My current research and writing revolves around my book-in-progress, Mbytes of Unfreedom: Victor Pelevin’s Poetics, Politics, Metaphysics—the first monograph-length study of arguably the most important writer in post-Soviet Russia.
I was introduced to Pelevin during my university days when I read his youthful collection of short stories The Blue Lantern (1991), novellas Omon Ra and The Yellow Arrow (1992), and the now-classic novel Chapaev and the Void (1996). He was compared to the classics of socio-metaphysical fantasy like Gogol, Kafka, and Borges, and celebrated as the most “zeitgeisty” of contemporary writers. As a student, I was impressed (perhaps predictably so) by the forcefully anti-authoritarian quality of Pelevin’s thinking—not just by his deconstruction of Soviet Socialist ideology (an easy enough target at the time of the collapse of the USSR) but, in a wider sense, Pelevin never taking for granted what he terms “collective visualizations”—divergent ideologies, mythologemes, worldviews, and common-sense assumptions.
My own scholarly work on Pelevin commenced about a decade later when I wrote “From Homo Sovieticus to Homo Zapiens: Victor Pelevin’s Consumer Dystopia” (The Russian Review, 2008). This article analyzed Pelevin’s paradigmatic turn-of-the millennium novel Generation ‘П’, arguing that Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), in which total control is achieved through saturating the populace with products of mass culture, serves as the most fitting model for Pelevin. More articles followed—“The Monstrous Aggregate of the Social: Biopolitics in Victor Pelevin” (Slavic and East European Journal 2011), and “Incarceration, Alibi, Escape? Pelevin’s Art of Irony” (Russian Literature 2014).
He is a challenging author to discuss because of the tricks that proliferate in his texts, the complexity of his narratives, and the general elusiveness of their meaning. One’s critical task, as I see it, is to try to think along—unhurriedly, with proper nuance, and, insofar as possible, avoiding ideological shortcuts.
As Pelevin develops his narratives along a stable set of key motifs such as hyper-commodification, dehumanization, social regress, illusions, and the lies of language and critical theory, he builds upon his preceding works and introduces new insights.
Even during my initial exposure to Pelevin, he struck me as more than a scathing parodist of Socialist mythologemes and a consummate postmodernist (as most Western critics tended to praise him). I came to see Pelevin as one who: a) adroitly utilizes postmodern themes and tropes to convey his own missive(s)—including, but not confined to, the requisite “there is no message” message; b) is constructive of a peculiar kind of Weltanschauung (Buddhist, solipsistic, even a bit romantic) rather than merely deconstructive of established worldviews; and c) combines a forceful voice of deconstruction, parody, and (self)-irony with poignant expressions of lyricism, compassion, and ethical concern. This may provide an insight into Pelevin’s relevance. To remain consistently anti-authoritarian in a world where irony is the default mode, one turns earnest and ethical.