Book review: Novel with Cocaine

Novel with Cocaine by M. Ageyev.
My rating: four stars

This is a strange one. It’s a novel set in revolutionary Russia that only mentions the fact twice, and then at an angle. Its title refers to David Bowie’s chief ’70s bodily compound, but it’s only really introduced (or considered) in the last quarter of the work.

Oh yeah, and it’s written by a seemingly anonymous guy, who only wrote this thing, submitted it to a French magazine for Russian émigrés, and then disappeared into the woofle-dust of history.

(I choose to ignore the theory that it’s Mark Lazarevich Levi because it’s more romantic this way, folks.)

The novel is essentially a collection of reminiscences of adolescence: a bildungroman in which our narrator, Vadim, discusses what a champ he is at school, with the ladies, and in general. He’s GOING PLACES, this would-be lawyer, and is going to be quite a man, quite a man.

Scratch that. He’s fucking horrible. This book would be better titled Portrait of the Artist as a Young Prick. He vaselines his eyes and gives VD to young ladies in the street. He has affairs with older women who he treats like shit; he takes money from his mother and shits on her from a great height. All the while, we’re meant to believe that he feels bad over such actions, but that they’re driven by some kind of consideration for how things appear to the world at large.

It’s ok, just a little toot and I can continue reading about this insufferable prick.


Look, it’s hard to plough through this stuff, but when cocaine makes its appearance, crisp as the frost on the streets, things come into sharper focus. Ageyev’s writing on the experience of the drug is solid and immediate, and somehow encapsulates both the wonder and irritation of the experience when seen from within and without simultaneously. It’s quite a feat.

Honestly, there’s often nothing more tiresome than the philosophical musings of an addict, but here they’re compelling. The degradation invoked by Vadim’s love of the snorty stuff ruins relationships and provokes an inward glance that’s pretty harsh. The world and one’s apprehension of it is deconstructed, and the micromanagement mania addiction induces is particularly adroitly explained.

I guess there’d be fewer TVs in revolutionary Russia but you get the idea.

The novel is a quite self-involved (but competent) examination of the trials of school competition and the travails of romance and affairs, but when drug addiction comes into play (with the revolution’s shadow cast over all) is when things kick up a notch and things enter Dostoyevsky territory.

This is a brief read, but a pretty solid one. I was stuck in three-star territory with the book, but the ending turned out to be such a hammer-blow that I had to bump it up. Very recommended: suitably, crushingly bleak.

I’ve started to run only partial versions of my reviews on Goodreads. I’ve been a bit weirded out by the tenor of that site, and so I’m pretty keen to keep my stuff over this side of things. My profile is still there, but I’ll pretty much be using it solely for tracking and teasing full reviews. Why? Read this and see for yourself.

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