Going from Cocaine to Novels, with the Help of “Novel with Cocaine”

This mysterious Russian fictionalized drug memoir spurred me to rethink my past—and write a new kind of character

Lines of white powder on a mirror
Photo by Valerie Everett on Flickr

Novel Gazing is Electric Literature’s personal essay series about the way reading shapes our lives. This time, we asked: What’s a book that changed your mind?

Novel with Cocaine, or, according to a different translation from the original Russian, Cocaine Romance, is a book of mysterious provenance. The pseudonymous writer, M. Ageyev, was likely an émigré to Istanbul in the late 1930s. For me, Ageyev’s lack of an origin story—or ending, though some hypothesize he returned to Stalin’s Russia and faced execution in a death camp—was an appealing enough reason to read this book. Under the current U.S. administration, with its frightening immigration policies, and in light of possible Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, as well as the powerful historical role of literature in Russian politics, Ageyev’s novel might seem more relevant than ever.

However, that’s not why I chose to read the 1998 English translation published by Northwestern University Press. I picked up Novel With Cocaine to get inside the head of an adolescent with addiction; I saw it as possible inspiration for the coming-of-age novel I’m writing. But when I read it, I ended up reckoning with my own past substance abuse problems.

Novel with Cocaine by M. Ageyev

When my MFA professor recommended the book, he warned me that the narrator, Vadim Maslennikov, is not nice to women. He wasn’t wrong. Vadim is a brilliant but impulsive and indulgent 17-year-old who competes academically with his classmates and friends, beds numerous women, and becomes hopelessly addicted to cocaine after a breakup. While in the early stages of recovery from an unnamed venereal disease, Vadim has sex with a woman he has just met. Later, the protagonist derides women who receive sexual satisfaction from their romantic encounters, referring to them as harlots. To round out his charm, Vadim steals from his mother and shames her for addressing him in public.

Still, I have thick skin. I assumed my instructor knew of my feminist proclivities but didn’t know about my party girl past. One Tuesday morning, freshly 21 years old, I woke to find my neck blossomed with two hickeys. They matched my wine-stained tongue, and I reeled, recalling a make-out session with a stranger in the middle of a boisterous booty dance I’d done atop a bar the night before. We’d briefly discussed our shared journalism majors and literary pursuits before his tongue swirled around in my mouth like an aggressive snake, reaching for my postnasal drip numbed tonsils. The weeknight partying ended when I left undergrad, but my “work hard, play harder” duality intensified.

The author frequently depicts how Vadim is at one moment the philosopher and the next an adolescent with impulse control issues. Now, the innocent teenager and now, the addict. These character dualities create tension in the book as Vadim lapses into philosophical and psychological musings, contrasted with his boorish behavior. In the first section of the novel, Vadim is a bright schoolboy with an admiration for the intellect and politics of his classmate Burkewitz. The book abruptly shifts into the next section, “Sonya,” implying that, despite Vadim’s deep admiration for his friend, a beguiling woman is able to distract him from school and camaraderie with the blink of an eye. Ah, adolescence.

In the third and fourth sections, “Cocaine” and “Reflections,” Vadim puts as much effort forth trying to understand the effects of cocaine on his psyche as he did attempting to understand Burkewitz’s non-conformist philosophies and Sonya’s cuckolding love. He is on one page the ingénue and on the next an out-of-control, petty thief.

Vadim’s dualities toward cocaine mirror mine. In fifth grade, I won a D.A.R.E. essay contest warning against the dangers of illicit drugs. My brief speech spouted this sobering truth: cocaine is among the most addictive street drugs. Ten years later, I snorted my first line off a marble countertop in a gilded Manhattan bathroom at an after-hours open bar event I got invited to through my magazine internship. I was curious, and the woman offering the bump coalesced everything I wanted to be—slim, power-suited, hair perfectly blown out, makeup smudge-free despite what had to have been a 60-hour work week at a high-powered PR firm. I felt chic, quick-witted, and, most memorably, rich. Only rich people did cocaine, I reasoned. It’s got to be a classy drug.

In fifth grade, I won an essay contest warning against the dangers of illicit drugs. Ten years later, I snorted my first line off a marble countertop.

Having grown up lower class, scratching and scraping for educational and career opportunities, I embraced the same aspirational consumerism that leads Vadim to become a cocaine user. I also shared his simultaneous disdain for the belle époque, with its obvious, unfair chasm between the rich and poor.

However, cocaine’s addictive properties worried me, and after that open-bar event I didn’t try it again during my underpaid New York sojourn. Things changed when, a few years later, I found myself, as so many recent graduates do, embedded in the restaurant industry in my college town, Madison. I had struggled and failed to find a job in my field, so I got by on a grape harvesting gig and a cocktail server job. I supplemented paltry wages with shift drinks and medicinal bumps, before and after endless shifts. I earned the fun, I would tell myself, tasting the bitter drip in my throat, after hours on my feet, heaving open a leaden patio door to deliver saccharine pineapple booze and almond-crusted shrimp to regulars. I lost twenty pounds snorting cocaine that summer.

Later the same year, I escaped the restaurant industry and its nocturnal lifestyle. But I was dogged by the expensive habit. After a night of doing lines, I would stumble onto a city bus to go to work at my management-level office job. Mouth twitching and eyes wide, I wore a flared floral mini dress from the night before all day at work. Nobody said a thing.

“How to explain the absolute and constant recurrence of a phenomenon that could not but lead me to believe that my most humane sentiments were inextricably bound to my most bestial sentiments and that once I began straining the limits of one set of feelings I would necessarily call forth the other. It was an hourglass situation: as one vessel emptied, the other necessarily filled.”

Vadim concludes in this passage that ethical pendulums must remain in some sort of cosmic balance and swing as hard the other way when pushed—whether from darkness into light, goodness into evil, or mental wellness into depression. The cocaine and Vadim’s subsequent addiction to it only exacerbates the swinging of this moral pendulum, and yet he remains lucid in his analysis, as seen in the striking metaphor that ends the passage above. The parallel structure of the vessels and the calming rhythm of the words “emptied” and “filled” lend credibility to an increasingly irrational, unstable, and unreliable narrator.

An unreliable narrator—or, an educated young person on the cusp of adulthood. Me. As a cocaine user, I was young and stupid, but youthful and smart. I held multiple journalism and corporate jobs requiring high levels of analysis, patience, and ability to multitask. Like Vadim, I was credible and irresponsible, corruptible and corrupted.

I quit cocaine for good after that morning on the city bus, loathing the up-all-night effects of the drug and the mild but persistent depression I’d plunge into for nearly two weeks after one night of fun.

Vadim’s death at the end of the novel, through his intentional ingestion of a huge amount of cocaine dissolved in water, both jolted and inspired me.

In August 2018, in Fond du Lac, the small Wisconsin city near where I live, nearly twenty people were arrested for distributing one hundred twenty-seven pounds of cocaine. This drug dusts every hard-partied surface in every town. It seems to follow me around.

I go on a cleanse after reading Novel with Cocaine, trying to rid my body of past sins.

My husband and I discuss the possibility of having children, now that our lives are relatively stable and the idea of refraining from alcohol for a few months doesn’t seem like an insurmountable obstacle. I imagine going to a bar and leaning against a spot reserved for after-work bumps, the cocaine coating my forearms and seeping into my pores, my heart, brain, intestines, kidneys. Into my uterus, lying in wait for the first breath of pregnancy to inflict birth defects on a future unborn child.

Of course, I know this paranoia is ridiculous. I’ve quit partying, I tell myself. Cocaine clears the average adult human’s system in something like three days. It’s not accumulating in my organs. But it’s true a smidge of cocaine causes birth defects at the earliest weeks of gestation. Vadim cannot escape his vice, and I see his character’s life as a cautionary tale. I go on a cleanse after reading Novel with Cocaine, trying to rid my body of past sins. I avoid bars entirely.

This brilliant, compact novel is not only a commentary on adolescent drug use. It depicts the universal dualities of adolescence itself—wrenched back and forth between childhood and adulthood, young people act out, trying to find their places in the world. The protagonist is a doomed Holden Caulfield. Vadim’s drug habit and vile behavior can be seen as symbolic critiques of Russian politics—as he spirals into addiction in late 1917, severing all his positive, close relationships, the country rages into civil war.

Vadim’s death is the anti-Communist author’s symbolic escape from an oppressive dictatorship. As the late Michael Henry Heim, the translator of Ageyev’s work, wrote of the protagonist in his introduction to Novel with Cocaine:

“For cocaine allows him to believe he has grown up—believe that his wildest dreams of success have come true—without the slightest effort on his part.”

The irony here cannot go unaddressed. In the “Cocaine” part of the book, Section 4, the protagonist takes his first snorts of cocaine and relishes his supposed profundity:

“And all the while I feel better and better. I feel new joy welling up within me, feel it tucking its tender head into my throat and tickling it. Before long (I am having a little trouble breathing) I can’t contain myself for joy, I feel it running over, I have a burning desire to tell these poor little people a story.”

In his coke-addled mind, Vadim falls under the delusion he is an adult, and a clever, condescending one at that—a storyteller, a yarn weaver, despite his high school dropout status. My and Vadim’s similarities were never clearer to me than when I read his character’s most coked-out scenes. I, however, have had to elicit much effort to grow up after kicking the recreational habit. The pattern I was in seemed sustainable for a lifetime—secure a job, pump out “work,” and party weekends away.

I believed I was so clever, walking into bar after bar on those partying nights to dominate with sheer cocaine confidence. For days after the comedown, I would berate myself for spending time on uselessness—the meaningless of the bar scene so clear in the daylight, reality foisted upon me by ravaged serotonin levels. I guilted myself over the human rights atrocities cocaine causes, the drug trade and its accompanying violent horrors, the trafficking routes, the gangs, and the child refugees attempting to escape that life. After the all-nighter and self-loathing day at the office, teeth still grinding, I knew I needed to stop living for the weekend, acknowledge my complicity in a worldwide bloody hellscape, and accomplish real work, namely telling my stories to all “these poor little people.”

If this addicted boy genius valued his story to such comical heights, surely mine is worthy of sharing with the world.

What an asshat, I thought, as I read another scene, “Reflections,” Section 1, which depicts Vadim addressing the reader; the implication is that the novel I read is a memoir the protagonist leaves behind after his self-imposed overdose death. If this little fool, this addicted boy genius, valued his story to such comical heights, I determined, surely mine is worthy of sharing with the world. Vadim never gets to see his written account make it into publication, but I will, I vowed as I read its last pages.

Despite my professor’s warnings, I found it difficult to reconcile Vadim’s horrifying treatment of women. He steals from his mother but often lapses into sentimentality when describing her, which indicates he tells his story from a regretful point of view. Vadim appears to believe his mother and Sonya can save him from an inevitable and painful end, as seen in several cocaine hallucinations depicting Vadim’s dream wedding to Sonya and his mother dying by hanging as a sacrifice to fund his existence. The protagonist recognizes the repulsion his behavior must induce in the reader, seemingly comparing his left-behind memoir with a play starring a sympathetic hero who stabs a cruel villain to death. The audience rejoices in the nobility of the hero but in doing so, Vadim explains, also praises murder and amoral endings: “… do they not, for all that, point directly to the fearsome, murky nature of our souls?”

Vadim taunts his future readers, critiquing both them and his basest urges. How can you like me? he seems to say. I’m so awful. You must be terrible, too.

It’s true. By rooting for Vadim’s wellbeing, hoping he gets away with stealing his mother’s most-prized possessions, and willing him to live, readers are complicit in his awfulness.  I wanted the protagonist to survive, even though, when a doctor asked why Vadim kept returning to cocaine, Vadim compares his addiction to the acclaimed Russian writer Gogol’s creative process. Both Vadim and Gogol try to quit their respective “drugs”—cocaine and creative writing. But the depressive effects of the comedown—the cocaine hangover and a lack of “the euphoria, the combustion of creation,” respectively, lure each back to “continue to succumb to his obsession even though it promised him nothing but despair.”

The cleanse gave me newfound energy, and I relish a life full of eight-hour nights of sleep, green smoothies, and less alcohol. Shunning acquaintances who party hard, I tell myself a 30-something professional woman doesn’t need to give into social pressures anymore. Instead, I throw myself into writing the coming of age novel I’ve always wanted to craft, and I buckle down in my MFA program to focus on it. I read voraciously. Be more like Gogol, I tell myself—the writing obsession is much healthier to succumb to, even if it results in despair.

This book, of the many books I’ve read in my MFA program, serves as a locus for creativity, the overlap between my life and Vadim’s pregnant with parallels—from the lack of a present biological father to financial straits to our substance abuse. My protagonist does not have a male lover or a biological dad to save her from an expensive coke habit, though, and neither did I.

Women have spent too much time trying and failing to save men in narratives like Novel with Cocaine.

My irritation at the protagonist aside, Novel with Cocaine is a brilliant, dark version of the hero’s arc, and literature needs more messy and unlikable protagonists like Vadim. But female.

Women have spent too much time trying and failing to save men in narratives like Novel with Cocaine. So, I write the female, semi-autobiographical protagonist in my novel into a messy, drug-laced, bad path from which she emerges, a little broken but victorious, and extraordinarily humbled. She does not dream of marriage to save her from the messiness of casual drug use or an empty checking account. Her parents are absent.

Her journey, like Vadim’s, is a raw and accurate illustration of adolescence. The trajectory of her character arc, like mine, is one of mistakes and redemption, a cycle of growth and pain that hurts but allows her to grow—and survive. Novel with Cocaine changed my view of partying, now that I’m in my thirties. It also taught me how my protagonist could save herself.

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