I’ve been waiting for years for Vladimir Sorokin’s second novel, Norma (The Norm), to appear in English translation. It wasn’t published in the author’s native Russia until 1994, a decade after Sorokin finished it, so perhaps there’s hope yet. The book, by all accounts, is a series of vignettes linked by a moment in each when a character unwraps his or her ration of a substance called “the norm.” It stinks and tastes awful. Children especially hate it, but they, like everyone else, swallow their daily dose. It’s shit, of course, actual human excrement—a pungent symbol of the requisite humiliations of the Soviet system and, perhaps, of life in any oppressive collectivity. Ours included. A small chunk (of the novel, that is) appeared in the first issue of n+1, in Keith Gessen’s translation: A character from the provinces visits the capital and marvels at the quality of the local norm. “It’s so fresh… and soft,” he enthuses. “Ours is all dried out.”
Norma, regrettably, is not alone: Sorokin has written more than a dozen novels, and most of them are unavailable in English translation, even though he’s been publishing in Russian since the old samizdat days and has been widely translated throughout Europe, Japan, and Korea. But the four books of his that have made it onto local shelves are radically diverse—including the Ice Trilogy, perhaps the strangest and most wonderful work of science fiction that this century has yet produced. The most recent among them is The Blizzard, published in Russia in 2010 and now available in a translation by Jamey Gambrell (who also translated Ice and Day of the Oprichnik, both released here in 2011). All four texts exhibit Sorokin’s taste for barbed absurdist excess. Even his most sincere metaphysical explorations tend toward brutal deadpan satire, replete with cartoonish extremes of violence, comically unsexy sex, and a Rabelaisian dollop of flatulence and scat. All of which would get old fast if Sorokin weren’t such an extraordinary writer—a brash, Swiftian ventriloquist whose best work spars ably with the Russian greats of the last century and a half. His loyalties can be surprising, but usually he stands alongside naughty Sologub over earnest Solzhenitsyn, helping Gogol kick Tolstoy into a snowdrift, then tickling him while he’s down.
Sorokin’s gifts have not been universally appreciated. At home, he has long been tarred as a scandalmonger and, even worse, a postmodernist. In 2002, followers of a pro-Putin nationalist youth group constructed a giant papier-mâché toilet outside Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre and commenced to symbolically flush copies of Sorokin’s 1999 novel Blue Lard. The offending work depicted an erotic encounter between a clone of Stalin and one of Khrushchev. The joke went badly—or, perhaps, very well indeed. The Moscow prosecutor’s office investigated Sorokin for the “illegal distribution of pornographic materials.” His international reputation soared. The charges were dropped.
Curiously, Sorokin has maintained in interviews that his work remained pointedly apolitical until he turned 50, which would have been three years after the Blue Lard affair. The novelist told Der Spiegel an almost surely spurious anecdote, once current in his circle of the avant-garde, that as Hitler’s armies flooded the boulevards of Paris outside Picasso’s studio, the great painter ignored them and focused on drawing an apple: “That was our attitude—you must sit there and draw your apple, no matter what happens around you.” He may have meant it, but Sorokin’s apple was a rotting, mutant fruit that for all its grotesqueness reflected the distorted and frequently ridiculous realities of Soviet life more accurately than the official realism could manage. Being apolitical in Brezhnev’s or Andropov’s USSR meant something different than it did in the West of Reagan and Thatcher, or than it does in Putin’s Russia. If political engagement involved submitting to communally approved narratives, the author of Norma wasn’t willing to take a bite. It’s no surprise that only later, after the dissolution of the Soviet state and the collective identity it had sustained for nearly a century—after, as Sorokin has it, “suddenly, everything, everything, turned to dust”—would the writer discover that “the citizen in me has come to life.”