by Sheri Boggs
At first glance, The Slynx could be set in medieval Russia. A peasant steps out of his hut, scratches his beard and eyes the sparkling blue-and-white landscape of a Slavic winter. But when he spots black rabbits flitting from "treetop to treetop" and notes that you have to be careful not to eat the males lest you sprout black hair and erupt in wheezing and body odor, you know something isn't quite right.
And, indeed, it's not. Two hundred years after "the Blast," what was once Moscow is now a barely recognizable hodgepodge of ramshackle dwellings. Books as we know them have been outlawed, mice are society's economic and culinary backbone, and the townspeople are terrified of the Slynx, a mysterious, catlike creature that patrols the forests. If it catches you, and you somehow come back, the people say, "you're never the same again."
Tolstaya's narrator Benedikt is very much of his world, and through his distorted vision we witness how much things have changed. He works as a scribe, carefully copying down bits of text authored by their beloved leader, not realizing that what he's copying are plagiarized great works from before the Blast. But even though Benedikt seems completely ignorant of a larger scheme of things, there are those who see in him the potential for greatness, who even recognize in him the raw material of the next great Russian revolutionary.
Such a plot is not in the least surprising given the fact that Tolstaya is the great grandniece of Leo Tolstoy. What is surprising -- in this cynical age of publishing anything that has a famous name attached to it -- is that Tolstaya displays a wicked set of writing chops. Her voice rings with the authority of the great Russian novelists, yet conveys the gleeful playground taunt of postmodernism as well. What's especially intriguing is not so much her prose (which is quite good) but where it takes us. Human nature, it seems, has retained little of what it worked so hard to build and has reverted to feudalism, slavery and misogyny. But within that dystopian context, Tolstaya exhibits a sense of both the playful and the surreal, all while crafting a vivid and unforgettable narrative.