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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Tool & the Butterflies

Dmitry Lipskerov

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To purchase The Tool & the Butterflies

Title: The Tool & the Butterflies
Author: Dmitry Lipskerov
Genre: Novel
Written: 2016 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 348 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: The Tool & the Butterflies - US
The Tool & the Butterflies - UK
The Tool & the Butterflies - Canada
L'outil et les papillons - France
directly from: Deep Vellum
  • Russian title: О нём и о бабочках
  • Translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler

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Our Assessment:

B+ : agreeably quirky and surprising

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Tool & the Butterflies begins centered around Arseny Andreivich Iratov, a successful architect in contemporary Russia who, as we learn, has always been very ambitious and from youth on -- he was born in 1960, in the then-still Soviet Union -- has been willing to take considerable risks to enrich himself and work his way up by any means. From card sharp to foreign currency speculator, he leapt at opportunity where he found it -- putting him on the radar of and landing him in trouble with the local criminal gangs and the KGB, but not letting that stop him. He took his lumps over the years, including a spell in a Soviet prison camp, but always emerged raring for more. After stints in Israel and the United States (about which we don't learn much) he settled back in post-Communist Russia and has since enjoyed a more laid-back success running his architectural firm.
       Arseny has also long been a real ladies' man, seducing women left and right from a young age on. When the novel opens, he's in his fifties and has been in a relationship with the still just thirty-year-old Vera for the past decade. They aren't married, but live practically like a married couple -- albeit with separate apartments, Vera's right above his, as Arseny claims to be: "completely incapable of falling asleep in the same bed as a lady". Vera has, however, reached the stage where she desperately wants a child but, as she tells the deacon at her local church: "it just wasn't working out".
       Arseny has, in fact sired, several children over the years with other women -- "I don't even know how many", he admits -- but has never been much of a father figure. His offspring do come to play roles in the story however -- as also does the fact that, overnight, Vera's dreams of Arseny fathering her child are dashed once and very much for all. In a surreal twist, Arseny wakes up during the night with a full bladder and totters off to the bathroom to relieve himself, only to find:

     It was gone ! Gone !
       Penis, testicles, everything that had long dangled there has simply vanished, leaving his groin: "smooth as a piece of cardboard", with just a small urethra-opening left. The transformation is completely clean and neat, without any evidence of surgical intervention, as if this is always how it had been.
       A baffled Arseny consults a friend who is a doctor, Sytin, who has no answers either and has never come across anything like it. Sytin does suggest everything could be fixed up more or less like new with a penile prosthetic, but Arseny actually seems to come to terms with his new state and condition fairly quickly -- though worried about how it will affect his relationship with Vera, now that he is unable to pleasure her in the way he'd gotten used to.
       A character losing his genitalia, as if by magic, is one hell of a twist for an author to try to sell, but Lipskerov doesn't go for the hard sell: it happened, it's inexplicable (certainly to theose affected), and ... basta, more or less. Obviously, it's something of a blow for Arseny, but as we then learn more about his earlier life it becomes clear that Arseny is used to blows, and to dealing with them. So also this one, which he takes in more stride than one would expect most men to. More surprising, in a way, is that Lipskerov doesn't really seem to make all that much more of it either -- even as he eventually has this unusual occurrence not be a single, isolated incident but rather a more widespread and then near-universal one: Sytin's office is soon overrun with men reporting the same loss (and Sytin, too, suffers the same fate), and then, almost casually noted, we learn that:
80 percent of adult men, teenagers, and boys, as well as male infants, had lost their sexual organs within a single month. A representative of the State Department confirmed their findings, and every stock exchange in the world plunged by the same percentage. Only one-fifth of the male population, consisting of old men with untreatable erectile dysfunction, still had their primary sex characteristics.
       Quite a few chapters of the novel focus on Arseny, in the present-day and then also describing, quite closely, significant stages from his past. But the story also extends considerably beyond just his life. Numerous chapters are narrated in the first-person, by a narrator long unidentified even by name. (Among the amusing episodes is one that finds his neighbors wanting to report him to the authorities -- "We suspect you might be an enemy of the people" -- but stymied by the fact that they don't know his name: "We don't know who to report !") He is obsessed by Arseny -- and Vera --, is impulsive, and rather carefree; he also has a remarkable ability to foresee the future -- "I know a thing or two", as he puts it. (He's also waiting, impatiently, for a phone call, or for someone to pick up when he calls; it's a long wait: "And you're just waiting and waiting, like you called tech support !" the rare individual who understands what he's dealing with laughs.) As his supernatural abilities suggest and as becomes increasingly clear, he isn't an ordinary individual.
       Another of the novel's great leaps (while there are more that aren't immediately apparent) is that while Arseny did lose his genitals, they did not actually physically disappear. While he couldn't find them in his bed or anywhere near, they did re-materialize, far, far away, in the form of a finger-sized naked homunculus -- one which grows into full-sized human form very quickly. Given the name Eugene, it is another of Arseny's offspring -- more than that, as Eugene explains when he eventually confronts Arseny: "I am you ! What don't you get ?". Aside from the family resemblance, Eugene also has the one thing Arseny (and, eventually, most of mankind) lack -- appropriately enough, presumably, for a penis-incarnate.
       Most striking about The Tool & the Butterflies is just how naturally the extraordinary events and turns come to seem -- as quite a bit even aside from the truly surreal and bizarre elements, the lost (and, in one case, revived) genitalia, is actually quite far beyond the ordinary. Lipskerov adroitly wends his story in roundabout fashion, and with its shifting foci and myriad characters and their changing roles and situations it's long unclear where the story might actually be going; The Tool & the Butterflies is the rare novel that truly does surprise in what eventually unfolds and some of the explanations of what's been going on.
       Arseny's unusual life-path is described in considerable detail, his happy-go-lucky character standing him in good stead as he goes through quite a lot, even long before waking up un-manned. Other characters' lives intersect, on various levels, with his, from those he has slept with and those he has sired (one way or -- in the case of Eugene -- very much another), to those whose life he has otherwise had an effect on. Two generations on, a Joseph -- whose paternity also makes for quite the story -- proves to be an extraordinarily gifted boy -- gifted also with some clairvoyance-like sense, but also a great intellect beyond that -- and his very unusual, book-obsessed path ("I spend all my free time studying and I find answers to my questions") becomes one of the more significant parts of the story
       Left somewhat in the background for most of the novel is how the world is adjusting to the fact that essentially all men have lost their ability to (well, the tool with which they might) procreate and what the consequences of this are. Lipskerov does finally return to this, but in largely summary form -- an amusing summing-up of a world much more at peace with itself (and each other) but also kind of resigned ("Art degenerated. Museums were deserted"; no one bothered with science any longer, indifferent to any such advances, etc.). But in its summing-up the story as a whole then also culminates in addressing this situation head-on .....
       Loathe as I am to compare a book or author to others, in this case the similarity is just too good to pass up: The Tool & the Butterflies is basically a (Soviet-)Russian-colored mix of César Aira's fiction and Harry Mulisch's The Discovery of Heaven. For much of the novel, Lipskerov seems to be satisfied with presenting a variety of quirky events and characters, but, damn, there is a bigger picture too, and it does all eventually come together. Readers may have wanted more of that foreshadowed earlier, or more of the stray characters' stories padded out along the way, but there's no question that it is an enjoyable ride even as is -- puzzling though it can be, parts of the way -- and that Lipskerov manages to surprise with quite a bit of where this goes.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 April 2021

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The Tool & the Butterflies: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Russian author Dmitry Lipskerov (Дмитрий Михайлович Липскеров) was born in 1964.

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© 2021 the complete review

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