Monday, May 21, 2012

Scott Phillips, Andrey Kurkov: Crimes, Predators and Penguins

These days I find  I'm more often than not reading more than one book at a  time, dipping into one, then the other as the mood strikes me, not quite channel-surfing but more like alternating between my favorite programs.  What I find interesting  is how these books have a tendency to echo each other and sometimes merge together, whether in terms of theme or narrative. Or maybe that's simply a reflection of my reading habits, politics and interests.  Sometimes I even find myself placing the character one novel into the narrative of another.

It can sometimes get pretty strange. Recently, I read Scott Phillips' excellent The Adjustment in tandem with Ukrainian Andrey Kurkov's Death and the Penguin.  On the surface these two novels have little in common. Yet both   are imbued with their own particular brand of dark humor. While Phillips bears the indelible mark of Cain (James M. and Paul), Kurkov occupies the edges of Euro-noir, but never succumbing to the genre's  more mundane elements. The Adjustment, set in Wichita, is written in the first person, and the Kiev-set Death and the Penguin in the third, yet both concern protagonists who negotiate some very tricky terrain, both manipulated by and  manipulating the system.  Kurkov's protagonist, Viktor, has to look after a penguin recently liberated from the local zoo, while Phillips' main character looks after a  lascivious, drug-addled boss. And even though penguins are noticeably absent from The Adjustment, Phillips' novel does contain a number of sexually available women and predatory men, not one of them as cuddly as Kurkov's narrative foil. Kurkov's book might be the lighter of the two, but it concerns and is written from,  a very dark, and often surreal, political situation. Moreover, both protagonists have a way with the written word. Wayne Ogden, an educated man recently having returned from WW2 where he participated in the spiv economy, uses words to his advantage in dealing with others, whether his wife, other women or his fellow aircraft workers. Whereas Viktor pens obituaries for those who've yet to die, only to find that his obits  become hot news and he becomes increasingly embroiled in a world of organized crime and politics. No wonder that I occasionally found myself  transplanting Viktor in Scott's book and Ogden in Kurkov's book. And in both cases, writing style aside, they more or less fit.

The Adjustment might be stylistically less literary than Phillips' The Ice Harvest and Walkaway, and less stylized than his uproarious, revisionist western Cottonwood, but it's still an appealing book, peeling back the layers of post-WW2 society,  the undercurrents of which I'm still thinking about two weeks later.  Kurkov, on the other hand, not only inhabits the margins of Euro-noir, but he's in that Bulgakov/Platanov tradition of political satire. Though his book includes a small animal and a little girl, it's not a cute novel, but is biting and bittersweet as a piece sun-drenched chocolate. Stripped to its essentials, Kurkov's prose is every bit as hardboiled as Phillips', though it comes from a different angle, a different culture, and a different literary tradition. Kurkov writes, "The crazy idealist was extinct- survived by the crazy pragmatist." While I've long been a fan of Scott's fiction, I'll definitely be trying to get hold of some of Kurkov's other work.  For Kurkov's sideways take on current Ukraine politics have a look at the following Guardian article:


Kevin Brady said...

Great post -- and great blog! Was wondering what Woody's email is. Mine is kvnbrady at

Kevin Brady
Austin, Texas

Woody Haut said...

Kevin, glad you like the blog. My email is