“Homo Zapiens” by Victor Pelevin

A cynical Russian copywriter channels advertising advice from the ghost of Che Guevara in this savage satire of the post-Soviet corporate underworld.

Topics: Books,

In Russian author Victor Pelevin’s “Homo Zapiens,” “zapping” is defined as “the rapid switching of a television from one channel to another, which is used to avoid watching the advertisements.” Since “instantaneous and unpredictable technomodifications switch the actual viewer to and fro,” the viewer becomes “a remotely controlled television program,” or, a homo zapien. Yes, yes, we know: TV turns us into helpless automatons, tongues lolling out of our mouths, millions of brain cells wasted per 22-minute sitcom, etc.

But like everything else in Pelevin’s exhilarating stew of a novel, social commentary comes out blazing and with many shrewd twists. It turns out the phrase “homo zapien” was coined by the spirit of Che Guevara, whose 10-page manifesto on advertising is channeled via a Ouija board to the coffee table of a budding Russian copywriter named Tatarsky. (Guevara even peppers his Ouija-board speech with such salutations as “Comrades in the struggle!”)

During this particular revelation, Tatarsky happens to be wearing a T-shirt with Guevara’s face on it, marked with the phrase, “Rage Against the Machine.” Of course, as Tatarsky muses, Guevara fits in pretty well as an ad guru: “in the area of radical youth culture nothing sells as well as well-packaged and politically correct rebellion against a world that is ruled by political correctness and in which everything is packaged to be sold.”

Tatarsky wasn’t hallucinating during this particular scene, though he does in many others. One of Pelevin’s most exciting and sometimes maddening tendencies is to flip from futuristic, satiric Soviet reality to bizarre interludes of Babylonian history, LSD manifestations and the Orwellian world of a television station in which the people may not be real. It’s wild, but it also somehow makes sense; in “Homo Zapiens,” copywriters (and porn writers) are running the world.

Tatarsky, who thought he wanted to be a poet, falls into the copywriting biz when a former classmate promises large monetary rewards. However, the problem with writing advertisements for Western products in post-communist Russia is the sad truth that Russian consumers aren’t used to choice. Enter people like Tatarsky, hired to dispel the “Soviet mentality” with seductive ads that sell everything from cigarettes to shampoo to tampons. As Tatarsky gets embroiled in a political-corporate underworld (which is the real world) of Chechen gangsters and Buddhist drug dealers, he ends up at the Institute of Apiculture — where you can snort coke right off the carpet! — and there he discovers who’s behind the ads, and TV, and the government and … the economy. Or does he?

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Pelevin’s take on the post-Soviet culture shock can be somber, as well. When Lenin statues are removed from public spaces they’re replaced “by a frightening murky greyness,” Pelevin notes. “The newspapers claimed the whole world had been living in this grey murk for absolutely ages, which was why it was so full of things and money, and the only reason people couldn’t understand this was their ‘Soviet mentality.’” As the Russian people grapple with this new capitalist onslaught, disappointment, materialism’s hangover, sets in. “Ten years ago a new pair of [sneakers] brought in from abroad by a distant relative used to mark the starting point of a new period in your life,” Pelevin writes. “The happiness that could be extracted from such an acquisition was boundless. Nowadays, to earn the right to the same amount you had to buy at least a jeep, maybe even a house.”

Sometimes Pelevin seems heavy-handed; we’re all too familiar with doomsday predictions of corporate culture run amok. In Pelevin’s Russia, even an emblem promising “The Path to Your Self” is just a sign for a store (where Tatarsky buys the Ouija board that hooks him up with Che). But it doesn’t matter: Pelevin’s so funny, sharp and engaging that not only do you forgive him his excesses, you look forward to them.

Our next pick: Two rival physicists working in a weapons lab play footsie with the apocalypse

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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