Skip to main content

Shallow Considerations of Tolstaya's The Slynx

The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya,
Houghton Mifflin, 278 pages, 2003.
Tolstaya's novel, The Slynx, is a smorgasbord of dark delights. No matter what angle a reader approaches this story, they'll find something provocative to confront & challenge their thinking about narrative, genre, & storytelling. Tolstaya teases out allusions to the Bolshevik Revolution and other slivers of Russian history, toys with linguistic evolution in a dyspotic future or the “mutilation of language”; she shifts voices with disorienting effect and unleashes her titular "Slynx" as symbol of Existential Angst--among other things; she employs irony & farce with barbed ferocity as it's linked to memory & art. The novel also showcases the macabre “consequences” of  rigid class stratification & retrogressive bureaucracy, recurrent citations of Russian authors, & contemplations of philosophic themes like Censorship, Authority, Memory, & Freedom. Along with that, there's a wooden statue of Pushkin as symbol Art for the hoi palloi, references to The Princess Bird, The Gingerbread man, and a main character's vestigial tail. Needless to say, The Slynx contains enough dimension to keep a reader’s thoughts reeling for a while. 

Since I’m not fond of writing summarization pieces (and this is an early blog experiment), I'll conveniently forego the synopsis & assume that you've already read the novel & jump into some conventional "analysis".

First, we might start off by asking: just what is the titular Slynx, exactly? 

Tolstaya leaves several hints to the quandary of this myth. For instance:

“If you wander into the forest it jumps up on your neck from behind: hop! It grabs your spine in its teeth--crunch--and picks out the big vein with its claw and breaks it. All reason runs right out of you.”
Notice in this passage we have wandering--indicative of Freethinking--followed by an attack on the spine & the blood supply. Not only is this an eery parallel to Saniturion’s hook & “treatment”--read: KGB--activities but it also reflects the paralysis of self-will. In effect, (at least in this passage) the Slynx attack results in a complete lobotomization of its victim, leaving them a husk of a human. (Undoubtedly, a nod to Orwell)

But the paragon of insight, Head Stoker, Nikita Ivanich--who, if his emblematic nature wasn’t obvious enough, carries the fire inside him--emphatically says, “There isn’t any Slynx, it’s nothing but human ignorance.” And, again, in response to the maxim: “If you complain, they say: ‘That’s the Slynx staring at your back.’” “Nakita Ivanich says, it’s feelosophy.” This observation seems to be reinforced when Benedikt asks the braggart Chechen Grandfather if he’d ever seen the Slynx among all his other incredible tales of mermaids, whirlytooths, goblins, & other mythic monsters. The response of the crowd is telling: “Everyone looked at Benedikt like he was an idiot. No one said anything, though.” 

Benedikt’s first real thought of the Slynx arrises during one of his single most epiphanic moments after reading “The Gingerbread Man”. Here’s the demonstrable proof of literature’s artistic merit; here’s the crux of the novel’s thematic tie between Art & Freethinking:

“Benedikt was happy for the Gingerbread Man. He laughed. His mouth hung open as he wrote. 
“But when he got to the last line, his heart skipped a beat. The Gingerbread Man died.The fox gobbled him up! Benedikt even set his writing stick down and looked at the scroll. The Gingerbread Man died. Such a jolly little fellow. Singing songs. Enjoying life. And then--he was gone. Why? 
Benedikt swallowed and looked around the izba. Everyone was writing, leaning over.”
First, note the catalyst for Benedikt’s light-bulb moment: a child’s fable. While Benedikt reads voraciously through out the novel, his comprehension doesn’t extend beyond the rudiments of “The Gingerbread Man”. Second, note the emotional & psychological independence demonstrated in his reading. In this rare moment, Benedikt gets a brief glimpse at the tenuous nature of solidarity. Third, note the question, “Why?” indicative of Freethinking--a lure to reflections on mortality. This is exceptionally poignant since it’s one of the only times in the novel Benedikt projects his own queries on a text. In most other cases, as a perfunctory clerk, Benedikt’s foremost engagement with the books he reads--and eventually becomes obsessed with--is slapdash & superficial, lacking any real depth or comprehension. Forth, note the immediate & subsequent associations Benedikt makes to the Slynx, recollections of his departed parents, their experiential fear of books, & finally the repressive realignment through fear of the Saniturions. 

As a quintessentially Russian writer, Tolstaya takes exquisite care teasing out the interpretive potential for each of these Slynx moments. For instance, in another lonely moment, when Benedikt poses the fundamental existential question: “Who am I?”, he mentally fumbles to redeem himself: “Ay. Ugh. This is me. I just let things get out of hand for a moment, I almost dropped myself, just barely caught hold...Ugh...That’s what it does, that Slynx, that’s what it does with you even from afar, it sniffs you out, senses you, fumbles for you through the distance”. The outcome, as usual, leads Benedikt to reflections on life & a desperate impulse to escape his current circumstances (see end of Zhivete). Another instance of Benedikt’s repressed neurotic pensiveness arises at the end of “Idesiaterichnoe” after he realizes that he’s been robbed. And while he’s in respite, he muses:

"And why is the Slynx scarier than dying? Because if you die, well, that’s it--you’re dead. You’re gone. But if the Slynx spoils you--you have to go on living with it. But how? What do they think about, the Spoiled Ones? What do they feel inside? Hunh? 
They must feel a fierce, frightful, unknown anguish. A gloom that’s blacker than black, with poisoned tears pouring down! "
Such brooding litters The Slynx. And while mining them will certainly yield some rewarding exposition, it might be better if we jump to the end of the novel when Benedikt refuses to execute Nikita Ivanich for his father-in-law, Kudeyar Kudeyarich. When Benedikt calls Kudeyar “the Slynx” in a panic, Kudeyar flips the accusation asserting, with the agreement of his family, that Benedikt is in fact the Slynx. Needless to say, this revelatory moment for Benedikt should be one for the reader too. The Slynx represents a creature hungering for a soul--insatiably consuming lives without ever gaining one of his own. The Slynx, for Benedikt, is the internalized panic & pain of wanting desperately to live without ever quite finding that Princess Bird.

Appendix: (Reading Idiosyncrasies) Whenever I read a "new" author's work--one that I'm not yet acquainted with, I typically cast out a figurative dragnet picking up bits of their bio, their bibliography, reviews of their work, interviews, readings they might've done, and so on.

[Brief word of caution: some readers might prefer to wait until after they've read at least some work by an author before they choose to invest in getting deeply acquainted with the authorial bios and literary reviews just incase they discover themselves disinterested in the author, their style, form, or content.]

That said, as we all know, most authors are rarely exclusive to their countries of origin. Tolstaya is no exception to the international status--teaching at Princeton, married to Andrei Lebedev, a Russian-born Classics professor who's done mostly American residencies, publishing short stories in The NewYorker. Or, if you're really into short stories like I am here's the archival link: here.

Also, here's an old but great little piece published in the London Review of Books (LRB) in which Tolstaya comments on America. See the internationalism at play--a Russian author writing about America(ns) in the London review! Delicious! 

The Millions: The Slynx.

If you're a glutton for punishment like I am, you may want to check out this dissertation on postmodern Russian fiction & Tolstaya: Linguistics and Cultural Aspects of the Russian Postmodern Novel and its Translation Кысь (See: section 2.3.5)


Popular posts from this blog

2016 Top-10 TBR...

It’s a well-known fact among readers that personal to-be-read (tbr) stacks only oblige addition, often exponentially, by the veritable property of “I must read this” plus “this, this, and this” and “oh, yeah, this one too”, ad infinitum. One only need glance at the “to-read” portion of any active Goodreads account to see the exhaustive, unremitting lists of fascinating titles readerly folks load on themselves. Each year, tbrs all over the world grow at rates undeniably faster than people have time to catch up on their backlogs. Whether it’s the chase of fresh hype in Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smilesor Yanagihara’s A Little Life, the desire to travel back in time with Robert Graves’s I, Claudius or Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrain, the desperate need to finish a beloved author’s oeuvre—Toni Morrison and David Foster Wallace still beckon from the shelves, the completionist’s impulse to conquer a tome like Don Quixote or William Gaddis’s JR, the curious compulsion to find out why e…

Veiled Rhapsodizing of James McBride's The Good Lord Bird

The Omen of The Good Lord Bird: American Slavery and the Story of John Brown as Tragicomedy
Nearly two decades since the publication of his sensational memoir, The Color of Water, James McBride has spun another fantastic and comedic yarn--this time of John Brown’s rebellion in The Good Lord Bird.  Winner of the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction, McBride frames his novel as a recovered slave narrative recounted by Henry ‘the Onion’ Shackleford and ghost-written by an “amateur historian” of dubious reputation. This fiction, the prologue informs readers, is the product of an unverified document, written by a person of uncertain character, recounted from the memory of a another man said to be a centenarian that nobody remembers, about an event that lacks historical eyewitness testimony. So, while, incredulous readers won't be fooled by the creative historic framing of this story, they’ll almost undoubtedly be entertained by its possibility. 
The Good Lord Bird chronicles the four y…

Jesse Moss's The Overnighters

Follow Director Jesse Moss with his handheld camera into the provincial town of Williston, North Dakota--population: roughly 20,000; only an hour drive from the Canadian border where winter-nights can drop 20 degrees below freezing. Enter the small, unassuming Concordia Lutheran Church--one of at least five in the state. Meet Pastor Jay Reinke--a plucky middle-aged husband & father with questionable prudence and an undeniable bounty of spiritual generosity toward the downtrodden. Or, at least toward most of them.

In broad strokes, The Overnighters tells the story of one religious man’s attempt to serve the housing needs of homeless migrant workers in his small town. In many ways, Moss’s documentary tells a simple story that evenhandedly pits Pastor Reinke and his Overnighters project against the disgruntled congregation, his irritated neighbors, the city council, and at least one intrepid local newspaper reporter from the Williston Herald. But, fortunately, those are only broad str…