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Tolstoy set to become a science-fiction writer

January 14, 2010

Tolstoy: Does this look like a man who could take a joke?

The folks who gave us the literary mash-up and surprise bestseller Pride and Prejudice and Zombies plan to “honor” the 100th anniversary of Tolstoy’s death in June with a new version of his great novel Anna Karenina. The revamped title says all you need to know: Android Karenina.

Sigh. This news kinda just makes me tired. Sure, I’ll admit Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a zany idea well-executed, is fun. And I’m not such a fuddy-duddy that I think classic books are sacred things never to be sullied by satire.

But what seemed a stroke of irreverent genius the first time turned stale quickly, at least for me.

By the time Quirk Books trotted out Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, I was over the gag already. Did anyone read it? Was it fun?

Obviously enough people bought Sea Monsters to justify a steampunk assault on Tolstoy. According to The Guardian, Android Karenina will intersperse the original text with sci-fi action to create “an enhanced edition of the classic love story set in a dystopian world of robots, cyborgs, and interstellar space travel.”

Oh, God, I can see it now: “All happy robots resemble each other, each unhappy robot is unhappy in its own way.”

The relationship of Anna and Vronksy will play out not against a realistic depiction of 19th century Russia, but in a world of robotic butlers and clanking mechanical technology that never actually existed.

Quoting Quirk: “”When these copper-plated machines begin to revolt against their human masters, our characters must fight back using state-of-the-art 19th-century technology – and a sleek new model of ultra-human cyborgs like nothing the world has ever seen.”

“We are still selling these titles well and while the trope will never rival the way Twilight has reintroduced vampires to the reading public, and brought many similar titles into the bestseller lists, it’s good fun while it lasts,” said a spokesman at Waterstone’s, Britain’s leading bookstore chain. “And Android Karenina is the funniest title yet.”

You think? Seems labored to me, like the name of an ’80s Eurotrash synth band. I suspect, though, the entire project is predicated upon the perceived cleverness (and marketing potential) of that title. Consider:

Unlike Jane Austen, Tolstoy is not a wit, but a deadly serious observer of the human condition. Plus Anna Karenina is 864 pages long — Pride and Prejudice clocks in at half that. Can Quirk’s writer, Ben Winters, keep the joke going through such a slog?

Pride and Prejudice is a romantic comedy, while Anna Karenina is the story of a doomed illicit love affair, with the rejected Anna (spoiler alert!) throwing herself under a train after Vronsky rejects her. Where are the yucks in that?

Alas, the Tolstoy mash-up isn’t the only such project in the works: Mansfield Park and Murder and Paul is Undead, a novel that introduces the Beatles to zombies, are also set to appear this year.

If any good can come of all this, aside from a few chuckles, it will be in drawing attention to the original great books. Jay Parini, an American novelist and critic told the Guardian he’s seen this happening already.

“I actually know of one young fellow who read Pride and Prejudice proper after reading the Zombie book,” Parini said. “He said to me: ‘It was funnier’.”

I’m ready to see this fad reach its inevitable hula-hoop fate. What about you?

18 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    January 14, 2010 2:50 pm

    I don’t disagree with you, Chauncey Mabe, except to say say that yes, you are a fuddy-duddy.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 14, 2010 3:01 pm

      I most certainly am not. Though I’ll cope to being a Luddite.

      • Candice Simmons permalink
        January 14, 2010 3:31 pm

        Are too. A fuddy-duddy, I mean.

  2. Tommy permalink
    January 14, 2010 3:00 pm

    Which book did this young fellow find more amusing? The original or the remake? I like hula-hoops. I need to stay in mine.

    Finally you highlight a book I am not interested in reading. I wonder what Leo would say about all this? I spent 20 minutes trying to find out who the winner of the “Win an Envy 15 laptop for your prime-cut literary travesties” contest held by boingboing.com with no success. Infuriating. No laptops have been delivered to me, so I guess I didn’t win. Unless the mail carrier has been turned into a flesh eating zombie leaving him no time to deliver packages.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 14, 2010 3:05 pm

      Jay Parini’s young acquaintance found the Jane Austen original funnier than the Zombie mash-up. In fairness to Quirk, the fellow may never have read the original if he had not be introduced to Jane via the zombie book. I’ll tolerate any number of mashed up desecrations if they send younger readers back to the classics. I won’t read ’em, but I’ll tolerate ’em.

      • Tommy permalink
        January 14, 2010 3:15 pm

        Big “IF”.

        “Young fellow”? Sounds like something a dud of the fud variety would say.

  3. January 14, 2010 3:41 pm

    Chauncey, think of it this way–35 years ago we were reading the classic satirized in Mad Magazine, at least now people have to put more effort into it! The worst part about this fad is that publishers are turning down real horror books because they’re afraid they can’t compete with these mashups.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 14, 2010 4:06 pm

      I don’t begrudge Quirk and writers like Winters their success. I’m just personally tired of the thing. If it were on TV, I’d change the channel in search of some top-notch sci-fi like Earth: Final Conflict, or a really good horror movie like Wrong Turn 3: Left for Dead.

    • Candice Simmons permalink
      January 14, 2010 4:23 pm

      True about Mad Magazine. And I loved them.

  4. rachel permalink
    January 14, 2010 5:51 pm

    Thank you for the spoiler alert. You know how I hate spoilers.

    I completely agree with you about this being tiresome. It might have been fun when it was just a chapter. And at any rate a good exercise for a writer. However I haven’t yet worked up the courage to read the real “Anna Karenina,” so there is really no way that I would ever take the time to read “Android Karenina.” And I don’t find it that funny either.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 15, 2010 11:47 am

      Right. It’s not nearly as funny as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which has a certain dada-esque nonsense to it that tickles up at least the precursor to a chuckle. Indeed, if these geniuses wanted to tackle a great Russian novel (and who thought that was a good idea in the first place?!), I think, say, Crime and Punishment and Cyborgs would be much more promising.

  5. Connie permalink
    January 15, 2010 9:09 am

    The biggest problem with these books is that while the ideas are funny – well, OK, at least the first one was – it’s virtually impossible to sit down and read one from cover to cover. Even P&P&Z. You can pop open a page here or there and chuckle, but you can’t READ it.

    All you really need to do with Android Karenina is look at the title, smile – and move on.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 15, 2010 11:49 am

      I agree. And I repeat, Jane Austen is a comic writer to begin with, albeit one of great texture and subtlety. Making fun of tragedy is best done briefly. Has anyone out there heard Andy Griffith’s classic ’50s bit on Hamlet as misunderstood by a hick? Priceless. And brief.

  6. Connie permalink
    January 15, 2010 9:11 am

    BTW, concerning MAD satires: They were short and to the point. Short is almost always better when it comes to jokes. I laughed like crazy at the two-page “Twitterature” version of Hamlet – “Mom says to stop wearing black” – but I don’t want to read the entire play, line for line, in that form.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 15, 2010 11:50 am

      Then I guess you won’t be having your Tweets turned into a self-published book, which I read you can do now?

  7. alexis permalink
    January 15, 2010 4:08 pm

    Fine, yes, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a funny idea. But even before i was done laughing about it i was tired of it. Something makes a little money and they have to kill it. And bury it. This idea is too narrow to become a genre. Plus, the reason Anna Karenina is such a great name is because they both end with the same sound (forgive me, but the name for that is escaping me right now…). They ruined it.

  8. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    January 16, 2010 1:58 pm

    You’re absolutely right about the assonance of Anna Karenina, and how the rather stupid joke “Android Karenina” obliterates it.

    Otherwise: No golden goose ever lived its natural lifespan.

  9. January 17, 2010 6:37 pm

    Well, I’m a dismayed fuddy duddy squirming at the idea of taking one of my top five novels ever written and turning it into titters and toys and tingles for those who should (and would if they could, perhaps?) read it in the original. If you like curling up with a book for hours and days on end, Tolstoy’s Anna will take you out of the sillyism of Androids and put you in a place that will widen your horizons and (hopefully) give you a thirst for more of the great man’s writing. It is said that literature attempts to capture and penetrate truths about human life. No one does that better than Leo Tolstoy. One bright spot Chauncey mentions is that the Android Karenina may send some readers to the real thing. We can only cross all digits and send out the mojo.

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