Vladimir Sorokin is an incendiary. More of an anthropologist than a philosopher, and more philosopher than historian, he is most of all a shrewd novelist. Sorokin crafts absurdly dystopic satires, ones that are so demented, so obscene, so blasphemous, and so visceral in its representation of Russian and Soviet existence that they force us to consider humanity’s devotion to mass insanity.
That’s a long-winded way of saying that he is a very ironic person, and also a very sincere observationalist. The combination is his raison d'être and it’s fantastic.
Sorokin, one of contemporary Russia’s most infamous novelists, is not yet infamous in America. He’s not really even famous outside Eastern Europe. His fifteen novels, written between 1979 to 2021, have been slow to reach the West — fewer than half have been translated into English, and then there are his countless stories, essays, plays, film scripts, and (wonderfully!) an opera libretto. But that is about to change, largely thanks to Max Lawton, a precocious doctoral student at Columbia perturbed by the paltry international attention paid to his favorite living writer. In the mid-2010s, when Lawton first started reading whatever English and French translations were available, he likened the experience to “visiting an alien planet I couldn’t wait to share my recollections of, but then could remember nothing [about] when I was done.” And for a Sorokin apologist like Lawton, to simply “remember” isn’t good enough. Readers, he thinks, should be inundated by Vladimir Georgiyevich’s ineffable, transcendent lunacy.
So far, Lawton has completed six translations, all for Dalkey Archive Press or New York Review Books. Two more are in-progress, and two others are already published, including Their Four Hearts, a Soviet-era opus written in 1991, released last April. Another, Telluria — a fifty-chapter fever dream of a novel in which characters hammer drugs into their heads, causing euphoria or death, to disassociate from the neo-Christian-Islamic fracas that re-outlined Europe and parts of Asia into cyberpunk nano-states — came out earlier this month.
If it looks like American readers are behind, it’s because we are. But Sorokin is also always ahead, frighteningly so. By using Soviet and post-Soviet politics as exposition, his preposterous anti-realism is, in fact, motivated by real atrocities, like the fierce nationalism that tempered the Iron Curtain in his youth and the invasion of Ukraine in his present. His visions may seem grim — the shit-eating commonfolk in The Norm; the cannibalistic clones of Nikita Khrushchev and Josef Stalin in Blue Lard; literal (literally literal) mind-fucking in Their Four Hearts; and the head-hammering tweakers in Telluria all seem to suggest that humanity is feral and can’t be tamed. We’re undomesticated animals, and we’re worth paying attention to.
Some people don’t care for books that depict brain-raping or eating feces. Sorokin doesn’t care about that. But he still cares about you.
“I’m a Russian Orthodox Communist,” remarks a comrade, unironically, partway through Telluria, in a room embellished with religious icons and an animated photo of Vladimir Lenin. Such gags probably tickle Sorokin. With tousled silver hair and an enigmatic smirk, his regularly blithe expression suggests that he’s in on the joke. And I think he mostly is. He sometimes tells the story of a friend reading The Norm and remarking that “the government is obligated to destroy the author of such work.” This, he says, “was the highest form of praise for me.”
He wears polka-dotted trousers, Birkenstocks too. He loves his dogs, ones he says are “very small.” He’s a family man, married for over forty years and adored by his adult children. And he’s a Christian. To be honest, it’s a pretty humdrum portrait of a not-so-humdrum writer, more like your dad’s cool friend than an international sensation of scatological pulp fiction.
Born in the early years of the Thaw, Sorokin, at one point, was the only child at school with educated parents in a blue-collar district of Moscow. Later, when pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering at Kerosinka in the ’70s, he did so, presumably, only to avoid serving in the Soviet Army. Public political opposition was still a punishable offense during Stagnation; semi-private gatherings for artists and “deviant thinkers,” however, were tolerated without government interference. For a while, at least.
As a university student, Sorokin fraternized mostly with visual artists known as the Moscow Conceptualists, byproducts of Soviet Pop Art who defied the credo of Socialist Realism. The man that emerged from this period was, and still is, an enigma. He was both a snuff writer and now church go-er — around the age of 25, he was baptized in the Russian Orthodox church, long before Dimes Square femcels started snorting ketamine with a rosary cross in a confessional. Sorokin thought God was stunning. Had he lived in the West, his faith would've perhaps marked him out from an intellectual crowd, but nothing more. Against the backdrop of state-sanctioned Soviet atheism, Sorokin’s baptism looks like a more meaningful form of rebellion. He still believes in God, and of the many Christian teachings he values forgiveness most of all. This, perhaps, is what makes him such a literary incendiary.
“I know what Nabokov meant when he said: ‘I want to make the reader into a viewer,” Sorokin has said, with a voice like velour, in a documentary by Ilya Belov. It’s no accident that he spent his early adulthood with visual artists — he wants his art seen with the mind’s eye. Aesthetics? No. But a mood? Definitely.
As Putin took office in the new millennium, Sorokin was still an underground writer of experimental prose, mostly unknown outside of pretentious literary circles. Blue Lard changed that, for better or worse. Intensifying sanctions under Putin’s authority triggered a smear campaign against Sorokin and Blue Lard in 2002, three years after publication, for a comically graphic sex scene between Khrushchev and Stalin — or rather, between clones of Khrushchev and Stalin. An official investigation, dropped a year later, tried to charge Sorokin for disseminating pornography. The outcry received global attention — specifically, a rally outside of Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater where protestors threw copies of the book into a giant foam toilet and called for his arrest. It was the kind of press that sells more books.
Blue Lard operates somewhat like Telluria, in that a unifying plot is omitted in favor of siloed vignettes within an equally heinous universe of Sorokin’s construction. Lawton’s translation, slated for release in 2023, includes the much-talked-about scene in which Nikita Khrushchev breeds Josef Stalin. It’s surprisingly tender. Khrushchev “whisper[s] to one of Stalin’s little nipples, before taking it between his big, sensual lips” and “freeing his tumescent, brown penis.” Khrushchev calls Stalin his “sweet little boy” as he fucks him, then ejaculates inside him, with semen “hot like lava.” In its entirely, the scene — which lasts two-and-a-half pages — is rendered so vividly that accusations of pornography, for a moment, don’t seem all that misplaced. Then again, the wording is so extravagantly sentimental that it’s impossible to take the charge seriously.
While art and politics are seldom mutually exclusive, it would be inexplicably naïve to deny that such bold disobediences are without consequences. The irony Sorokin wields is slippery, because it’s precisely what provokes such intense reactions in its very resistance to being fully comprehended. His construction of language and rhetoric is vivid, but requires inquiry from readers, something he learned from the esoteric Conceptualists. Sorokin isn’t trying to convince you that Khrushchev and Stalin were earnest lovers. He knows that’s absurd. History, for Sorokin, is clay he manipulates into art, that he manipulates again and again. And again. But no matter how many irreverent and ludicrous shapes he sculpts out of it, the minerals that make up the material can’t be changed. Clay is always clay. Shit is always shit, unless it’s also food. What Sorokin further (and further) desecrates are the already desecrated histories of modernity.
Much to my disappointment, Sorokin's proclivity for irreverence isn't personal. But it is politics. It’s hard to say how Americans will react to what Lawton calls Sorokinian “what-the-fuckness.” I’m thrilled they’ll get the chance to decide.
Arya Roshanian is a fiction and non-fiction writer living in Brooklyn. He is an MFA candidate at Columbia University.