25 November 2006 | Vol. 6, No. 3
A Review of Victor Pelevin's The Helmet of Horror: The Myth of Theseus and the Minotaur
The Helmet of Horror: The Myth of Theseus and the Minotaur
Translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield
Canongate Books, 2006.
288 pages. $18.95.
Check Amazon.com or Powell's Books.
The problem facing the eight chat room aliases whose conversation constitutes the text of text of Victor Pelevin's new novel is that, in short, they do not know where or if they are. They all report more or less matching rooms with identical computer screens, similarly patterned toilet paper, and ingenious little chutes that deliver waffles when hunger strikes, but this level of "where"—known only through words, through unverifiable reports—quickly takes a back burner to the larger questions of "if." They are all in a situation more or less like the reader, presented with lines of type that may or may not have any relation to reality. Billed as a retelling of the myth of the labyrinth, constructed entirely from dialogue between parties supposedly stranded in a very small cyberspace, Pelevin's text shows how language is its own labyrinth, a postmodern platitude rendered exhilaratingly fresh by the verve of the conversation.
These eight identities each, neatly, have their own character quirks or specific puzzle-solving skills, like roles at one of those murder mystery parlor games. There is the romantic, the logician, the engineer, the epistemologist, the penitent … Once they get talking, "exploring" their situation the only way they can, they render their surreal location as purely a construction of words, the hypothetical space of theories, a word problem for math or a word game for philosophy. This is heady, with a whiff of headshop, but the reader is rescued from impatience or confusion via the experience of a voyeuristic, vicarious rush. Reading this novel renders one a fly on a digital wall, listening in as half-baked undergraduates urgently chat about everything from the role of repressed postwar frustration as a motivating factor for tentacle-rape manga porn to whether the word "beige" can signify the same thing to two people in two places. All of which, in less skilled treatment, could be unbearable, but Pelevin's secret is pacing. The book is essentially a thriller, a lightning-fast read, and this speed invigorates some otherwise stale old questions about Cartesian uncertainty and dusty Wittgensteinian dilemmas about perception. Also, the increasingly urgent banter is loaded with double entendres, coy jokes, and ironic jabs, many of which, again, could be pestering or lame were it not for the speed at which the narrative rockets from Tarkovsky's mirror to "two dwarves … on roller skates … wearing sombreros."
Yes, there really are skating dwarves, more or less. They are as real as anything else. Not to spoil the ending, but maybe we are all the minotaur or all existing in the minotaur's head, which is maybe metaphorically or literally a virtual reality helmet inside of which there is another, slightly smaller but otherwise identical helmet, and on and on, ad nauseum. The labyrinth, traditionally, is both a trap and an arena for meditative discipline. Pelevin makes it clear that the former and latter can be synonymous. The pathway toward enlightenment can turn into a prison and, well, vice versa.
All of which matters in terms of the narrative, for Pelevin is able, through this formal conceit and philosophical subject matter, to present prisoners scheming for escape. Each character reports back on their investigations into the personalized mazes outside their doors, but the real rush of the plot is in those moments where the frantic clatter of keys can be heard through the words, where the characters convey the feeling of being on the brink of breaking out, of making some absolutely new discovery.
"But art is supposed to make us happy, not miserable," a character says at one point in the story, and Pelevin believes this, recognizing, as well, that his greatest gift as a writer isn't his ability to juggle complex concepts or weave a string of witty jokes, but to capture and express the ethereal enthusiasm of an encounter with ideas. The measure of The Helmet of Horror as a successful novel is that it can present an exchange like
"What does 'phenomenologically' mean?"
"It's the way you can see these words now."
and, with that, make the reader smile. The untraditional surface of the text, its format and subject matter, give way to a very traditional relation of reader to the thing read. Entering the twisting virtual reality of fiction makes us, as humans, happy. Engaging with—getting lost inside—ideas and emotions and the words of other people makes us feel. There is horror in the text, to be sure, and pathos and romance and lust and adventure, but the ultimate epiphany of this epiphany-studded text is that any narrative—even a narrative about narrative—is a pleasure.
Victor Pelevin has established a reputation as one of the most interesting of the younger generation of Russian writers. He has degrees from Moscow's Gorky Institute of Literature and has written for the New York Times Magazine, Granta, and Open City. His previous novels include The Victor Clay Machine and The Life of Insects.
About the author:
Spencer Dew is a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago Divinity School, completing a dissertation on the late novels of Kathy Acker. He regularly reviews books for Rain Taxi Review of Books. His fiction and poetry have appeared in such publications as Juked, Pindeldyboz, The 2nd Hand, Verb Sap, Wandering Army, and Word Riot.
For further reading:
See the complete list of work by Spencer Dew at 42opus. Browse the contents of 42opus Vol. 6, No. 3, where "A Review of Victor Pelevin's The Helmet of Horror: The Myth of Theseus and the Minotaur" ran on November 25, 2006. List other work with these same labels: nonfiction, review, review of fiction.