Book Review: Petroleum Venus

Petroleum Venus - Snegirev

In ye olden days of Mother Russia, Muscovites self-medicated away their nihilism with a bit of vodka and a trusty revolver. According to Alexander Snegirev’s latest novel Petroleum Venus (Publisher: Glas Publishing; On Sale: 5 Feb. 2013; Cost: $15.00), this has progressed to relentlessly mocking one’s Down syndrome child until feelings of parental fidelity bloom afresh. 

The novel traces the life of Fyodor Ovchinnikov, a high-flying architect who is bound for the beaches of Miami when his life is upended by his parents’ untimely demise. Their sudden death leaves Fyodor to care for the teenage son that he abandoned long ago. For anyone curious as to Fyodor’s moral dilemma regarding his son Vanya, Fyodor helpfully shares his deepest contradictions quite early on in the novel’s pages: 

I was totally confused: torn by love for my son, but hating him because he’d spoiled my life at the very outset. p.24

Seems rather forthright. But for those in search of greater depth to Fyodor’s character, Snegirev tends more toward candor than intellectual variances. The statement above sums up the entirety of Fyodor’s inner conflict – one that is somehow stretched for another 180+ pages.

To give Russia’s Debut Prize winner a bit more credit, Snegirev’s forthrightness actually comes across as an attempt at brutal honesty rather than a latent effort to make Fyodor’s character seem deliberately like a jerk. But given how predictable the plot is, the theme of honesty is really so overt as to be off-putting. Another example of Snegirev’s gratuitous attempt at shock value comes later in the novel where Fyodor’s love interest Sonya (could she be named anything else?) has a meeting with a client that is ruined by Vanya when he corrects the client’s description of him as a “retard.”

When the meeting implodes, Sonya berates Fyodor and Vanya:

“I’m a down!” she mimicked Vanya. “You’ve really got something to be proud of there!” p.141

SPOILER ALERT: Of course, Fyodor’s response to the outburst is to love Vanya all the more. But the emotional and intellectual transition in Fyodor’s character from “hating him” [Vanya] to loving him is too abrupt to seem feasible. Yet the schtick is reintroduced time and time again for the better part of the entire book – that is until Snegirev mercifully kills off Vanya’s character in the end.

Assuming my premonitions above are unpersuasive, know that on the plus side, the book is a quick read. Where his characters lack depth and his themes lack development, Snegirev’s writing eases the pain by taking readers between hither and yon at a swift pace.

Alas, that’s still two hours of my life that I’ll never get back.   

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