Novel with Cocaine
M Ageyev Penguin, 204pp, £7.99
This is the only book I have read in which the biography of the author of the introduction is twice as long as that of the actual author.There is, however, an explanation for this: nothing is known about the person who wrote Novel with Cocaine, apart from that M Ageyev is almost certainly a pseudonym, and perhaps too much is known about Will Self, who wrote the introduction.
Novel with Cocaine, rescued from obscurity by Penguin, is a fictional memoir of a Russian adolescent, Vadim Maslennikov, during the 1917 revolution, but it scarcely mentions the uprising. This reflects the drugged self-absorption of the twisted, malign narrator. In the first chapter, the narrator's old mother visits his school. Embarrassed by her, he tells his friends that she is an impoverished governess, and that he can arrange for them to "have their way with her". Soon afterwards, he wilfully "contaminates" with syphilis a girl he picks up in the street. An auspicious start, then.
There follows an account of Maslennikov's school days and his doomed affair with a married woman. These chapters establish the protagonist as an accident waiting to happen: immature, prey to the whims of his hormones and excruciatingly indecisive. Where Ageyev excels is in his descriptions of cocaine abuse - the detail in sharing the precious substance out, the circumlocution of thoughts, the expansion and contraction of consciousness and time. But to the contemporary reader all this seems rather routine. Writing of the comedown, Maslennikov says: "It would go on for what seemed an eternity - though by the clock it was only three or four hours - and consisted of the deepest darkest misery imaginable." Which doesn't sound like any cocaine I've ever had.
Will Self - who knows a great deal more about drugs than most - explains that even if Maslennikov's cocaine was pure, "the extremity of the reactions described is more strictly concomitant with the seconds-long brainstorming of smoking crack cocaine".
Another striking (and Russian) element of the novel is the narrator's obsessive analysis of his own state of mind: "Did this succession of sentiments constitute nothing more than a by-product of cocaine, one it imposed on my organism; or was it a property peculiar to my organism, one the cocaine brought out more clearly?" Not really the drug banter you're likely to overhear on the streets of Chelsea or Soho. And who nowadays, with the possible exception of Will Self, would seek to intellectualise cocaine? Tara Palmer-Tomkinson?
What perhaps has most changed about cocaine since this novel was first published in the 1930s is its image. Maslennikov and his companions are seedy, defeated - true addicts in every sense. They are as far from the Tom Parker Bowles and Lawrence Dallaglios of this world as you can ever get. Eighty years after the novel takes place, cocaine has been banally glamorised; the June issue of the fashion magazine W even has the cover line "Rehab chic - recover in style".
The News of the World, with its exposes of public figures and their coke habits (and in the case of Dallaglio, memories of a coke habit, allegedly), has, I think, completely misjudged the nation's mood. Most of us couldn't care less whether a celebrity snorts the odd line or not, and we certainly wouldn't think of them as "depraved" if they did. If we did want to stigmatise cocaine (and for what it's worth, I'm in favour of decriminalising it), Novel with Cocaine might be the text with which to do so. The world it presents is desolate, without hope or ethical standards, and the people in it even more so. Maslennikov's fall into addiction reinforces the idea that "one hit" of a drug is enough to get you hooked. And death is never far away. An ideal morality tale for our frivolous times, and certainly worthy of GCSE study. Over to you, Mr Blunkett.