Back Shelf Review: Novel with Cocaine

(Editor’s note: After a reread I decided this book could use a more professional review, so it’s now been completely retooled from an earlier post. I don’t usually do this, but I like this book enough I wanted the review to measure up.)

Novel with Cocaine

By M. Ageyev

Published 1934, reprinted October 1998

Northwestern University Press

204 pp.

ISBN 0-810-11709-6

Reviewed May 13, 200

“Novel with Cocaine” (also translated as “Cocaine Romance”) is a book that is very much a historical curiosity. It is the only novel from mysterious author M. Ageyev, first published in the early 1930s in Paris and only rediscovered by chance 50 years later in a second-hand bookstore. Despite its obscure nature, it enjoys several distinctions: it was a favorite of John Updike, an influence on William S. Burroughs and it was even alleged to be the work of Vladimir Nabokov writing under a pen name (a notion Nabokov’s son has dismissed).

The accolades and comparisons are varied, but the novel justifies all of them. “Cocaine” is a startlingly well-done book, not overly long or convoluted in the manner of more well-known Russian novels, and also not as surreal and off-putting as some drug memoirs. After reading, it’s actually surprising that the book has not seen wider publication, as it fits easily into both of the previous canons with little difficulty holding its own.

“Cocaine” is the coming-of-age story of Vadim Maslennikov, a young man growing up in World War I Russia. As the war wages on and hints of what would become the Russian Revolution stir in the country, Vadim is fixated only on his personal development and the easiest way for him to reach what he sees as his rightful place in the world. Reflecting the title’s dual meaning, he seeks fulfillment in a serious relationship and, when his darker side drives her away, runs to the electric power of cocaine.

Vadim is an unlikable character from the start, a self-centered adolescent reminiscent of Alec from “A Clockwork Orange.” The first half of the book is filled with his own indulgences, desperate attempts to polish his image and maintain his sense of superiority. He shoves his impoverished mother away in public, looks for casual sex while recovering from syphilis and takes more pride in insulting classmates rather than speaking to them. Ageyev makes it impossible to like Vadim but never impossible to pay attention to him, exposing the insecurities and self-loathing beneath his preening.

Vadim’s faults are regularly on display, but they never ruin the novel chiefly because the quality of the writing outweighs them. From an almost ornamental description of Russia in winter to the almost foppish nature of Vadim’s cohorts, Ageyev displays himself as a craftsman in constructing his sentences. The novel’s descriptive passages are evocative without being overblown, and many of the passages border on brilliant (a particular favorite is Vadim’s trolling for sex, where “A woman who smiled at a look like mine could only be a virgin or a prostitute”). We also see a picture of the revolutionary Russian mindset, its educational and political reforms shown in the vicious intellectual character of Vadim’s classmate Burkewitz.

The chief place where the writing skill comes into play though is in the book’s titular narcotic, as one melancholy evening Vadim comes into contact with drugs and loses his “nasal virginity.” At this point, the book turns from a story of growing up to a drug-centric tale, and as such gains a new series of responsibilities. Whether the topic is heroin or mescaline or LSD or some cocktail of the above, an drug author needs to fill the same role as a pusher: gradually reel them in by showing the benefits of the drug, and then once they get comfortable let the horror of withdrawal sink in.

While it’s impossible to know just how much of “Novel with Cocaine” is based on the truth, Ageyev’s descriptions of the effects and aftereffects of cocaine are so frighteningly vivid it’s hard to imagine he wasn’t at least a casual user. Vadim’s first night captures the awkwardness of learning the ritual, the terrifying icy feeling of the first snort quickly turning into joy, the manic urges and periods of catatonia and fixation on rituals such as smoking cigarettes. It’s taut writing that pulls the reader into a nightmarish state, and is easily the book’s best section.

As Vadim falls into the inevitable madness of excessive cocaine use, Ageyev uses him to philosophize in much the same way he used Burkewitz earlier in the book to explore the Russian mindset. He speculates on the nature of pleasure and how it is tied to external elements, using it as a rationale for his continued drug use – a rationale that evaporates as soon as the drug wears off, leading him to delirious reflections on mankind’s bestial nature. It’s a starkly intellectual way to depict the highs and lows Vadim goes through, though it does nothing to make a reader feel sorry for him as the symptoms get worse.

It may be hard to pity Vadim as he is destroyed by faults entirely his own, but it is even harder to quit following the story to the bitter end. At varying turns frightening, evocative, romantic and deplorable, “Novel With Cocaine” is a well-constructed novel that will interest readers of various genres. While the identity of Ageyev may forever be a mystery, “Cocaine” keeps his name alive – as well as the hope that in some Paris attic exists a chest of his unpublished works.

7 Responses to Back Shelf Review: Novel with Cocaine

  1. Jill says:

    what do you mean by “the vicious intellecual mindset” of Burkewitz? He seemed a more independant thinker than the rest and quite a sensitive youth in his broken hearted response to Vadim’s fairly self serving announcement of his defence of him to the priest. Even if he did grow up to be a high ranking communist.

  2. […] is another product of the Russian emigration: M Ageyev’s mediocre drug “classic”, Novel with Cocaine, about a Russian who does a lot of coke back in the interim period between Queen Victoria doing […]

  3. comments are somewhat hard to follow, but i like them….

    […]Back Shelf Review: Novel with Cocaine « The Lesser of Two Equals[…]…

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  5. […] Novel With Cocaine by M. Ageyev (aka Mark Lazarevich Levi) […]

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