Friday, October 14, 2011

100 Books 55 - Victor Pelevin's HOMO ZAPIENS

I love Victor Pelevin, but I somehow managed to miss this one when it came out. I only learned of its existence because a film adaptation premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this year under the title Generation P. The film blew me away and was my favorite from this year's festival and I promise that soon I'll get around to writing about the rest of the films I saw there; for now, suffice it to say that Victor Ginzberg's film adaptation was magnificently faithful to a novel that was begging to be a film from the first page.

Homo Zapiens -- the title refers to a theorized new, devolved form of human being whose thoughts and reactions are largely governed by the television, even if, maybe especially if, what he's mostly doing is zapping to avoid commercials -- is Pelevin at his most gleefully nihilistic as he surveys the chaos that was Russia in the 90s. Not since The Exile: Sex Drugs and Libel in the New Russia have I seen this milieu so vividly depicted: blatant corruption at all levels of public and private life, gross materialism and drug abuse, vodka and cranky mysticism, all wrapped up in the Russian version of How to Get Ahead in Advertising; had hero Babylen Tartosky sprouted another head I would not have been surprised. But Pelevin has other, crazier ideas to play with, here.

Like the idea that at some point the mass media stopped reporting the news and started making it up -- even to inventing the politicians, who only exist as artfully computer-generated animations and carefully seeded urban legends (a cadre of ordinary-seeming ex-soldier types has the job of planting stories of seeing, e.g. Yeltsin or Berezhovsky in a grocery store or walking down the street). It's unclear whether or not we readers are expected to take this idea as true for this fictional world, or as just another whopper his co-workers and employers have laid on for Babylen's confusion or edification, and it's one of the amazing things about this novel that it ultimately doesn't matter if the reader believes it or not, if Babylen's superiors believe it or not, or if Babylen believes it or not.

Which is to say that Homo Zapiens, novel and film, messed with my head in all of the ways I most like having my head messed with. But if you're not familiar with the real world that inspired this phantasmagorical fake (or is it? Hmm?) one, do yourself a favor and have a look at The Exile, either the book I linked to above, or look at some of the archived "classic" issues from its original run as one of the bitchiest and most profane alternative newspapers the world has ever seen. Doing so will not only enrich your experience of reading or watching Homo Zapiens/Generation P, but will also give you a unique and completely compelling look at the  world through the eyes of "two hairy-assed jerks" who had front row seats to watch the chaos, cannibalism and cockery of the collapse of the world's last great empire.

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