Russian writers tend to gravitate toward either Tolstoyan gravity or Gogol's brand of feather-light fabulism. Victor Pelevin, the author of four previous books, most definitely belongs in the latter camp. His work may be grounded in the grubby realities of contemporary Russia, but the food shortages, decaying apartment blocks, and political chaos serve him as a kind of naturalistic springboard from which he launches into one antic leap after another. Pelevin's latest collection is a case in point. The title story finds a young, Moscow-based slacker visiting the countryside, hoping for a little bucolic enlightenment. Instead, he stumbles across a pack of werewolves deep in the forest, who hastily induct him into their numbers. Pelevin expertly conveys Sasha's brand-new lupine perceptions: the way he can now "distinguish the creaking of a branch in the wind a hundred yards from the clearing and the chirping of a cricket coming from precisely the opposite direction." But as the pack heads into a nearby village, it becomes clear that Sasha has been chosen to purge a treacherous, four-legged comrade. Perestroika notwithstanding, man is still a wolf to man--and vice versa.
Elsewhere, in "Sleep," a student discovers that the rest of the world is in a state of slumber, and promptly gets with the program himself. "It was all very confusing, and in order to be able to tell whether he was asleep or not at any particular moment, Nikita began carrying a small pin with a big, round, green head in his pocket, and whenever he was in any doubt, he pricked his thigh, and everything became clear. Then, of course, there was the new fear that he might simply dream that he was pricking himself with the pin, but Nikita drove that thought from his mind as quite unbearable." Political allegory? Existential parable? Arguably these stories are both--but Pelevin's talent is much too large and unpredictable to be jammed into such generic pigeonholes. He's a brilliant original who seems to get better (and funnier) with each book. --James Marcus