April 2005

Damien Weaver

fiction

Snow White and Russian Red by Dorota Maslowska

Dorota Maslowska's Snow White and Russian Red is energetic, ferocious, and powerful, a hellacious literary accomplishment. Even having read it, it's hard to believe how well it all works. Snow White and Russian Red is satisfying as a psychological novel of obsessions, as a millennial cultural commentary, as a rough-and-ready street tale, and as a terrifyingly ambitious concept piece, a book that puts everything on the line to prove a point, and proves it, and takes it further still. The first couple of chapters are mawkish, a little uncertain, but in light of what follows they can be considered warm-up, like watching a great diva hum through scales backstage before the curtain rises. Snow White is a scorching read.

This is big-league literature. It doesn't matter that the author is young, that her characters do drugs, communicate with cell-phone text messages, and name-check incomparable Polish deathcore demigods Vader -- likely the first mention of the band Vader in world literature, though one hopes not the last. Snow White and Russian Red is hilarious and thrilling, the kind of writing that redeems a whole generation.

The novel is narrated by Nails, a speed freak and pussy-hound in urban Poland. He's a charming scoundrel, armored with junkie arrogance, his natural charisma enhanced by amphetamines. His distinctive voice and viewpoints are central to the book's effect, shining through Benjamin Paloff's comfortable, versatile translation. Nails speaks with rambling ersatz erudition, pomposity cut with hip-hop slang. He has the wild, witty fatalism of Venedikt Yerofeev's Moscow to the End of the Line and the loopy idiolect of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi, but Nails is most of all a sparkling scion of grandmaster Witold Gombrowicz's Trans-Atlantyk. There's the same mix of overblown solemnity and rampant scatology, though Snow White and Russian Red is much funnier and much less joyful; its manic speechifying is both a literary tribute and an accurate rendition of crank-fueled glossolalia.

The petty absurdities attendant to serious drug abuse are presented in a context of worse, more bewildering craziness. The further we move outward from the microcosm of Nails's mother's filthy apartment, the stranger things get. The more we see of the larger world's machinations, especially those of the state, the more we sympathize with the characters' circumscribed focus on their primal desires to fuck, fix, and eat McDonalds french fries. Trans-Atlantyk was a meditation on exile and a loving tweak of Polish nationalism, but in Snow White and Russian Red nationhood and nationalism are relics, patriotism an empty tic. Snow White is infested with the jargon of globalization.

Maslowska's pre-EU Poland is being demolished by an unregulated and largely extra-legal international free-market at the same time the very language to describe this process has been stripped of significance, reduced to cereal-box soundbites in a hurricane of pop-culture noise. The characters use terminology purely for the sounds of its syllables, and political assertions are rendered weightless, bandied about indiscriminately by a disenfranchised youth underclass that clings to fragments of revolutionary discourse like a long-ruined family to battered heirlooms.

Everything falls apart for the book's awesome finale, but Maslowska remains in control, serving up a masterfully engineered collapse, a graceful, profound implosion of meaning and representation that strains analogy. It's perhaps the literary equivalent of an impossible math: How many times does zero go into zero? Without giving away specifics, the camera pulls back to reveal the studio, but keeps pulling back, expanding, diminishing, then entirely pulverizing point-of-view, and what might have been a cute trick is finally mind-blowing, pursued so deeply and with such conviction that we the readers buy it, buy everything, the awkward opening, the changes of scale, and are left blinking, dazed, trying to wrap our heads around what's been done to us.

Snow White and Russian Red by Dorota Maslowska
Black Cat
ISBN 0802170013
294 pages