Ice by Vladimir Sorokin
It’s not generally advisable as a critic to align oneself with a crowd best characterized as morally shrill, politically reactionary and in need of a good hair-coloring, but there are times when siding with the outraged pensioners of Moscow becomes unavoidable. The American debut of Vladimir Sorokin’s novel Ice is such a moment -- a provocation to join the philistines by chucking this book into a waiting bonfire.
Let me be clear: I am not hollering “pornography,” and if I were I would be about five years behind trend. It is not the perversity of Ice (which, unlike its sensational predecessor Blue Lard, offers not a single instance of fellatio between Soviet dictator clones) that offends me. Nor am I affronted by Sorokin’s signature savagery and scatology. It is the sheer sophomoric tedium of his never-ending sado-fantasy that provokes the book-burner in me.
Ice is the story of a mass-murdering Aryan cult, the members of which are recognizable by their cosmically awakened hearts. The novel is no more or less trite than its précis and will doubtless find an idolatrous band of American readers just as it has throughout Russia and Europe. What it cannot hope to find here is the type of scandal that boosted the novel’s notoriety at home and secured the author’s fading dissidence. There will be no calls for book burnings, which is why I can blithely promise participation.
Sorokin has been a literary luminary in Russia for close to two decades. His early work was, to quote the critic Fedor Yermolov, “sharp, funny and new, even dangerous at times.” It was also, like any self-respecting avant-garde fiction in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, strictly underground. But as state control over presses gave way to the ethos of glasnost, Sorokin gained publicity and, more than most authors stepping gingerly from the samizdat closet, significant prosperity. He parodied both the language of socialist realism and butchered (sometimes literally) the sacred cows of non-official Russian literature. He wrote stories about debauchery, sex, dismemberment and shit-eating and was heralded as an important experimental writer.
By the 21st century Sorokin’s novels could be found in a dozen languages and adapted for stages from Berlin to Bucharest. His screenplays won international awards and he was nominated for the Russian Booker Prize. The Bolshoi commissioned a libretto from him. “The only living Russian author who can be called a classic,” pronounced The Moscow Times, and Sorokin stood poised among canonical greats. Then, entered the detractors.
In 2002, the leaders of “Forward Together,” a scarily earnest youth group with ties to President Vladimir Putin hounded Sorokin into court on charges of pornography. The primary target of their outrage was Blue Lard, which featured the aforementioned episode between an amorous Stalin and a lusty Khrushchev. Ice, a novel with tendencies more towards the homicidal than the homoerotic, was also forwarded by the prosecution as evidence that Sorokin’s work was criminal.
The trial’s outcome was a litigious non-event and a commercial bonanza for Sorokin and his publishers. Sales of his novels quadrupled; writers who had never shared a kind word for their colleague’s talent championed him vocally out of principle. Sorokin, wrote Ilya Milstein in Novoye Vremya “may be a deft and transparent businessman, who endlessly exploits his none-too-clever techniques, but the Forward Together movement… is a hundred times worse.”
Thanks to the New York Review of Books, which in addition to Ice will publish the other two books in the trilogy, Bro and 23,000, American readers can anticipate the full range of Sorokin’s exploitation of technique. But in a country where only the appearance of Jon Benet Ramsey at Abu Ghraib can ensure societal outrage, Sorokin’s scenes of ice-hammer wielding and anal sex will not get much buzz. America will not marshal its puritanical forces against Sorokin -- and there are few candidates in the “hundred times worse” category.
Ice opens with a long section showcasing Sorokin’s signature brutal vignette style and absorption with human hideousness. A datelined, time-coded narrative of a bad day in the life of three cult newbies who have been “awakened” from their corporeal state by a blow to the chest from the ice-hammer, part one will be instantly familiar even to readers new to Sorokin. This is especially true in the wake of Night Watch, the sci-fi thriller (also first of a trilogy, also set in a real but ravaged Moscow, also starring a cast of superhuman killers fighting both good and evil) that, though released after the original publication of Ice, hit movie theaters worldwide a full year ago.
It is this blend of the sinister and the familiar (unknowing members of the brotherhood hang out at fashionable Moscow punk venues and chat online in quotidian slang) that suggested what Publishers Weekly so tantalizingly summed up with the promise of a “Master and Margarita for the Buffy the Vampire Slayer age.” Mikhail Bulgakov’s masterpiece of dark forces at work in the Moscow of Stalin’s Great Terror is the ineffable inspiration for all Russian satires, thrillers and fantasies alike. Alas, Ice, with its simplistic cast of heart singers and “meat machines” (the unawakened, it is clear, are good for little else), and its literal interpretation of word play, is no Master and Margarita -- for this or any other age.
In part two, Sorokin reverts to the ersatz socialist realist voice that first distinguished him as a dissident writer. This is a first-person account from the cult’s virgin queen. As in all Soviet myth, the heroine here is a peasant girl who is called upon for great sacrifices that will secure the happiness and welfare of her people. In Ice, the great future is reserved for the 23,000 immortals privy to the Primordial Light and the sacrifices involve making sweet heart-love to countless handsome Aryans. This account is as creepy as the author wants it to be, and, like the authorized genre it parodies, offers no room for the magic of mythology that it claims as its own raison d’etre.
The narrative of Khram the Ice Queen is followed by a heavy-lidded wink at the commercialization of utopia -- a collection of testimonials from satisfied users of the “ICE” Health Improvement System, which is now apparently marketed for the general public. The book closes with the ice forgotten and superfluous and the children of the world abandoned. The cryptic epilogue is the most intriguing thread in the book, but is not enough to salvage the predictable morass enveloping it.
It would be hard to argue that the scandal surrounding Sorokin’s pornography trial did not have an effect on his work. During the trial, one of Sorokin’s peers defended him by pointing out that “pornography is something that provokes indecency, yet reading Sorokin’s works can eliminate one’s taste for lovemaking for a lifetime.” While Ice serves up generous helpings of graphic sex and violence, its prequel Bro is told entirely in the chaste and exuberant (and frequently CAPITALIZED) voice of the cult founder. It is a tedious, disingenuous and archaic voice; but one that will only raise the hackles of those who have read too much Upton Sinclair. Sorokin's dark beasts, fascinated with decay and feces and gore, have retreated -- making room for more celestial and euphoric beasts -- but are beasts just the same.
The good news for Sorokin is that he needs neither scandal nor backlash for good reviews here. That is what international celebrity is for. American readers will know little about Sorokin’s early works -- blacker comedies and sharper satire than Ice -- works noted by critic Keith Gessen for their “resistance to being readable.” Instead they will be told that Sorokin is an heir to Gogol’s wit and Dostoevsky’s introspection. If they don’t buy that one -- they will be told that Sorokin is Russia’s answer to Haruki Marukami and Michael Houllebecq. And if they wonder why, it won’t be because Ice lacks a post-post-modern voice. It will be because the story has neither inventiveness nor intrigue. Without these traits, Sorokin as enfant terrible is only the latter.
Ice by Vladimir Sorokin
New York Review of Books Classics