The Female of the Species is More Deadlier Than the Male

I know I just said that I'm not hard on fiction. I guess what I mean, is that it takes a lot for me to call something a "bad book" or to say that I've wasted my time reading a novel. I finish almost everything I start, and there have been only two exceptions in the past couple years. However, most of the things I'm about to say about Snowdrops are complaints. It's nominated for the Booker, so I don't have to be rhapsodic about its merits, of which there are many. It's a caper book, that's made clear from the start. There is a sense of fun when speeding through, knowing there's a scam, wondering how it will unfold. Snowdrops has a bit of a pulp thriller feel to it, though written in a more high-minded style, more thoughtful than throwing a cliff-hanger at the end of every chapter.

I enjoyed reading Snowdrops while I was reading it, but something nagged at me. About a week after I finished, I finally realised: I am sick of the honey-trap. I'm tired of the nebbishy guy seduced by the "bad" girl. I felt like I'd read Girl Crazy all over again, but set in Russia. Our protagonist, Nick, is a lawyer just moved to Moscow. He's a mediocre sort of fellow, without much in the way of personality, not much success with women, not much of a looker. Nick will be defined by the events around him, pulled along with the flow of cynical Russians, all on the take. Nick does not act, he reacts. Nick wants, but lets others take. Like Russell Smith's protagonist in Girl Crazy, Nick first encounters the conveniently slutty love interest while she's in distress. In this case, he foils a purse snatching. And Masha, after an accelerated courtship, gives him her body (and for extra kink, her “sister” watches). She continues to string Nick along for months, to ensure his help in the caper. (I'm not giving anything away here. Again, this is all foreshadowed in the telling.)
'In Russia,' Steve said, 'there are no business stories. And there are no politics stories. There are no love stories. There are only crime stories.'
Nick falls in love anyway. He thinks of marrying Masha, even though he knows nothing about her, and admits as much to himself in the narrative —constructed as a letter to his now fiancée (like in Girl Crazy there's a dull, dependable girl at the end, to act as foil to the wild girl of yore).
That's what I learned when my last Russian winter thawed. The lesson wasn't about Russia. It never is, I don't think, when a relationship ends. It isn't your lover that you learn about. You learn about yourself.
Caper accomplished, Masha conveniently disappears so that Nick can get onto being whatever it is he's learned to be. He can go back to England having had the Great Adventure, settle down with his predictable boring late-life wife.

One is supposed to separate the work from the writer. I understand that this is crucial in literary critique. But there are seriously unprofessional parts of me that wonder about A.D. Miller (and since I'm not getting paid for this, being unprofessional now and then is probably inevitable). A BBC piece on Miller says: "Miller's own experiences in Russia were 'slightly more uneventful' than those of his fictional creation". It makes me wonder if he wishes that all this had happened to him. If he saw all the strip clubs and easy sex, the women he writes about as desperate to find a non-Russian husband, and wanted so much to have them for himself. Would it have mattered if those women had ripped him off, had hurt him, if he'd gotten to fulfill that Mata Hari dream? In the end, this girl is always a fiction. It feels like Miller is writing a fantasy for himself, a Booker nominated Penthouse Forum letter. “I can’t believe it happened to me. I was working in Russia…” While it is well written, at times clever, Snowdrops winds up existing in sexual cliché territory, and for me that's a bit tired and not the least challenging.

ETA: In the comments, I just proposed the idea that the letter Nick writes to his fiancée is in itself a fiction. That he's the dullest dude ever, and so he makes up this elaborate story to tell his girlfriend, so she'll find him more interesting. And if that's the case, if the book is that self-aware? Then it's fucking brilliant. And I'm willing, totally willing, to believe that's the case, if there's any evidence for it. I'd prefer fiction be good, after all


Ruth Seeley said...

I was a little shocked by Snowdrops, not because it was such a terrible novel, but because it made not only the Booker longlist but also the shortlist. It struck me as quite an ordinary novel, but the one thing that really bothered me about it was the premise that this confession was written to Nick's current fiancee - and yet she never appeared as a character in the book and we never got any idea of how she would react. It's an odd convention to employ, and I don't think, as an editor, I could have let him employ it for no particular reason. The idea that the relationship he's about to enter into is everything he's always wanted is seriously undercut by the fact that his fiancee obviously has no idea who he really is - and that his previous life might well be a game changer in terms of the wedding actually happening.

Panic said...

The idea that the relationship he's about to enter into is everything he's always wanted See, I didn't get that at all. I felt like he was settling for the fiancee, because if he can't have a "desperate" young Russian girl, might as well go back to England and do what he's "supposed" to do.

Here's the thing; the fiancee does know who he really is. It's not like he became interesting or criminal or any of that stuff in Russia. He remains the dull guy he always was. He wants to prop himself up writing that letter, like "Ooooh I'm not just this pencil-pusher you agreed to marry, look how dangerous I am. Sexy, right? RIGHT?" Hell, the narrative itself might be a fiction in context. Like, "hey, baby, um, this thing happened, neat-o right?" And if that's the case, then this is a really, really good book.