The Unclassifiable Viktor Pelevin

By , Contributor
Imagine a writer who is like Oscar Wilde without the frivolousness, like Franz Kafka without the grimness, and like Vladimir Nabokov without the snobbishness—and you have Viktor Pelevin, Russia’s most important living writer.

More than anything, it’s the dizzying diversity of Pelevin’s interests that makes him unclassifiable. He’s Russia’s first great writer who has worked as a copywriter in an ad agency, is a practicing Buddhist, and is also an enthusiastic fan of American popular culture.  He once told an interviewer, “You read Anton Chekhov, and I listen to Kinky Friedman.”

A movie version of his novel Generation P, directed by Viktor Ginsburg, just received a special jury prize at the Czech film festival at Karlovy Vary, and may make its way to art houses next year. The P in the title stands for the Pepsi Generation and also refers to Positioning, the advertising classic by Al and Laura Ries. This is Pelevin’s sly way of suggesting that Soviet ideology was nothing more than advertising slogans. (Generation P, aka Homo Sapiens, is available in English translation, as are several collections of his short stories.)

A few comments about his book P5  may convey some of the flavor of his stories. It contains five stories (naturally). The first story, “The Hall of Singing Caryatids,” begins with an interview in which a girl is asked to strip and then sing while standing on one leg.  It turns out that the interviewer is a recruiter for a mysterious establishment located under the Rublyov Highway in Moscow.

The owners have created a substance which, when injected, will allow the chosen girls to sing while standing motionless, like caryatids, for two-and-a-half hours. And it goes on from there. There’s a Kafkaesque quality here, but Pelevin never loses his sense of humor, and always grounds the weirdness of his stories in the nitty-gritty of contemporary Moscow.

Pelevin’s unsurpassed verbal inventiveness comes through even in interviews, with gems such as these:

  • “Glamour is sex expressed through money."
  • “Unfortunately, music beyond the confines of a fitness center serves as a lubricant for the penetration of advertising."
  • “By their nature, literary prizes and classifications are something like hangers for advertisements for cheese-flavored potato chips.”

In short, Pelevin is so smart, so inventive, so media-savvy that he makes all the stereotypes and Russia and the Russians irrelevant. What he’s doing is welcoming us to Russia in the twenty-first century.

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