Bewildering Stories discusses...
Near Zero[Gary Inbinder] After 14 chapters I must ask myself a question: How long will a reader keep reading a story for which he has developed an intense dislike of all the characters?
[Bill Kowaleski] While the writing (and thus the translation) continues to be smooth and literate, the story is bogging down badly. What is the story arc? And, as mentioned by GI, where are the “good guys”? Stories full of unlikeable, evil characters can succeed. Breaking Bad is a great example of that, as is the current big Netflix hit Ozark, though there are minor characters in Ozark with moral integrity. But I’m not seeing any evolution in Near Zero’s characters, nor do I see much of anything that drives the story forward.
[Bill Bowler] The story is a reflection of Russia in a shattered mirror. Aside from sharing what I thought was a very interesting piece of fiction, one reason I wanted to translate it was to provide speakers of English with a more direct conduit to Russia than is available through the partisan fog of the mass media.
Dubovitsky paints an unremittingly bleak picture. There are no positive, likeable, sympathetic characters in the novel, with the possible exception of Yegor’s grandma, the feisty rural bootlegger. The rest are a rogues’ gallery of selfish, violent, greedy criminals, politicians, schemers, opportunists, frauds, miscreants, and the like.
In the opening pages of the Introduction, the narrator of the novel describes, with a great deal of irony, the two clowns, i.e., the fictional narrators within the narration, who will tell us the story:
They are a pair of unabashed buffoons, caustic comedians, masters of their calling, and their calling is simply to tease and taunt, to confuse and bemuse. However, they’re ready on occasion to play the tragedy, and the pastoral, and something... indefinite.
[...] For the umpteenth time, they retell those few tales, those few classic stories that were created long before you were born, tales you are forced to listen to, bored to tears, forced to hear again and again in new retellings, nasty and otherwise. What else are you all to do? How would you occupy yourselves if other stories were unthinkable and certain books impossible?
[...] Their names: Bim and Bom, Yin and Yang, Adam and Eve, Taira and Minamoto, Vladimir and Estragon, On and Off, Nietsche and The Void, Masha and the Bears. But these names are not real because the clowns have no real names, only roles.
Now they will tell you the story of Black Book Yegor, a story that spans the most ancient days when there was no Internet, to the current bright, null years. And if these clowns are to be honored, if you will respect them and grant them your attention (the less you have, the more valuable it is), then they can surely paint you a picture to inspire thoughts of the exalted. They will use vulgar lexicon only when absolutely necessary and in the most restrained manner. They promise to keep the sex scenes and violence as brief as possible, and will elaborate extensively and with pleasure on the instructive monologs of the positive heroes... In short, they will retell for you now the unlikely adventures of Yegor and Crybaby.
So, in this panorama of “the current bright, null years,” Yegor and Crybaby will inspire us with “thoughts of the exalted” and we can expect to hear the extensive “instructive monologs of the positive heroes...”
Russian literature has a strong tradition of bleak satire. In the 19th Century, the time of Tsars and serfs, Russian authors — most importantly Gogol — wrote searing novels and plays that depicted a dreary landscape populated by exclusively negative types. Dead Souls with its hero Chichikov, whose name derives from the sound of sneezing, is a prime example.
During the post-Revolutionary Stalinist period of Soviet history, a reaction set in. The Party, harking back to ideas expressed earlier by Tolstoy in “What is Art?” decreed that the purpose of art was to provide uplifting moral instruction. There was no room for pessimism or, Stalin forbid, despair. It was harmful to the collective and contradicted the inexorable forward march of History.
The party line was brutally enforced in the arts, and works of literature were required to be morally correct, uplifting, and to represent Russian life in an exclusively positive and optimistic manner. One of the linchpins of this ideology was its embodiment, the “Positive Hero.”
In the post-Stalinist period, the reaction to the reaction set in, and the negative vision of Russian society was no longer forbidden. You can watch the process unfold if you read the Strugatsky science fiction novels in order. They begin in the late 1950’s with an optimistic uplifting positive hero, the tank commander Bykov, who embodies Soviet values. They evolve to “Red” Schuhart, the Stalker, ransacking debris in the post-Apocalyptic Zone.
Near Zero is set against this historical context, and begins at the time of the fall of the USSR, in the 1990’s. Yegor is a “Negative Hero.” The novel’s moral instruction, such as it is, is conducted in the negative by means of irony, sarcasm and satire. It is stifling to read, in a way; one never comes up for air.
The counter-point, if any, comes only in those scenes when Yegor returns to his home village and experiences nostalgia for his youth, his homeland of yesteryear, and the lost rural Russian way of life.
Is Yegor likeable? I guess that depends on the reader. But for reasons I perhaps cannot explain, I have grown fond of him despite his many and obvious faults. It’s probably the result of having spent so much time with him. He’s become familiar, like an in-law; I think I understand him and his motives. I feel his pain, and I feel sorry for him as I watch his self-defeating, futile struggle. It’s too bad he’s making wrong decisions. I’m sorry his married and family life are such a mess, but what can you do? And I identify with him, with all his blemishes. As Mephistopheles remarked to Faust, “Nothing human is alien to me.”
[Gary Inbinder] Thanks for the explanation, BB. I mentioned Notes from the Underground because, as I recall, Dostoyevsky was reacting to two very different but significant intellectual currents of the time and place: nihilism and enlightened self-interest.
Having rejected the Western liberalism of his youth that led to his involvement in radical politics and subsequent arrest, trial, conviction, and death sentence with a last-minute reprieve to several years hard labor in Siberia, Dostoyevsky embraced Tsarist absolutism and Orthodoxy, a stunningly reactionary about-face.
His contemporary, Tolstoy, born to the high nobility and his family’s military tradition, had his own about-face “conversion and reaction,” rejecting the intellectual currents of the time, his class, social norms and Orthodoxy, turning to what might be called his own brand of “Christian Communism.”
And, as I recall, both Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky rejected, for their own individual reasons, the works of their great contemporary Turgenev, who from the skewed perspectives of his two great literary contemporaries seemed hopelessly “Western” and bourgeois.
Now, as different as those three great Russian 19th-century novelists were, there was one thing I noticed in their writing: they all had at least one or two characters I could empathize with, or at least could find somewhat likeable. Moreover, everything I’ve read of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Turgenev — and I’ll admit my reading is limited — contained what Don referred to as a “reasoner” or “straight man,” someone who establishes a norm.
Those two things, likeable characters and Don’s normative “reasoner” or “straight man” are the literary elements I believe Near Zero lacks. Nevertheless, I do appreciate the quality of the writing in Zero and its sharp satire and dark humor have their appeal. I’ll certainly keep what you’ve said in mind as I continue reading.
[Bill Bowler] Good points, all, Gary. Dostoevsky, an irresponsible spendthrift who held Turgenev in contempt, nonetheless tried to borrow money from him at one point and, at another, contemplated challenging him to a duel with shotguns.
In The Possessed, Dostoevsky used Turgenev as the prototype for his character Karmazinov, the silver-haired, patrician “Great Writer” who is in touch with the Russian people, who comes to town to give a public reading from his latest novel, Merci.
But for Near Zero, Gogol is the key. I don’t think you’ll find a positive character in Dead Souls or The Inspector General, or in many of his short stories.
When he tried to “go positive,” the results were weak. Dead Souls was conceived as a Divine Comedy. Only Part 1, i.e., the Inferno, survives. Part 2, the supposedly morally uplifting part, was a failure, and Gogol, in rapturous torment, burned the manuscript (see attached picture).
Repin’s painting is really something, isn’t it? The details of Gogol’s mental and physical decline and early death are awful and somewhat reminiscent of his American contemporary Poe, including their fear of being buried alive.
So, no raisonneur in Near Zero. No enlightened commentary. No rational explication for the reader. We are adrift at sea with a band of cutthroats.
[Don Webb] “It’s kind of a reflection of Russia in a shattered mirror.” A useful image, BB. I’m not sure that North American literature has anything quite like what is represented by Near Zero and the classic Russian works that have been cited in our discussion.
Mark Twain poked fun at 19th-century American culture in his most famous novels. Is the whitewashing episode — among others — in Tom Sawyer a parody of capitalism, advertising and public gullibility? Yes, but there’s nothing mean-spirited about it. The moral is: “Tom is clever. Don’t be a sucker.”
Hopeless despair is simply not in Mark Twain’s worldview. His book of essays, Letters From the Earth, which was controversial long after his death, reflected a sometimes bitter disillusionment with organized religion. But how different was it, really, from what many other writers had been saying for more than a century? As in his other works, he criticizes pretense and moral thoughtlessness.
Novelists of the 20th century did much the same. For example, Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith and Babbitt present realistic parodies. And Elmer Gantry is a searing satire that can nonetheless be taken as a realistic cautionary tale.
In contrast, Near Zero, as the author says, leads us into a dark farce and a gallery of tragic follies from which there appears to be no exit and where alternatives seem to be dismissed as merely simple-minded.
Where is the middle ground in Russian literature? On one hand, we have moralists like Tolstoy; on the other, “bleak satire.” Does Russia have any place for comedy? Is it all pie in the sky on one hand and a slough of despond, on the other? Does it careen, like Russian history itself, from pillar to post?
I realize that your conclusion is meant sympathetically: “And I identify with [Yegor], with all his blemishes. As Mephistopheles remarked to Faust, ‘Nothing human is alien to me’.”
A caution: Mephisto is not saying he understands or sympathizes with anybody; rather, by boasting he inadvertently tips his hand. He is warning Faust to beware of him, for he is ready and willing to spoil whatever people do, however well-intentioned it may be. Mephisto will win Faust’s wager if Faust is ever convinced he has witnessed perfection.
I advise against taking the Devil as a role model. If Yegor never understands himself, if he finds perfection in emptiness, he fulfills the Faustian bargain.