This novella is divided into two uneven parts. The first part consists of eleven chapters of floating head philosophizing by an old man about all manner of topics loosely connected by a cynical outlook. The most prominent topic is consciousness and how it’s a curse upon mankind – for the more one has of it the more one is trapped in a dead-end life. (Presumably what Dostoevsky meant by “the underground.”) One really has to be interested in philosophy to get through the first part, which is about 1/3rd of the book, because there is no story and nothing in particular to make one interested in the monologuing old man’s life or thoughts. However, it’s considered the first existentialist novel, and is considered important on that grounds, and the philosophy is thought-provoking now and again.
It’s in the second part that the book gets interesting. In this part, we get a flashback to the narrator’s life as a young man and the events that presumably shaped the cynical philosophy that he’d rambled on about in the first part.
One can subdivide the second part into three subsections that each get more extensive and more interesting in turn. In the first section, the narrator tells about how he became irritated that there was an alpha male military officer who would walk boldly down the sidewalk and everyone would get out of his way. The narrator is ashamed that he consistently got out of the man’s way, himself. Since there was no rule that this man was owed the right-of-way, the narrator devises a plan to play chicken with the man. This may seem like a silly and sad little story, but it gives insight into the man’s state of mind. There are shades of “Fight Club” in this book, as the narrator feels emasculated by society and modernity. He’s a coward, but a proud coward who believes the world is ruled by fools, while men of intellect – such as himself – are trapped in the underground. He also has a masochistic ambivalence about pain and suffering.
The second and third sections flow together from a solitary event. The narrator runs into an old acquaintance from school, Zverkov, and invites himself to Zverkov’s going-away party dinner. However, neither Zverkov nor his chums particularly care for the narrator. There is a tension not only because they are of a higher status, but because the narrator has a chip on his shoulder about it. The narrator feels himself the superior man, and his self-invitation to the party is in a way another act of playing a game of chicken with those who are de facto superiors. His low-income post, combined with his feelings of superiority, compels him to assert himself to no good end.
When Zverkov and his pals slip away, in part to continue their festivities and in part to get away from the narrator, the narrator pursues them to the brothel they’ve taken their boy’s-night-out to. This is where the third part begins when the narrator ends up sleeping with Liza, a young prostitute. After the deed, the narrator rambles on about how she should get out while the getting is good, engaging in moralistic diatribe. Before leaving, he gives her his address card. Over the next several days, he swings between fears that she’ll actually show up to his shabby abode and fears that she won’t. His feelings for Liza bounce between whipping post and object of affection. And, being a classic unreliable narrator, the reader is left to guess as to the weight of those competing feelings.
Once one gets into the second part, this book becomes intriguing. The lead character would, at best, be classified and anti-hero. There’s nothing likable about him, but still one wonders how events will unfold. The first part offers the occasional bit of food-for-thought, but isn’t a compelling read for those who didn’t major in Philosophy. Even most Philosophy majors will find it needlessly cynical – if interesting. Still, it’s worth reading, and, hey, it’s really short.