The Original Think Magazine (Published since 1996)

Babylon by Viktor Pelevin

Rumor has it that in Moscow samizdat copies of Viktor Pelevin's galley proofs are passed around in the clubs. The only other writer like that I know of is Irvine Welsh, whose review copies command hundreds of British pounds for the enterprising critic.

'Babylon' by Viktor PelevinLike Welsh, Pelevin is also considered an A-list young 'now' author who has his literary finger on the heartbeat of the 18 to 35 year-old book reading demographic.

You know this because the publishers of these writers invariably cloak the cover art in trippy candy designs and critical references to drugs and semi-popcult icons. Hence the Time cover blurb calling Pelevin a "psychedelic Nabokov for the cyber age."

Psychedelic sure, but Pelevin doesn't even qualify as a poor man's Nabokov, and he is less a prophet of the cyber age than a morbidly witty chronicler of post-communist, monstrously capitalist urban Russia.

Tatarsky, the twenty-something genius protagonist in Babylon, realizes that art and mystery have died with the gray solitude and strange peace that existed under the Soviets, and decides to ditch his literary aspirations in favor of the crass, dangerous and lucrative world of the Moscow advertising industry.

Tatarsky infuses western ad concepts with traditional Russian themes like nationalism and anti-Semitism ("How long will we allow the Davidsons to ride off on our Harleys? Russia Awake!"), and Pelevin's writing peaks with the best of these parodies.

One marvels that a Russian born into communism is deconstructing the language and logic of consumerism in such a knowing and fully armed style; but Pelevin does, and there are parts that read as if they could be pulled from Bret Easton Ellis or David Foster Wallace, if either of them had ever scraped with Chechens or tanked vodka with former apparatchiks.

Unfortunately the book swells early and is plodding by the time it hits the fifty-yard line, leaving the second half a luke warm soup of skits, character sketches and directionless dialogue. But Pelevin sells window seats on flights through the collective unconscious of New Russia and its schizoid offspring, and if the food occasionally sucks, the visuals always make the ride.

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