is an online magazine of the literary arts.

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
Victor Pelevin
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 r