The world of advertising gets a richly comic comeuppance in this latest (1999) novel by the hip absurdist (Buddha’s Little Finger, 2000, etc.).
Protagonist Babylen Tatarsky is a nondescript shop assistant who fails in technical school, and as a poet, before finding work as an adman entrusted with creating slogans and campaigns aimed at selling Western products (like Pepsi-Cola) to Russian consumers. The time is the late 1990s, shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Pelevin has a lot of fun with Tatarsky’s rapid rise through the industry, the sources of his best (often ribald) ideas (which are triggered by hallucinogen-inspired “conversations” with a fire-breathing dragon and the ghost of Che Guevara, who’s now a Buddhist)—and also in sketching industry colleagues like the Wagner-loving Malyuta and the pseudonymous “Sasha Bio,” a henpecked married pornographer. But the story veers into futuristic dystopian fantasy with the discovery of a sinister conspiracy masterminded by unidentified conservatives who employ computer-generated televised images of nonexistent politicians to maintain public order and create appropriate appetites. Images of 1984 and Brave New World begin dancing through readers’ heads, and the high hilarity flattens out (as it also does in some of Tatarsky’s talks with Che, which are not as consistently funny as Pelevin seems to think). Tatarsky, however, is appealingly venal and self-absorbed (he brings to mind any number of Gogol’s wretched, put-upon Everymen), and his efforts to “educate” himself (in the techniques of Freudian analysis and the intricacies of Babylonian mythology, among other arcana) are very funny indeed. And there’s a terrific (and quite rude) climactic joke involving the helplessly amusing figure of Boris Yeltsin.
A little too scattered and willfully antic to rank with Pelevin’s best. Nevertheless, further proof that this merry satirist wears the mantle of Gogol, Bely, and Bulgakov with more flair than almost any other contemporary novelist.