I hated Homo Zapiens by Victor Pelevin. It was convoluted and disjointed. It was deeply superficial, superficially deep and both at times. The narrative was forced. The themes appear cynically manipulated, so Pelevin could collect comparisons to giants like Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Well, he succeeded in collecting the comparisons. Unfortunately, he ends up obscured by the giant’s shadow.
A Russian novelist, Pelevin, 40, has received a lot of international acclaim as the heir to the great Russian novelists, so maybe the problems with this book can be attributed to a poor translation by Andrew Bromfield. But I don’t think so. Not even the finest icing can make a birthday cake out of a dog turd, and there is much about this piece of work that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
I confess, from the get-go, that I’m not a big fan of magic realism. A little goes a long way, and few do it well, like Gabriel García Márquez and Rick Bass. But Pelevin drinks deeply of a more potent brew that can only be called “narcotic realism.” It works like this: If a writer is looking for a way to express life’s profundity but is not up to the task of finding meaning in reality, he or she simply has the character take drugs or alcohol and any bullshit solipsistic idea that subsequently appears on the page is imbued with a mirror-like depth.
That literary device might work on a vanload of eighth-graders on their way to a chess tournament, but it’s a bit simplistic for adults who know that mind-altering substances are nothing but a keen method for escaping reality, not a method for defining it.
Add to that the main character’s conversations with Che Guevara through a Ouija board (a variation on narcotic realism, we’ll call it “mystic realism,” the idea being that dead people know more about life than living people do), and you’ve got an author desperately trying to offer insight into his culture, but pathetically failing. It’s as though Pelevin read the American reviews of his books Buddha’s Little Finger, Omon Ra or The Life of Insects and tried to live up to the hype.
The novel’s plot starts out fine and goes wacky from there. Ex-poet Babylen Tatarsky struggles to find his place in Russia’s new market-driven economy. He gets a job imagining Russia-based images for new products making their way to Russia. For example, the Marlboro Man’s cowboy image would be meaningless in Russia, so Tatarsky comes up with an image that would resonate with Russian consumers—a Gulag detainee or something. He’s good at it and advances through the ranks until he joins a secret society, marries a goddess and becomes a living, but mortal, god.
Can Homo Zapiens be considered a work of satire? In those short moments between picking up the book and succumbing to its soporific effects, I wondered that myself. If by satire, you’re thinking Gulliver’s Travels and not that little guy with goat legs, then this novel is certainly less Swiftian than gamy. Still, this 250-page barbiturate took me 25 days to read, so I’d have to say it was at least as satiric as it was engrossing.
Pelevin somehow went beyond simply irritating me as a reader; he actually made me feel betrayed. I like the idea that since Russia is coming to terms on all this media, marketing, advertising baloney in one big, quick dose, that Russian writers are particularly equipped to see it for the lie it is. Seems like the idea is so simple that it could be told without the need for distractions like drugs or alcohol. Pelevin certainly managed to cull unnecessary humanity, like women, from the story.
But don’t take my word for it, give it a shot. I guarantee that for every book I’ve hated, there are scads of people who loved it. Christ, from that standard, Homo Zapiens will probably win a People’s Choice award.