Rarely have I come across a book that has induced such bafflement in me. I knew I had to review this for Strange Horizons, but the more I read the more disheartened I became. In most cases, I like the books I’m assigned to review. More rarely I don’t, but there’s always been a reaction, something to hang an opinion off. What can a reviewer say, however, when the object of their review evokes general indifference?
This novel’s problem lies in its characters, particularly in the central character. It’s not only that he’s so unlikeable that I don’t care if he’s happy. He’s also so uninteresting I don’t even care if he’s unhappy. He’s so very two-dimensional that care just slips right off him. Now, there are a number of books with unlikeable protagonists on my shelves. Looking up from where I’m typing this, the first one I see is Perfume by Patrick Süskind (1985). It’s one of my favourites, but I nearly passed it by before realising that no, glaring differences aside, it really is an appropriate comparison here.
Perfume’s protagonist, Grenouille, is a nasty little worm of a man. He’s a creep and a murderer. He’s also absolutely indifferent to everyone around him—so indifferent, it’s as if he’s not even human. Grenouille is a void in human skin, and the only thing able to exist in that void is scent. He is in many ways a monster, and yet every time I pick up Perfume I am absolutely fascinated by him. I don’t care how unpleasant he is, he’s compelling. I can forgive a lot of unpleasantness, in fiction, if the reward is compelling.
The titular character of Mebet, written by Alexander Grigorenko and translated from Russian into English by Christopher Culver, is also unpleasant. That I could live with. The problem is I don’t find him compelling either. Now, I’m aware that “compelling” is a matter of taste. I’ve bounced off more than one story from Bret Easton Ellis, for instance, because his characters are frequently so unlikeable that I can’t stand to spend another minute with them: but I’m aware that other readers find those same characters compelling. If I twist my judgmental little brain into the right shapes, I can even see why those readers are so interested. I have completely failed to do any such thing with Mebet.
Grenouille he is not. Mebet is no French perfumer. He is instead a member of the Nenets people, an Indigenous population of Russia that lives primarily on the taiga—the setting, it must be said, is a genuinely interesting one. The story takes places in an undated past, a once-upon-a-time setting of reindeer and bear hunts that is appropriate to the folktale approach Grigorenko takes here. Like Grenouille, Mebet is entirely indifferent to others. He flouts cultural expectations because he can, he kills because he can, and if his own particular brand of monomania is himself instead of scent, the total disdain for anything other than his own interest is absolutely reminiscent of Grenouille. He’s deeply unattractive in every way—and yet, reading Mebet, I’m forced to conclude that I’m not supposed to feel like this.
Mebet is constantly referred to as “The God’s Favorite” (p. 10). He’s ridiculously strong, able to defeat bears singlehanded and fight off crowds of enemies (who are naturally all jealous of him). He’s good-looking, he’s lucky, everything he touches turns to gold; if he steals from other people and they confront him about his theft, he hurts, humiliates, and even murders them with a song in his heart. He is always happy. It’s all reminiscent of that Rudyard Kipling poem “If,” which states that a real man will treat triumph and disaster just the same—except that Mebet never has any disaster and it’s not iron-control and repression causing him to stifle all his emotions into a little box of similarity, it’s simple smugness.
Mebet is, in short, so certain of his superiority that he has no room in heart or brain for feeling anything less than one hundred percent pleased with himself at all times. Even the deities are in on propping him up: “He could get away with everything: the gods had played a sort of game, granting to one mortal man the right not to submit to what all others had to submit to” (p. 10). He sounds unpleasant, and he is, and yet the presentation is so consistently laudatory, so gold-tinted, that I get the feeling I’m meant to admire him while simultaneously shaking my head and smirking at his antics and preparing for his fall, hoping that his good qualities will come up trumps in the end.
Except Mebet has no good qualities; he has talents. That’s not the same thing, and no amount of repetition that might makes right, and that the strong are entitled to exploit the weak, can make up for the absolute void in the centre of his character. Grenouille at least had scent wrapped up in human skin. Mebet has nothing but vacuum.
For at least half the book things continue in this way—in this unchanging drift of nothingness, a wet dream of a man’s man: a valiant past, half hero-worship and half homoeroticism. And the thing is, I can see, dimly, how this unchanging consistency might have been made compelling. Instead it simply feels plastic, because nothing does change. All Mebet’s daughters die, and it doesn’t affect him in the slightest (they’re only girls, after all). His son, whom Mebet values only as an extension of himself, is a disappointment, but that’s only a happy opportunity for more murder. (The son is eventually killed by a bear. Mebet kills the bear, while tacitly acknowledging that the bear did the job for him.) Unpleasantness, like everything else, becomes less compelling with repetition, and the novel’s first half is nothing but. Eventually, the whole effect sinks into bland. Not terrible, not great, just there.
The root of all this, I think, is the choice of tone. The tone here is what you’d expect to find in a folktale. I like folktales, but generally they are not where you go for character development. They’re compact little stories, built around plot, often existing for teaching purposes. Lack of character development works in a folktale, or is at least less noticeable as a flaw because the narrative is so short. Stretch a folktale out to 180-odd pages, keep the same amount of character development as you might get in three pages of a more conventionally-sized version of the same, and you have Mebet.
In the second half of the book, the other shoe drops. Because Mebet is so influenced by folktale, readers can surmise that Mebet is about to lose all his good fortune, and all his indifference to the misery that he’s inflicted on others. He’s forced by the gods to undergo a series of eleven tests, in order to stave off death a bit longer, and all these supernatural obstacles revolve around what he’s done in life. The people he’s hurt come back to (literally) haunt him. This outcome is not, perhaps, unexpected. The execution, however, is—and it underlines every flaw in the presentation of the character.
You may consider I’ve been a little too hard on poor old Mebet. That litany of success in the first half of the book can justifiably be seen as containing the seeds of his comeuppance. It may all seem laudatory, you say, but surely it doesn’t take much to discern the criticism for his behaviour embedded within the narrative? And I would agree with you, if so much of those eleven challenges weren’t concerned with excusing Mebet from all responsibility for that behaviour.
Let me give an example. Mebet steals a wife for his son. Admittedly, kidnapping a bride is presented within the narrative as an established cultural custom: but it is one that is followed by certain expected behaviours to ensure peace and goodwill between the families involved. Mebet eschews all this, because of course he does, and the resulting conflict sees the murder of many members of the bride’s family and social group. Mebet meets up with them in one of his tasks: an army of the dead, they not only fight and die again to help him complete his journey, but their leader is positively slavish in his praise. “You have been a better man than me, better than many [...] You know what true nobleness is” he says (p. 129), which sounds like utter nonsense to me. Mebet is about as noble as a cinderblock.
Even more mindless is the encounter with his dead son, who in short order praises the gods for letting him be killed by a bear so he didn’t have to oppose his father, refuses Mebet forgiveness on the grounds that he doesn’t need any, and has the stone fucking gumption to say that it’s others who need to be asking forgiveness for making Mebet the way that he is:
But you are not a man like everyone else, that is clear as day. It was not by your own decision that you became the person you are, because becoming such a person is beyond the power of any man. If anyone needs forgiveness, it is whoever made you the favourite of the gods. (p. 122)
So there you have it. Poor Mebet! He never had any chance at all. The gods saw his super special soul and gave him all those gifts and that meant of course he was going to kick a man to death because he asked for help when his family was starving. Because the strong can do anything to the weak, the gods can do anything to Mebet, and he can do anything to anyone else—and no-one takes any responsibility, ever. Even though unfamiliar emotions such as shame flicker (very briefly) within the manly chest they can only be ambiguous flickers, because how can anyone really feel shame if they’re never ultimately at fault?
This makes all those criticisms apparently seeded within that first half pale and undermined things, in retrospect. I’m not actually sure who’s less convinced by them at this point—Grigorenko or myself. The novel just sort of disintegrates into a fairly bland discussion on the cruelty of existence and the necessity for mercy, neither of which Mebet has really experienced or earned because he’s only a puppet cipher, with a predetermined lack of moral capacity. As such, he—and the novel that shares his name—is pretty dull.
Perhaps a nice spray of lavender would improve things.