Notes Reading Notes

Ice Trilogy

By Vladimir Sorokin, 2008

Translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell.

Probably not as virtuosic in translation as Pynchon’s Against The Day (in terms of stylistic control), but has a similar effect, and the result is uniquely interesting.

The structure of the trilogy (Bro, Ice, 23,000) moves through each stage of 20th century Russian history, referencing period-specific literary styles and genres as it goes. From the boys tale of idyllic upper-class childhood in Ukraine (which seems modelled on Nabokov’s Speak, Memory as well as Tolstoy), through WWII, Soviet bureaucracy, and into the violent capitalist Moscow underworld of the 1990s. This clash of styles serves its purpose at evoking the grotesque and actualist aspects of each time period, but every section of the text is littered with repetitive emphasised verbs and adjectives representing the ‘language of the heart’. I expect this emphatic repetition (typographically rendered in italics) would annoy a lot of general readers. I have a pretty high tolerance for exaggerated style, particularly in translation, but it does come across as ridiculous and excessive (intentionally ridiculous, one has to assume). Each book in the trilogy hinges on carefully formed sentences and intricate passages that ebb and flow with repetition and emphasis as well as amazing creative detail. The book lacks a level of intricacy and symmetry at the section/chapter level to bring about a greater architectural cohesion, but there are a lot of extremely well written passages that push the boundaries of metaphysical/speculative/weird fiction. In the latter two volumes, these good passages tend to get drowned out through the repetitive and meandering scenes and situations.

The story itself is epic, sweeping, imaginative and depraved. It’s an extremely clever amalgam of Scientology, eschatology, Raelian cults, etc, with a criticism of industrial civilization, the stupidity and futility of the Soviet system, and the corrupt excess of what has followed. Deep knowledge of the shape of the 20th century is embedded in this work. Sorokin evokes a similar kind of dark humour and confrontation of civilization as a phenomenon of sexual perversity as Houellebeq does, though this is an sprawling, epic work, unlike anything Houellebeq has done.

I’m not familiar enough with Russian culture and literature to analyse this text in a whole lot of detail, but it does occur to me that there’s a very obvious effect with the Ice cult starting off being a relatively benign group driven by cosmic inspiration and a desire for liberation, eventually becoming a corrupt self-serving technocratic institution, steeped in decadence, which does not hesitate to enslave or kill people in its way. By the final chapters, the ‘language of the heart’ becomes relentless and thoroughly repellent, reinforcing the absolute inhumanity of the ice cult. It’s sympathetic to history seen through their eyes, and yet, almost like zombies or vampires, they have nothing but hate and disdain for the living. This perhaps hints at a missed opportunity for the novel to explore the greater cosmic theme of entropy and decay vs autopoesis, which is hinted at in a number of places, but not steadily or consistently delivered through the text. Too many dissonant themes clashing together? Lost in translation? It will probably take me a long time to figure out exactly what’s going on with this book.