The way this book is structured, it’s almost over just as it begins. I was deeply struck by Chetyre (aka 4), which was scripted by Sorokin, and Ice plays on some of the same themes: weird genetics, supernatural myths become gritty urban reality, and an emphasis on flesh and the physical at their most blunt. Blunt this book is, because the first half of it is Keystone Kops caperings of mobsters and a secret society of chosen people (blond and blue-eyed) who seek to awaken their comrades by smashing in their chests with a hammer, to awaken their “hearts” and cause them to speak. Some of their candidates do not have such a heart within them, and they tend not to survive the attempted awakening.
That this is evidently a pastiche of contemporary decadent writing only becomes apparent in the last half, where the style inverts into a long chronicle of the movement’s history by its current leader Khram, an old lady who survived the Nazis and survived Stalin to bring her movement to fruition with the aid of an aggressive oil tycoon post-perestroika. She’s upfront: there are 23,000 of them, alien visitors who were trapped through ambiguous means in the bodies of humans. As it is explained to her:
The absolute majority of people on this earth are walking dead. They are born dead, they marry the dead, they give birth to the dead, and die…That is the circle of the dead lives. There is no way out. But we are alive, we are the chosen. We know what the language of the heart is, the language we have already spoken to you. And we know what love is. Genuine Divine Love.
There is more to the mythology, particularly the notion that they commune not through physical sex but through mystical “conversations of the heart,” but this is the basic duality: life and death, love and lack of love, hope and despair. There is no hope for most people, and the chosen treat them as objects, because that’s all they are.
The book ends with the ascension just beginning, and there is both a sequel and a prequel in the offing. Aside from Sorokin’s slick navigation of styles (it seems that way in English, at least, and a few Russian speakers have confirmed this), there’s not too much more than the secret history presented in this novel, from the oppression of the chosen to their rise in the chaos of present-day Russia. In some ways it is a glib vision that Sorokin offers. Accepting the disbelief in spiritual salvation, but not wishing to produce nihilism (Chetyre was, for all its grotesqueries, deeply humanistic), he takes off from Kafka’s famous aphorism: there is “Plenty of hope for God–no end of hope–only not for us.”
People tend to excise the “God” part from that quote, but the quote is merely fashionable pessimism without it. Though he leaves the certainty of the salvation ambiguous, Sorokin resolutely focuses on a set of chosen who resist reader identification and are therefore wholly other. It makes Sorokin an inversion of Hegel: life is always elsewhere. Intuitively, this seems a far better model for the big claustrophobic world of today than Hegel’s steadfast one-world (hell, one-country) view.
Update: See also this excellent review.