December 19, 2013

Tunguska, Bro: The Russian Plot of Longing and Delusion


I first encountered the word “Tunguska” the way everyone should encounter it: in a dank, dimly-lit room, surrounded by fellow true believers and the reek of freshly-delivered pizza.

It had to be cheese, the same way that the drink I coaxed from the common room vending machine had to be Frutopia Strawberry Passion Awareness. The lights had to be off. The volume had to be 32: loud enough that we could hear Dana Scully’s most private whispers, yet soft enough to escape the attention of our football-loving dorm-mates. The Triassic radiator had to be muffled, no matter how hot or cold it was. If you didn’t like it, you could leave. You could stay too, of course, but you would not be welcome. We would make this clear with our silence, and by not offering you any pizza.

We would absolutely not say anything when, after half an hour of watching with us, you asked what the hell was going on with the black oil, or where all these Russians had come from, or when Mulder and Scully were going to bang. We would do this for two reasons: 1) because as die-hard fans such questions were beneath us, and 2) because we didn’t really know. The black oil, though hinted at in previous episodes, was still a mystery. Mulder and Scully did not “bang.” The Russians had come out of nowhere but were clearly important—otherwise why would they call the episode “Tugunska”? Why would they abandon the usual grimly-lit exteriors for a frozen landscape that looked, even to our eyes, not just significant, but expensive?

It was all unclear; but then this was The X-Files, which was not just confusing but a show about confusion, the way Law and Order was about clarity. The detectives on that show wrapped up their mysteries in a tidy fifty-five minutes; but Mulder and Scully couldn’t have wrapped up a bag lunch in that time. If anything, they unsolved the problems they encountered, arriving at a figured-out crime scene only to announce that, hold on, things were not what they seemed—a possibility that the other investigators clearly hated.

We loved it. We were teenagers; it was the mid-90s. Things as they seemed had never looked flimsier; law and order had never seemed more obviously the result of a conspiracy orchestrated at the highest level. Who cared if the cabal running things was a shadowy one? At least it was organized. At least it was something to swing against week after week, the way Mulder and Scully swung at the adversaries who, on the rare occasion that they were hit, spilled their secrets like squids disappearing into clouds of ink. Whatever. You wanted sharp plot lines, you waited until Monday and watched Melrose Place. You endured our nerdish scorn the way normal people have always endured the scorn of true believers: without really caring one way or another. Most of all, you forgot about Tunguska.

It was easy to forget, which is probably why we tried so hard not to. When the episode was over we slunk off into a world that appeared to make perfect sense. But we knew different. The truth wasn’t in here: it was out there, in the smoke-filled rooms and parking garages, and the forests so frozen and quiet that they had to be hiding something. We would find it next week, or never, it didn’t matter. Maybe this was the show’s biggest secret: that the answers weren’t the point, the point was the search, and the three words that flashed before the credits, promising us that this episode, like all the others, would Be Continued…

Fifteen years later, I have a harder time with this promise than I used to. I still want to believe—at least I think I do. But it’s not as easy anymore. I’ve seen The X-Files die, be resurrected in movie form (twice), fade mercifully into obscurity. Things have changed. Strawberry Passion Awareness has disappeared mysteriously from vending machines. I’ve graduated, not just from high school but from two other institutions where I basically did nothing but read books all day, which means that, a) I can now correct my in-laws when they pronounce the word “err” as if it rhymed with “hair” instead of “purr”, and b) I have learned to mistrust, not just plots, but Plot: that most pleasurable, fundamental, tired, and inexhaustible of narrative artifices.

In this way, of course, I am not unlike the history of Russian literature (in every other way—except maybe my disapproval of serfdom—I am completely unlike the history of Russian literature). Plot in the Three Musketeers struck Russian writers in the 19th century in the same way that a Hollywood superhero movie might strike an Iranian filmmaker today: as a cool but ultimately fake foreign import that had little if anything to do with life as they saw it being lived around them. So, reading the masterworks of this period, you frequently see Russian authors trying to nudge, trick or even bully their plots back towards real life, using techniques that their Western counterparts probably thought of as mistakes.

Most of the time this works. In Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, for example—a work inspired by that maniacal rule breaker, Laurence Sterne—the narrator is constantly butting in on his narration, commenting on his characters, lapsing into autobiography, even forgetting about the plot altogether. He digresses, returns, re-digresses in the most ham-fistedly artificial way; but the paradoxical effect of his hijinks is that the book as a whole doesn’t feel artificial at all. On the contrary, it feels like one of the most straightforwardly “natural” stories in literature: a vast estate inhabited by living people, rather than paper dolls put there and manipulated for the reader’s amusement.

To say that after Pushkin this kind of thing starts happening everywhere in Russian literature is not to open a can of worms: it’s to move to Queensland and start breeding Megascolides Australis. It’s to ride a rolling ladder down a vast shelf, grabbing Gogol’s metaphors (in which the Homeric simile eats mushrooms and mutates into a mini-novel), Chekhov’s stories (which use nothingness the way Doozers use radishes), Tolstoy’s characters (whose only reliable characteristic is self-contradiction), Dostoevsky’s…Dostoevskyness.

Then there’s the 20th century, when the messiness starts to be programmatic, economic, political, revolutionary. When Osip Mandelstam, a poet, can write a 50-page “essay” on Dante that reads like the combination of an article on crystallography and the cantos that Ezra Pound always wanted to write, but couldn’t. Towards the end of this critical prose poem Mandelstam tells us, using a sentence that Fox Mulder probably had tattooed above his navel, that “There is no syntax: there is a magnetized impulse, a longing for the stern of a ship, a longing for a forage of worms, a longing for an unpromulgated law, a longing for Florence.”

Well, ok, unpromulgated… But then beneath his gorgeous, Rimbaud-if-he-was-40%-less-batshit imagery, Mandelstam is making an argument about (among other things) plot. He’s distinguishing two different methods of putting things together, the first of which he calls “Syntax,” meaning, I think, the linking of units into a predetermined order. To most of us, this seems like what happens with all writing: you have these blocks of character, scene, setting (or, in poetry’s case, meter, rhyme, content); you put them together with a nod to the rules; voila. But Mandelstam doesn’t believe in syntax: he believes in something else, something he calls “longing”. What is longing? Certainly not a Plot—or at least, not one handed to you by the Komsomol. Not the victory of the proletariat, or a Five Year Plan. Not being a good citizen. No: longing for Mandelstam is personal: a need to make sense of the world that moves from inside to outside and person to environment, instead of visa versa. Plot may the result of that need—but it is never the cause.

Mandelstam believed a person needed to make his own plot, which is understandable, given the society he lived in. It was a necessary strategy: a Crusoeian invention mimicked or mirrored by many artists of the period, as they tried to survive the desert island of Soviet life. Most of them failed, but some of them succeeded (for a while at least), protecting themselves in a way that makes me think of Wallace Stevens’s description of the imagination, as “A violence from within that protects us from a violence without.” Such violence is unavoidable—and yet, there is a point at which Russian literature begins to ask what the price for this kind of uncompromising personal vision might be. In the early 1980s, for example, the theorist Viktor Shklovsky wrote a book about plot called Energy of Delusion: A Book on Plot. In it, he described the writer as someone who deludes himself on purpose. “Talent,” Shklovsky explains, “Demands delusions, for it demands strain, nourishment, material, it demands a labyrinth of linkages into which it has been called to investigate.” Plot, then, is not just a longing: it’s a creation. It’s a story that the underground man actively tells himself so that he can feel like he’s not just sitting around obsessing about other men’s wives. More importantly, it’s a story that he tries to tell others.

Whether this visionary storytelling is a good thing, a bad thing, or some mixture of the two is one of the main questions that Russian literature continues to ask itself in the 21st century. In Bro, for example—the first volume in Vladimir Sorokin’s acclaimed Ice Trilogy—Mandelstam’s “longing” is given the voice, not of a repressed artist, but of a cult leader bent on nothing less than the end of the world. As narrator’s go, he is not a particularly sympathetic figure—but then Sorokin (who was born in 1955) understands that moral goodness and rhetorical force don’t necessarily have anything to do with one another. Bro doesn’t have to be good for us to want to listen: all he has to be is a good storyteller.

His story begins in Tunguska, that great place for hiding secrets. A meteorite falls to earth (a real meteorite, actually, or at least a conjectural one that Sorokin, like The X-Files writers before him, has deduced from Tunguska’s very real blast site), the discovery of which alerts Bro to his, and the universe’s true, Manichean nature. The world is not the world: it is a labyrinth, in which 23000 “brothers and sisters of light” (of which the narrator is one) have been trapped, but to whose true form they can be awakened by a chest-blow delivered via a chunk of the ice-meteor.

Paraphrased, this plot sounds predictable, flat; but if anything this just makes Sorokin’s storytelling more impressive. I have to admit, I’m not totally sure how he does this, but I think it has something to do with the streamlined nature of Bro’s narrative. There is not a lot of characterization, or digression, or description in it—there is not a lot of anything, actually, other than the simple recitation of events. The shambling cathedral of the novel is simplified into planes as functionally minimalist as a Soviet boarding house—and yet, for some reason, this turns out to be enough.

There are novels you want to linger in: novels you want not just to read, but to inhabit, like magical pup tents. Bro is not one of these novels. You don’t want to live in it: you want to get through it, the way a rat wants to get through a maze, or the Children of Light want to get through the world. Anything that helps them in their quest—like their brothers and sisters, or the Ice—becomes good according to this focus; anything that doesn’t help them—like “meat machines” (the Children’s term for people whose hearts are not pieces of the Light)—becomes bad. Forget moral calculus—this is a moral arithmetic: an alienated simplification that eventually infects the narrative itself. Here, for example, is Bro describing a big event occurring in “The Country of Order” (Germany):

“In the Country of Order a new meeting of meat machines took place. This time they gathered not to listen to the speeches of the leader and prepare themselves to conquer nearby countries. Instead, the meat machines put on a competition of strong, agile bodies. The meat machines with the strongest and most agile bodies from different countries came to the main city of the Country of Order to compete with one another. To show strength and agility they ran, jumped in length and height, threw pieces of iron, lifted heavy objects, swam, chased leather balloons with their feet, wrestled, fought with iron rods, beat on one another with leather gloves, spat metal at sheets of paper with iron pipes. This took place in view of tens of thousands of simple meat machines, who were not as strong and agile.”

Reading passages like this is a little like waiting for the stereoscopic image to pop out of a Magic Eye poster: strength and agility, leather balloons, spitting metal… aha! The Olympics! Sorokin is hijacking one of the most celebrated techniques of Russian prose—the ostranenie, or “strange-making,” whose use Shklovsky saw stretching from Gogol to Mayakovsky—but he is doing so in such a totalizing way that the description folds back in on itself, enveloping him (and us) in a neologic fog. Alienated imagery (“leather balloons,” “iron pipes”), which for Shklovsky cut a window through the thicket of linguistic habit, becomes its own maze. Tolstoy, that great strange-maker, famously stared at a cow until he was flooded with pity; but Bro doesn’t pity anything. He hates life—human life, at least—and it is perversely this hatred that allows him to describe what he sees in such an interesting way.

Such programmatic misanthropy would be exhausting if it were all we got from The Ice Trilogy; but it’s important to remember that Bro is not the author of Bro: Vladimir Sorokin is. A skillful ironist, he laces his book with parallels, the most obvious of which occurs when the Children of Light encounter the fascist and communist movements. Bro’s description of these is typically acute; and yet there is a switch in his thought that continually refuses to flip. The Nazis consider themselves to be a master race in the same way that the Children of Light do; and yet comparisons between the two groups simply do not occur to Bro, for the simple reason that he thinks of himself and his brothers and sisters as categorically different from anything they might be compared to. Humans are humans (or rather “meat machines”) and Children of Light are Children of Light, and never the twain may meet—at least not in Bro’s version of the story.

Bro’s single-minded certainty is one of the things that makes his history so interesting to read; and yet, in the end, Sorokin’s vision of storytelling seems to be even more ambivalent than Shklovsky’s. The best plots may not be the most persuasive; but the most persuasive plots are the ones that get the most readers. How do they do it? Well, for one, by being deluded, and by offering their readers the chance to participate in that delusion—not ironically, but emphatically. Powered by intense belief, they turn stories into creation myths and communities into cults: groups for whom only one plot exists.

Like all great works of Russian literature, The Ice Trilogy is a parody, a book that is at least partly about other books. It’s a grand delusion: a delusion about delusions, which Sorokin clearly sees as both attractive and dangerous. In an interview with Der Spiegel, he makes his personal feelings about this danger clear. “In our country,” he says. “There are special people who are permitted to do anything. They are the sacrificial priests of power. Anyone who is not a member of this group has no clout with the state. One can be as pure as can be…and still lose everything in a flash and end up in prison.” In other words, for all its science-fictional trappings, Bro is actually a very accurate account of contemporary Russian life. The conspiracy is real. The Children of Light exist. They may not be trying to end of the world—but then, they don’t have to. The world is already what they want it to be: a maze, a labyrinth, a trap for all us fallen unlucky meat machines.

As for Tunguska, I still have no idea what happened there. Asteroid? UFO? Secret nuclear test site? Possibilities proliferate—the only difference being that now, I’m pretty sure I’m never going to get to the bottom of them. Forgive me Mulder! You were a prince among men, but Scully was right. There are no exceptions. No one escapes. If the world ends (and we know it will), then we’re all ending with it. Even you. Even me.


Redshift is an investigation into the weird and mostly under-explored universe of Russian and Soviet science fiction. It takes as its guiding principle the idea, stated on Russian-American cosmologist Andrei Linde’s website, that ‘Instead of being the single, expanding ball of fire described by the big bang theory, the universe looks like a huge growing fractal…a multiverse consisting of many universes with different laws of low-energy physics operating in each of them’. So: fractal universe, fractured investigation. Perfect, in other words, for blogging.

JOSH BILLINGS is a writer and translator who lives in Rockland, Maine. Melville House has published his translations of Alexander Pushkin's Tales of Belkin and Alexander Kuprin's The Duel. Recent writing of his has appeared in The Collagist and The Literary Review. He blogs at