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Bewildering Stories

Challenge 846 Response

Near Zero Nine

with Bill Bowler

Near Zero, chapter 9 appears in this issue.

In this chapter, some of Dubovitsky’s weaknesses become apparent. The plot is finally starting to kick in, but not so’s you’d notice. The plot links are weak, the references are obscure, and the reader may well not remember the minor details they are based on. Dubovitsky’s fondness for enigma and opacity leads to confusion in this chapter.

1. Yegor, Igor and Yvetta are threatened with a summary execution in public. What appears to be the reason for it? They are accosted by “young thugs from the first democratic wave.” What is that “democratic wave,” and who was in it?

Yegor’s colleague at the publishing house, Igor, unbeknownst to Yegor, is a gangster capo. The armed thugs who threaten them are from a rival gang with a grudge against Igor.

The “first democratic wave” swept Russia on the collapse of the USSR in the 1990s. Who was in it? Yeltsin, the “Harvard Boys,” Russian oligarchs and ex-military, Russian capitalists, etc. It consisted of corruption, vulture capitalism, crime, and the dismantling of the state and looting of national assets, the conditions under which Putin came to power.

2. “Boot sends his regards.” Who is Boot? “Give our regards to Uncle Akhmet.” Who is Uncle Akhmet?

The reader cannot realistically be expected to recall the following from chapter 2:

On stage, some intimidated musicians, the busker type, sang about the shores of the Don, a branch of pine, and their handkerchief moist with tears. The source of intimidation were patrons of the gangster type, especially the ones who came in nightly to celebrate someone’s mother’s birthday, people by the name of Boot, Daddy, and Goga the Huguenot.

Uncle Akhmet has not been mentioned before. Again, confusion for the reader. He’s apparently another big-time mobster whom these thugs mistakenly think Yegor works for. I can’t quite remember, but I think Akhmet appears later in the novel when Yegor travels to the Caucasus.

3. Chernenko, Yegor and, presumably, Yvetta enter “a building constructed in Stalin’s time as a palatial communal residential building that was now occupied by people of various classes and occupations.” What do the architecture and occupancy imply about social class in the Soviet Union and afterwards?

It’s not just the USSR. In New York City, there are plenty of big mansions, formerly private dwellings of rich tycoons, that have been subdivided into apartments.

Thanks, Bill! The explanations do help keep us on the page with the author, so to speak. Up to chapter 9, we’ve been getting a healthy — or, at least, sizeable — dose of the flavor of early 21st-century Russia as seen by Dubovitsky’s protagonist, Yegor.

A parenthetical note: the name “Yegor” and his association with crime makes me think of the English slang term “yegg,” i.e. a burglar or safecracker. Might the author have been making that association surreptitiously? One ought never to underestimate Russians’ proficiency in foreign languages, but “Yegor the yegg” does seem a little far-fetched.

The “communal residence” building “constructed in Stalin’s time” is “palatial” rather than functional. Was Stalinesque architecture a deliberate or inadvertent parody of New York City mansions, or were the tycoons imitating Stalin?

Copyright © 2020 by Bill Bowler
and Bewildering Stories

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