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Bewildering Stories

Challenge 859 Response

Near Zero, ch. 22

with Mickey J. Corrigan

Challenge 859 asks:
In Natan Dubovitsky’s Near Zero, Chapter 22: What constitutes the humor in Yegor’s story about his marriage, apartment life and, in fact, his very existence?

[M. J. C.] The humor is this chapter is absurdist with layers of underlying meaning. Funny, yet frightening.

The protagonist’s marriage exists to maintain the delusion of an insane woman who believes she is the wife of Chopin. The apartment contains impossible plants like a tree that grows upside down and a dangerous moss that spreads wildly each night, threatening with its hyperactive ability to replicate.

There’s even a somnambulist, a sleeping tenant whose dreams may be the source of the protagonist’s reality; awakening the sleeper might jeopardize existence. Or so he is told by someone hoping to capitalize on his fear.

Underlying the bizarre humor are questions about the political structure of a society that cannot get through traffic in time to conduct business or deliver a baby. What kind of city is this, what kind of country allows for such a state of existential angst?

Does the disruptive nature of life in the city beget corruption and confusion, a situation so mind-boggling that residents cannot trust that they can make their way home or that it will be there when they arrive?

[Don W.] Thank you, Mickey; you’ve been contributing important perspectives on Near Zero with insights into Chapter 21 and now Chapter 22.

Dubovitsky uses exaggeration to hammer on modern times. The cult of celebrity — a frequently appearing motif — appears in the delusion of being married to Chopin. A tree growing upside down might serve as a symbol of society itself. And the proliferating moss creates an epidemic all its own.

So far, the Review Editors have seen the novel as depressing as hell. If Yegor, Igor, Ktitor and the others are “Russians,” what are the others like? Yegor is pathetic, but is he the only one who sees at least somewhat clearly? Where’s the “reasoner” in this dark farce?

Such questions are hardly limited to Russia, of course; they apply to the whole world. America needs its own Near Zero, and your “Trigger Warnings” is a good start.

Personally, I suspect that the author is relying on the Russians themselves to be the reasoners. And I expect he wants them to ask questions, such as the ones you raise. For example: Is civil society so disruptive that it begets corruption, or is it the other way around? Or are society and politics acting hand in glove, so to speak?

The somnabulistic neighbor doesn’t even ambulate; he just lies there like a sleeping giant. Yegor and Svet and others are too afraid to try to wake him and ask if he’s all right. And if Yegor and everyone else are living in the sleeper’s dream world, is the sleeper not a kind of secret government whose attention one might best avoid?

Dubovitsky shares the élan but not the verve and tone of another famous satirist: François Rabelais. The original “good doctor” served as a humorous guide leading away from the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. Would that Dubovitsky or anyone else could lead us out of this rerun of the 14th century that we’re living in and into a similarly brighter future.

Copyright © 2020 by Mickey J. Corrigan
and Bewildering Stories

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