October 2011
Victoria Nelson

Meat and Light

Vladimir Sorokin’s Ice Trilogy Considers Gnostic Transcendentalism, the Potential of Human Collective Energy, and the Changing Russian Sociopolitical Landscape

Discussed: The Twilight of Czarist Russia, Expeditions to Siberia, Echoes of Nabokov, The Great Mistake That Is Earth, Soulless Carnivores, A Sudden Left Turn, Tiny Cavorting Dinosaurs, Clumsy Intermediaries, Celibate Vegetarians, The Wild West Era of Post-Soviet Capitalism, Ray Babies, Human Simulacra, Cautionary Tales, Cabbage, A Sodomizing Caterpillar

In the “Oxen of the Sun” chapter of Ulysses, James Joyce presentssound-bite snippets of voices that movechronologically from Anglo-Saxon straight through to contemporary speech. I had a similar sensation of working through layers of literary history while reading Vladimir Sorokin’s Ice trilogy, three interlinked novels published together for the first time this year by New York Review Books and fluidly translated by Jamey Gambrell. The eponymous narrator of Bro, the first novel in the series[1], enjoys an idyllic childhood of privilege in the twilight of czarist Russia, as the son of a wealthy merchant. This life, beautifully evoked by Sorokin in full Nabokovian mode, is quickly obliterated, along with the narrator’s immediate family, by the Bolshevik revolution. Orphaned and traumatized, Sasha Snegirev is drifting through university in the new Soviet world when a classmate recruits him for a scientific expedition to Siberia under the charismatic Leonid Kulik (the scientist who led the real-life trek this story draws on). Its mission: to locate the remains of the meteorite whose explosion in Earth’s atmosphere is presumed to have caused the great fireball that appeared over the Tunguska region in 1908, flattening more than eight hundred square miles of forest.

Known in UFO circles as the “Russian Roswell,” the Tunguska event has long been a magnet for esoteric speculation, in large part because no fragments of the giant meteor, nor even its impact crater, have ever been found. (In his 1946 story “The Explosion,” Alexander Kazantsev famously styled the Tunguska event as the massive nuclear explosion of an extraterrestrial spaceship.[2]) In what will prove to be no coincidence, our hero was born on the day of this catastrophic historic event. He’s been haunted throughout his young life by a vision of a “Light” at the top of a great mountain, and finds his only deep pleasure in astronomy classes where, he tells us, in the distinctive style of typographic emphasis Sorokin favors, “I simply hung among the stars.”

Selected mainly because of the apparent good omen of his birth, the merchant’s son embarks on a fateful journey that initially offers further echoes ofNabokov (the lepidopterological expedition to Central Asia in The Gift, a work dismissed by a character in the third novel of Sorokin’s series as boring). But in Siberia, Nabokov and modernity get kicked off the wagon for good as the story takes a completely different turn to—what? That is the great aesthetic and moral question of these novels.

Here’s what happens: Approaching the impact zone, the young man feels strange inner stirrings. His childhood dream of the Light recurs, he quits talking and eating; finally, he abandons the group in search of what he calls the huge and intimate, the mysterious energy that is calling to him. Striking out alone across the empty taiga, he plunges into a bog and swims wildly until he reaches the tip of the meteorite. Against all reason, it’s not made of stone or iron but Ice, “an ideal Cosmic substance generated by the Primordial Light” now safely preserved in the Siberian permafrost. In his excitement, he slips and falls, hitting his chest hard and thereby unlocking a mystic connection with the Ice, which gives him his true name, Bro.

Singing the “Music of Eternal Harmony,” the Ice reveals to Bro the secret cosmogony of the universe. In the beginning, outside space and time, there was only the Primordial Light. This Light consisted of exactly 23,000 rays, one of which was Bro. Their function was to create worlds, and this they did, stars and planets beyond number, all radiating Eternal Harmony. Then they made Earth, a creation that became their “great mistake” because they made it out of water. This unstable medium mirrored the rays back to them with the catastrophic result that they got trapped in their own reflections and incarnated as mortal creatures on Earth—first as simple amoebas, then evolving over billions of years into humans, soulless carnivores who engage in the mindless, repetitive acts of killing and birthing, all the while exploiting the natural world around them.

The 23,000 rays of Light, the Ice voice goes on, have been trapped in these sordid bodies, their hearts asleep like those of humans, until that pivotal moment in 1908 when the “huge piece of Heavenly Ice,” encased in a protective hard shell of cosmic dust, dropped to Earth on a mission: to recover the rays so that they, in turn, might save the “perishing Universe.” Bro’s mission is to find and awaken the other 22,999 rays hidden in their fleshly prisons. Once these blond-haired, blue-eyed children of the Light are able to gather in one place and join hands, Earth will dissolve. The liberated rays will regain their identity in the essential world and will go on to create a “New Universe—Sublime and Eternal.”

Presented in the same breathless, breakneck prose as the rest of the story, this information comes across more plausibly (if that’s the right word) than a summary might indicate. Still, as a reader who had settled comfortably into adventure-on-the-tundra reading mode, I found the sudden left turn into Gnostic fantasy startling. My reaction put me in mind of the shock I felt in my first encounter, circa 1980, with the work of the dissident émigré Russian artists Komar and Melemid: a lovingly socialist realist rendering of a World War II partisan in greatcoat and rifle standing heroically vigilant in the night forest. (At the partisan’s feet, unnoticed by him, a tiny dinosaur cavorts.) Resetting my reading dials for that distinctive K & M brand of subversive irony, I readied myself for postmodern satire and a parable of the authoritarian political system that ruled Russia for seventy years, so often compared (by Eric Voegelin and others) to a Gnostic elite claiming the special knowledge needed to bring about apocalyptic changes in humanity’s condition.

Once again, my expectations were confounded. This is no clever allegory of communist idealism gone wrong, or even a parody of Aryan Übermenschen, though the genetic exclusivity of the children of the Light is a tipoff that something’s not quite kosher about them. Sorokin is not being ironic about Bro’s membership in the children of the Light; he is, to channel Bro’s voice, dead serious. Not that 23,000 cosmic rays incarnated as humans exist anywhere outside his own imagination, of course, but rather that experiential mysticism is a real phenomenon whose personal, social, and spiritual implications deserve to be examined and critiqued.

  1. Sorokin actually wrote and published Ice first, in 2002, followed by Bro (original title: Put’ Bro, or “Bro’s Way”) in 2004 and 23,000 in 2005.
  2. The story is not available in English translation. Current scientific speculation suggests that Lake Cheko in that region may represent the actual impact area. In 2002, a substantial meteor landed in the Irkutsk region.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Victoria Nelson’s second collection of stories, A Bestiary of My Heart, will appear this month from InkerMen Press. Her critical work Gothicka, a sequel to The Secret Life of Puppets, will be published by Harvard University Press in April 2012.

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