and wrong turnings Pelevin works so hard at setting up. I don't want to write the kind of analysis that pins it all down on a cork-board. But I can also see this being a book that is confusing as fuck to a lot of people. It would probably have confused me if it weren't one of my central stories.

I recommend it very highly. Remember that people do not ever have to tell the truth on the internet; remember not to get too attached to any single theory; and above all remember who made the thread and notice who carries it, concentrate on what actually happens in the myth, and it should all make perfect sense.

Pelevin is brilliant. Seriously, I need to read everything he's ever written immediately.

* I'm sorry! I don't know how to make the word house blue! I know it existentially should be.
rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
Recommended at various times by [personal profile] rax, [personal profile] sovay, and [personal profile] eredien.

The protagonist of The Sacred Book of the Werewolf is not a werewolf. She is a fox, of the sort that would in Japanese be called kitsune, although she is not Japanese because she has lived in Russia for a very long while. She appears most of the time to be a stunningly beautiful girl somewhere between the ages of fourteen and seventeen. In fact she cannot remember how old she is, although she thinks that she is a relative of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King who came out of the earth in the distant past. As with all correct and virtuous foxes, she is a prostitute, a spinner of illusions and hallucinations, and an occasional predator, with a long family history of hunting both chickens and British aristocrats. (The chickens because it is fun. The British aristocrats in all seriousness.)

And her name is A Hu-Li, which gives her major problems in Russia, because the Russian transliteration of this name she brought from China before the Russian language existed now means something very obscene. (The link goes to an essay on the multi-layered obscenities and other allusions bound up in her name.)

This is one of those wildly alive, extremely exuberant novels that must have given the translator nightmares for months. It works as a straightforward fantasy novel, and it works as a novel set in contemporary Russia, and it works as an extremely peculiar riff on Nabokov, and it works as a Buddhist sutra (don't ask), and you should probably take the title literally, and there was a moment in there where it referenced Final Fantasy 8 and Wittgenstein on the same page before taking a bitchy and well-deserved swipe at Lukyanenko's Night Watch, but I think it would still work without any of the bajillion layers of allusion. It's the kind of book where you might want footnotes but you will not need them.

Also, it's a good novel containing werebeasts, which has three-dimensional characters. I was previously aware of only one of those, Guy Endore's The Werewolf of Paris, which is out of print and obscure. Were-anything well done is astonishingly rare. A Hu-Li is not human, and her viewpoint is not human, and she will tell you point blank about the ways in which she is not human and then surprise you with them anyway. She is also not what you think of when you think about kitsune. No matter what you are thinking about kitsune.

There is a fair amount of sex in this book, and a great deal of philosophy (sometimes they are the same thing), and it has a brilliant structure I would not dream of spoiling. And I am in the process of having a genuine argument with it about some things involving concepts of gender, because on the one hand I don't agree with A Hu-Li on some aspects, but on the other hand she's an unreliable narrator and the book knows that perfectly well. I am still trying to tease out which directions the narrative thinks she's wrong about, and also her viewpoint is sufficiently sideways that these are not the usual arguments one has with a book concerning gender stuff-- related but entirely different arguments, which is probably good for me.

I can't imagine why this isn't more widely known, but the only mentions of it I've ever encountered have been people I know recommending it. It deserves a wide readership. It's entertaining, mind-stretching, odd, and pretty brilliant.

And don't even get me started on the entire concept of how this book treats the boundary between human and animal, and the things that it does with that metaphysically. [personal profile] rax went to graduate school so that I don't have to write you a seventeen-page essay about that, is what I say, because I know I would not cite the correct theory, and she can. But wow. I have never seen anything else like that in fiction. I just haven't. It is extremely cool and you should read it.


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