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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.

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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)

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