Too Much Bark, Not Much Bite
Thursday, October 30, 2008
THE SACRED BOOK OF THE WEREWOLF
By Victor Pelevin
Translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield
Viking. 335 pp. $25.95
Rough werewolf-on-werefox sex.
Were-creature philosophy that doubles as satirical content.
Plucky underage Russian prostitutes who are actually millennia-old supernatural beings.
Nonstop references to iconic authors, philosophers and pop culture.
If you enjoy having all these elements in your fiction, you'll love Victor Pelevin's "The Sacred Book of the Werewolf." The rest of us, though, might come away from this novel feeling bitten. There's something distinctly unholy going on here, something Vladimir Nabokov might have labeled "poshlost," or "philistine vulgarity," for all the times Pelevin tries to use the old butterfly collector to prop up his own words, citing everything from "Lolita" to "Ada."
This fitful, phantasmagorical tale -- a bestseller in Russia -- is told by A Hu-Li, a werefox posing as a 15-year-old hooker in Moscow. She bewitches her johns using the magic properties of her tail so she can feed off of their sexual energy. While her victims believe they're having sex with her, she sits in a corner reading magazines. But after a couple of missteps, including killing a customer when he sees her true form, A Hu-Li runs into trouble with the Russian secret service. Col. Mikhalich apprehends her for his mysterious boss, known as Alexander.
In a masterly sequence -- one of the few times Pelevin sits still long enough to really develop a scene -- Mikhalich decides he wants to sample A Hu-Li's services before turning her over to Alexander. But that requires Mikhalich to reveal that he's a werewolf, too, by injecting a powerful psychedelic into his own arm. Among A Hu-Li's special skills is the ability to see into people's minds. Her description of Mikhalich's drug trip is a wonderful example of making the abstract and personal into something concrete: "There was a flash, with pulsating stars and stripes of flame receding all the way to the horizon like the markings on an infinitely long runway. It was blindingly beautiful and reminiscent of a news report I saw in the 1960s of a trimaran speed-boat that crashed: the speedboat lifted up off the water, performed a slow, thoughtful loop-the-loop and shattered into small fragments against the surface of the lake."
Every scene involving the menacing, terse and sometimes comic Mikhalich takes on a satisfying weight. Unfortunately, however, he is relegated to a minor role. It is Alexander who plays the male lead here, becoming entranced with A Hu-Li. This attraction drives the plot for the rest of the book. The two have rough werewolf sex, followed by long, obvious conversations about, among other things, the Little Red Riding Hood folktale. A Hu-Li's growing attraction to Alexander eventually leads to an irreversible, possibly tragic transformation, and the novel ends in a fizzle of nebulous Eastern philosophy and unearned redemption.
Suspended over this plot like a bomb that's never dropped looms the myth of the super-werewolf, who, it is foretold, will soon walk the Earth, delivering something special to the were-peoples. The nature of that special something only becomes clear late in the novel, in a bit of farcical anticlimax. By that point, the reader has been asked to invest too much time and effort in an existential joke that really doesn't matter.
In an interview in the Paris Review, Nabokov defined his made-up word "poshlost" as, among other things, "Corny trash, vulgar cliches . . . imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic, and dishonest pseudoliterature." Pelevin is neither crude nor moronic, but his personal Rubicon is a seeming inability to stop using others to shoulder the burden of writing his novel. Thus the reader must endure Bulgakov sightings, silly doubled-up references ("I suddenly understood that Pushkin was killed by a homonimic shadow of Dante"), and stultifying snippets of dialogue in question-answer form about various movies. Many readers will realize they are bearing witness to an odd kind of abdication of responsibility on the part of the author.
Pelevin doesn't seem to understand how his borrowing creates "bogus profundities." Or that his philosophical points would be more interesting in essay form. Or that his pacing is too slow to make the humor sparkle. Yet on the rare occasions that Pelevin dispenses with all the clutter, he demonstrates a remarkable talent that makes me want to read more of his fiction. For example, an undeniably eerie yet funny scene in which Alexander and Mikhalich, in werewolf form, conjure oil out of the earth compares favorably to the work of the best Russian absurdists.
Near the end of the novel, Alexander and A Hu-Li hole up in a bomb shelter, in a scene that displays much-needed tenderness. A Hu-Li says to Alexander, language is "the root from which infinite human stupidity grows. And we were-creatures suffer from it too, because we're always talking."
Ultimately "The Sacred Book of the Werewolf" fails because Pelevin just can't shut up long enough to tell his story.