Pelevin’s iPhuck 10.

The last time I wrote about Victor Pelevin, I said of his Sacred Book of the Werewolf “it’s longer than it needs to be, but it’s fun.” That was my take on most of the Pelevin I’ve read since his glory days of the 1990s, and frankly I’m not sure I would have taken the trouble to read any more if I hadn’t had a copy of his 2017 iPhuck 10 (the title’s in English, sort of, but the book’s in Russian) I got a while back because it was cheap and had gotten good reviews. So I decided I’d give it a try, and if it seemed like more of the same I’d set it aside and go on to something more exciting.

Surprise: this turned out to be the best thing I’d read of his since those ’90s classics. Sure, in a sense it’s more of the same (from that earlier post: “sex, drugs, computer games, corrupt business/power nexus, fancy brand names, plus a dollop of Eastern mysticism”), but Pelevin very cleverly preempts the frequent complaints about repeating himself with this bit of dialogue:

“They reproach you with monotony. Your books, they say, resemble each other.”

“Sweetheart,” I said, “just so you know, there are two kinds of writers: those who spend their lives writing one book — and those who spend their lives writing none. It’s the latter who review the former, not the other way around. And reproach them with monotony. But different parts of one and the same book will always be similar in some way. There are bound to be themes running through them.”

– Упрекают в однообразии. Книги, говорят, похожи друг на друга.

– Милочка, – сказал я, – писатели, чтоб ты знала, бывают двух видов. Те, кто всю жизнь пишет одну книгу – и те, кто всю жизнь пишет ни одной. Именно вторые сочиняют рецензии на первых, а не наоборот. И упрекают их в однообразии. Но разные части одной и той же книги всегда будут чем-то похожи. В них обязательно будут сквозные темы.

Who’s the “I” in that dialogue? Ah, there’s the rub. In a sense, the answer is simple: it’s Porfiry Petrovich, a police detective who also writes novels and complains about not getting enough cases with corpses in them (the name is, of course, borrowed from Crime and Punishment):

If there’s no stiff (as the Department calls a corpse), there’s no reader interest.

Если жмура (так в Управлении называют труп) нет – нет и читательского интереса.

The catch is that he’s an AI made of computer code; not only does he have no physical body, he has no consciousness as such — his words and actions are based on a massive database of how humans talk and act (one of the many elements that make the novel feel very much of the present moment). But when he says as much to Mara (a/k/a “Marukha Cho”), the filthy rich art dealer and former coder who hires him (she’s the “sweetheart” he’s talking to above), she gets irritated — she prefers to think of him as a “real” person.

What this means is that the standard Pelevin riff about how all is nothingness and we can’t be happy unless we recognize that we don’t exist suddenly feels fresh, because it’s put in the mouth of a character of whom that’s actually true. And when Mara (a name which, by the way, is that of a Buddhist demon) says she loves him, what exactly is going on? Especially when he starts getting the idea that she’s hired him to cover up crimes rather than to solve them…

That is the motor for a much more engaging, even gripping, plot than Pelevin usually bothers with; by the end I was truly eager to find out what was going to happen. And the art-related nature of the cases she has him investigate, involving works of the “гипсовый век” [age of plaster], the early-21st-century ironic art parasitic on earlier, genuinely creative work (the novel takes place a few decades from now), means Pelevin can not only get into discussions of the philosophy of art but introduce the reader to some interesting (real, or “real”) work, like Shirin Neshat’s Turbulent, the basis for a “plaster” sequel called Turbulent 2.

Oh, the title? The iPhuck 10 is the latest model of a sexbot that Mara can use to have physical relations with her immaterial lover — Porfiry plugs his connections into it and they can have all the fun they want. (Mind you, fun in a Pelevin novel takes strange forms, sometimes involving the traditional red British phone booth used in a way that requires severe topological manipulation.) There is a lot of sex, as always in Pelevin, but it acquires more piquancy when set, for instance, in the aftermath of the Battle of Alesia in 52 BC — let’s just say Caesar accepts the surrender of Vercingetorix in a very special way. There are also a lot of references to literature, art, and movies (at one point Porfiry creates a couple of films, one of them cleverly based on the filming of Cocteau’s L’Éternel retour), which I always enjoy, not to mention cameo appearances by Slavoj Žižek, Angela Merkel, Banksy, Hillary, Lacan, Elon Musk, and Pussy Riot (Sartre and Heidegger have a more extended face-off).

Furthermore, in the end the novel becomes quite moving, justifying the critics who (like Sergei Kornev) have called Pelevin “a genuine Russian classical writer-ideologue” — it’s not all postmodernist frippery. I recommend it to anyone who reads Russian, and I hope it will be translated into English.

A curious sidelight is that I’ve recently seen two films, a two-hour movie and a 25-minute short, that share many of Pelevin’s themes. The first is the 2013 “American science-fiction romantic drama” Her, in which a man falls in love with an “OS” (operating system) named Samantha; as I kvetched to my brother, “virtually the whole movie consists of a sad sack wandering around talking to himself.” (Rooney Mara, however, is excellent for the few minutes in which she graces the movie.) The second is Big Oxygen (thanks, Ariel!); it’s funny (in a grim sort of way) and might lead to Deep Thoughts if you’re not careful.


  1. I hope it will be translating into English

    If that is intentional, I’m not sure what you mean by it.

  2. Oops! Thanks, fixed now — it was an artifact of a last-minute rephrasing. I proofread and proofread, and still these things slip through…

  3. I allowed it might be some rare and subtle turn of phrase…

  4. David Marjanović says

    Sartre and Heidegger have a more extended face-off

    Do they have an Epic Rap Battle of History yet?

  5. One of the nice bits is the invention of a philosopher Jean-Luc Béyond on the basis of the book title Freud, Lacan and Beyond.

  6. Jean-Luc Béyond

    Without an attribution, I’d have guessed Pynchon.

  7. Pelevin can be quite Pynchonesque.

  8. Steven Lubman says

    It’s uncanny how many things Pelevin predicts even if you argue that he simply expands on the trends of the day. This particular novel predicted ChatGPT large language model AI and flourishing of digital art uniquely identified by NFTs! One of his previous novels (I don’t remember which) described a drone war in “Urkaina”.

  9. Yes indeed. (That earlier novel was S.N.U.F.F.)

  10. Nikolai Karayev says

    It took me a while to have got it that Delon Vedrovoi [Делон Ведровуа] is based on Alain Badiou. The double pun is on the French actor Alain Delon and Russian words ведро и бадья, bucket and pail, I presume )

  11. Thanks very much — I was wondering about that! You couldn’t keep the ‘bucket’ pun in English, so if anyone ever translates it, I guess they’d have to go with something like “Delon Adieu.”

  12. Keith Ivey says

    Delon Goudiou? Like Boris Badenov?

  13. I like that!

Speak Your Mind