Category Archives: red scare

There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories

I am coming down with something bad. I could feel the cement hardening in the cracks in my skull all day, and now my brain is both solid and lacy with an underwater stupidity. I had started reading some trash fiction this morning, as usually illness sends me crawling to comforting junk, but it didn’t suit this time. It turned out my misery wanted miserable company, which made There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories by Lyudmila Petrushevskaya more or less the perfect companion. 

Sometimes short stories can be really constructed things, like a spring-loaded trap that snaps down hard on form or concept or what have you. These short stories are instead morbid and wry anecdotes, told with a sort of uniformity of structure, in a uniformity of locales. Which isn’t exactly true: when I could tell the time period, these stories ranged around from just post-War Soviet state to the now Russian Republic grumbling about New Russians. But poor, miserable, drunken, bureaucratic assholes are a time-transcendent fixture, as are the drear cabbage-redolent apartments and disconnective, though central, family structures. At a point, the whole collection started feeling like an extended rake joke, and I kept stepping and stepping on the tines that would aim the handle straight for my cement-filled head. Whether this will work for other readers is, as usual, up in the air, and it’s possible my single-sitting reading of this work helped my sense of the dark humor. 

One of the best set of classes I ever took was a Russian Literature and History two-fer in high school, and we decided to stage a reading of The Cherry Orchard. We didn’t know much about it, and the teacher (in a very interesting and, ultimately, rewarding choice) didn’t read up on The Cherry Orchard‘s very long history on the stage; she was not directing our impressions. It’s a pretty dire story, in terms of plotting, a family broken up and sold off, dashed hopes, dissolution. And we couldn’t stop laughing as we read, not at all. It got to be a pain in the ass because we couldn’t even get our scenes completed as the giggling took up from on to the other like an infection. Then we would all wonder, why the hell are we laughing at this? Though there are elements of farce, The Cherry Orchardisn’t unserious in its treatment of its characters, not running them as some kind of broad parody. 

Turns out, Chekhov intended it as a comedy, but its tragic aspects are inescapable. The laughter it provokes is uncomfortable, the burst of laughter after a startle. Many folk smarter and better’n me at theatre history have droned on about this at length, so let’s have an end to that and get back to Petrushevskaya, who manages to hit a Soviet version of the Chekhovian tragicomedy in a blur of miserable similarity. And who manages to do it turning Tolstoy’s famous aphorism on its head: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” “Here, this is what happened,” so many of these stories start, and then not quite tragic but nonetheless inconsequential lives continue inconsequentially until they end, or the narrative does. 

The whole business reminded me of the Grandma Dory’s ironic anecdotes of her childhood, her Bestamore locked in by a stroke for the last 20 years of her life, left minded by teenage granddaughters who had better business to attend to. Bestamore had a tendency to push herself out of wherever she was propped, rolling down hills and gurgling in a way my Grandma would imitate. I guess she was trying to say something, Grandma would shrug with an old woman’s shoulders, laughing past her childish cruelties. Grandma’s lessons are always subtle. Petrushevskaya has an almost dismissively reductive narrative voice – “There once lived a girl who was beloved by her mother but no one else. The girl was used to it and didn’t get too upset” – but the opening dismissals are almost always belied by strange, glancing connections and the fact that she is focusing on these dismissed lives at all. 

I often try, when I’m writing up collected short stories, to sort them individually: this one, this theme; this other, its voice. I’m not going to do that here because I think this functions best as an album, in the old school records-slotted-in-a-cardboard-box sense, but also in the sense of family album, all those nameless and half-remembered ancestors, sitting in a row of schoolchildren or dapper in their military swag or holding armfuls of children destined to die before the age of five. Here are the stories of unremembered lives lived in squabbled over apartments and stupid jobs. Amen.

a line of people in a black and white photo in front of building, one of which is my great-grandfather (though I don't know which) on the eve of his running from Lithuania during the Revolution
One of these men is my great-grandfather, on the eve of the Revolution which will send him out of Lithuania. I don’t know which one.

I received my copy from Netgalley.com

Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins

When I read Yellow Blue Tibia, I was struck by the lack: why isn’t there more more Soviet Noir? It seemed obvious when I saw it there: the world-weary gumshoe, the crushing, predatory bureaucracy, the hidden history that is the very history of authoritarian regime. The official story is such glossy fiction, wrapped like a carapace over the bleeding sinew of the body politic. Yellow Blue Tibiais less alternate history and more historiography, the speculative fiction of national narrative and the secret speech that underpins it. Though, of course, Americans were the most well voiced creators of the Noir genre, Noir seems attuned to the Soviet history in a weird way. The commissioner won’t just bust you down to the beat, but disappear your ass to the gulag. Soviets had some of the most fabulously Noir bureaucracies ever built, only sputteringly efficient, capricious, and absolutely deadly. 


 Wolfhound Centuryis a strange animal, existing in the tidal edges of genre, the marshlands that are moving silt. Backwater police Inspector Vissarion Lom is called in by high ranking police official in the capitol city Mirgorod to investigate a Moriarty-ish terrorist, and gets caught up in the wheels within wheels of the Noir plot. I wouldn’t call this densely plotted, as at least part of the time has to be spent introducing us to the world. In this, Wolfhound Centuryprobably has some similarities with Mieville’s The City & The City. And I say “probably” just because I’ve never read The City & The City, but gossip has it that the detective plot of C&C is maybe perfunctory, while the cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma are not. I felt there was a good balance of world building and happening here, anyway, and the action is relatively breathless, if you’re into that sort of thing. Short chapters, shifting points of view, a fair amount of bloodshed once the stakes start escalating like floodwaters. 

Much of the ornament and language is Soviet Russian, something I once knew enough about to be smart, but that has gone hazy for me. Still though, Mirgorod (which translates to “world city” or “peace city”) and its origin myths smack hard of Peter the Great, standing out over the swamp that would become St Petersberg with his near seven feet. Or the Akhmatova hat-tip, or the fact that the secret police are call the NKVD (this the precursor to the KGB), or any of a hundred things. But this is not our world, not an alternate history in the strictest sense. The Vlast with its great unconquerable forests stretching off to the west, the steampunk-ish mudjhiks, the fairy tale palubas like some thing Baba Yaga would create, the fallen angels hard and stony: all of these strange, fantastical things shift the Soviet history, twist it. All in all, I get the impression that Higgins’s grasp of history is very, very good, and his choice to set this in an alternate reality is pointed, not lazy. 

I probably don’t even need to say this isn’t going to work for everyone – no novel does, even your darlings – but it sure worked for me. I usually get really cranky when writers eschew the alternate history in favor of Bullshit Fantasy Planet, where the writer constructs a near-simulacrum of a time period, but then fudges the details for the needs of the protagonists. (Later day steampunk is guilty of this a good deal, and high fantasy, don’t even get me started.) But that is not what happens here. This isn’t so much alt-history as coded history: the extremity of the details, the weirdness, the bent genres, all calling into relief the ugly extremity of history, its non-inevitability despite the fact that it happened, and so on. There’s a time leakage at the center of the plots, a breakage of possible futures and presents, and given the harsh relief between lived lives and the propagandistic gloss under Stalin, this sort of fantastic time slippery is just a beautiful metaphor. 

There’s a character called Vishnik here, a member of old aristocracy who, for a time, managed to hide his manored upbringing. But discovery was inevitable, and he was deposed from the university where he taught. He became an archivist of Mirgorod, a sinecure which he more or less takes seriously. He has been recording the moments when the possible present splits from the actual one, and those moments are stoppingly beautiful, half out of time and within it like a gestating creature. There are dog’s brains within armored suits which smash the way they must. There are fallen angels – harshly alien – who are at war with the forest. God, this kind of encoding and inflection makes me all giddy, especially hitched to a Noir plot that has breathless short chapters that run and scream from one encounter to the next. 

Here’s the thing: I’m not pumped about this ending. I don’t hate it. I get why we end in the marshlands outside Mirgorod, in the interstitial place of sinking land and silted water. That part works for me. 

The world and everything in it, everything that is and was and will be, was the unfolding story of itself, and every separate thing in the world – every particle of rock and air and light, every life, every thought and every event – was also a story, its own story, the story of everything becoming more like itself and less like everything else. The might-be becoming the is. The winter moths, on their pheromone trails, intent on love and flight, were heroes.

But the confrontation between antagonists drags, feeling like this itchy diversion before the real confrontations, which, whoops, apparently won’t be happening in this book. I suppose I could work a justification here for why the book never comes to the final crisis – blah blah, something about the insignificance of individual will versus the state kind, etc – and certain personal trajectories are completed satisfactorily, but if there isn’t a second book, I will be a cranky cat indeed. So, Mr Peter Higgins, get on that shit.

Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts

I once got in a huge argument with some friends when they uttered the following statement in my presence: “The post-Soviet economic system is a much purer form of capitalism than our own.” In addition to being vague to the point of meaninglessness, this idea, which I’ve heard several times in different contexts, is such a ridiculously American piece of twaddle, uttered in comfy American living rooms while outside government continues to function and basic services are rendered. Adam Smith’s sherry-snorting little capitalist would piss himself yellow when confronted by a New Russian when he came to shake down the widget factory for protection money. Before you jump down my throat, yes, I am aware that the US is a total kleptocracy, and that for many Americans, basic services don’t even exist. But what bridles me about this statement is the almost wistful idealism – in the classic sense of the term – that goes along with this statement: look at those lucky Russians living out the American dream of a total lack of government! Think of everything we could get done if we dismantled public education, a state-maintained infrastructure, and even the pretense of a impartial court system!

In 1991, I went on exchange to the Soviet Union, to Minsk in Belarus specifically. (Although, it was called Byelorussia in those days. I can see why the name change - Byelorus means White Russia, but spoken aloud by English speakers, this sounds like Yellow Russia.) I was 16 years old, and typically naïve, although not in a particularly precious or nasty way. We were exhorted by the exchange leaders and chaperones to be mindful of not becoming the dreaded ugly American. We all very earnestly took this to heart, but in some very real way, there was nothing to be done about what a complete mindfuck was coming our way. Turns out, the Soviets viewed history entirely differently than Americans. I mean, duh, of course they do, but it’s one thing to say this, and another thing to walk around in place entirely steeped in an alternate history. It’s like someone took all the regular labels, and, I don’t know, rendered them into Cyrillic or something. 

I’m being flip, but here’s an example: I know it may be hard to remember, but the Soviet Union and the US were both Allies in the War. When I say the War, I mean WWII, which the Russians would call the Great Patriotic War. The War sucked for the States, absolutely: rationing, tons of people dead, Japanese internment  etc, but this is a completely different kind of sucking than the Russians experienced: cities laid siege, the countrysides burned to ash, the lack of basic munitions for the soldiery. (And this is assuming the soldiery were even, in the strictest sense, soldiers. There were tons and tons of statues in Minsk – rightly so – to the partisans who fought the Nazis with absolutely no military training or back-up of any kind.) So when Russians speak with pride about their part in War, it’s a fundamentally different kind of pride than an American would understand. It’s personal in a way an American transported on government ships, outfitted with government weapons and generaled by American military leaders cannot begin to understand. Again, caveats all around about your Grandpa and how he got screwed this one time, or LeMay and what an idiot he was or whatever. My point stands: your Grandfather didn’t have a gun to both his front and back when he went to war. I’m not saying his service is less valorous or whatever; I’m saying it’s entirely different. If it weren’t for this experience, I might have been able to go along with the statement above, because I would have understood the word “capitalism”, with it’s embedded widgets and labor and markets and all that crap in a very specific way, and then thought I could export those ideas with their nomenclature intact. Wrong. No way. 

I have roughly seven thousand different anecdotes about how my mind was blown by this country that was filled with humans, flesh-and-blood recognizable humans, and how their sense of history, community, and individuality was entirely different from mine. Yellow Blue Tibiatakes place in this Soviet Union, and I’m afraid a good deal of my pleasure with this novel is intensely personal. Which is not to say it isn’t good, because it really, really is. Frankly, I’m a little pissed off I had never heard of Adam Roberts before Mike’s review turned me on to this. Yellow Blue Tibiais a thoughtful exploration of the idea of alternate history, both in the literary and the cultural senses, in this po-mo meta way, but don’t let that dissuade you. It’s also maybe the first example of the Soviet Noir, in this incredibly funny way that zips the California flat-foot backwards, but don’t let that dissuade you either. 

I’ve started this review a couple of times, but each time I get into the swing of things, the freaking battery on my lappy fails, and I lose it all. I wised up at some point, and started saving regularly, but the whole thing has been so frustrating with lost passages and I feel so sick and irritated with trying to recreate them that I’ve decided to chuck it all and start over. It’s kind of perfect, in way – although this may be the sour grapes talking – because this book is partially about history and the ways it is perceived, the way those perceptions are enacted and enforced. For whatever reason, I’ve been reading a lot of fiction recently in the mode of alternate history, and then also stuff about the paranoid conspiracy. I’m beginning to think maybe history is a paranoid conspiracy. Seriously, don thine tin foil works of millinery and gather round for this one.

As I’m writing, I’m sitting on the back porch while firecrackers bang around me in the dark. It’s Forth of July weekend, and we Americans are reenacting our big F.U. to taxes and England and whatnot. Our country was founded on an oppositional basis: we are not a monarchy, we are not British, we are something other, and that other is not-you. The Brits kind of fell off as our bad-guy of choice, but we’ve always found another other, which probably reached it’s societal pinnacle of othering with the Cold War. And the reason our conflict with the Soviets was so freaking perfect was that at the very same time, they were writing themselves as not-us. (I guess when I say perfect, I mean horrible and infectiously engulfing, but you know what I mean.) 

Yellow Blue Tibiatakes place in the Soviet Union in 1986, mostly, when the Soviet narrative was beginning to crack and fail, on a collective level. (Har har?) The same could be said about that time in the States: the Berlin Wall had fallen, Germany was nervously approaching reunification, and we were all kind of losing interest in the whole thing. Meh, it’s done. Reagan’s “Star Wars” speech was in ’83, but this was pretty much a punchline on the era – for cripe’s sakes man, clearly you have been reading too much science fiction! (Although, that little chestnut was dusted off after 9/11, as you may recall, just another piece of evidence of how un-charmingly Cold War Era our “security systems” still are/were.) Anyway, the protagonist, along with a number of other science fiction writers, was called by Stalin after the Great War to script the war-after-the-next-war. After the Soviets put down the Yanks, they would need a new enemy to fight, and that enemy, my friends, would be aliens.

They beaver away at it, script the entire invasion, until they are told to stop and never to speak of it again. Unlike an American in the same instance, this actually means something, so they don’t. I’ve always laughed my ass off at American conspiracies, because the idea of governmental competence on that level is a real knee-slapper. If there’s one thing a group of Americans can’t do, it’s shut the fuck up on an institutional level. A Stalin Era Soviet, however, knew the true murderous power of an effective government, at least when it came to shutting you the fuck up. So he shuts up, drinks roughly 8 million cubic shit-tons of vodka, dries out, and manages to make it to ’86 more or less intact. Then the real fit hits the shan. He’s contacted by another of the writers from the group, who pitches the idea that all their fictions are beginning to come true. 

There’s a lot of snicker-snack and some zippy plot-driven origami at this point, and I won’t go too far into it for fear of spoilers. But woo-ey, it’s fun, and more mindful of character than your usual high-concept exercise. There are parts that got a little to expository for me, especially near the end, but wow is that first several hundred pages worth reading when compared to the only partially lumpy infodump near the end. And even though I’m complaining a little bit, I still thought the ideasworked and they worked well, reconciling all kind of craziness into a neat pile of half-smoked Russian cigarettes. Roberts is the most fun sci-fi writer you’ve never heard of. Sci-fi nerds, get out and read this as soon as you are able.