Originally published in the Jerusalem Post.
Gary Shteyngart’s novel, Absurdistan (2006), begins with a reference to the short story writer Raymond Carver. The book’s preface is entitled "Where I’m Calling From," the name of a Carver story from Cathedral and the title of his selected stories. It’s an appropriate way for a book called Absurdistan to begin: perhaps no literary allusion could be more absurd.
A Big Book
Carver was a master of minimalism, both in style and content. He wrote short stories in short sentences, small, character driven pieces about lower-class Americans who suffer through divorce and alcoholism and the tragedies of every-day life. There’s nothing short or small or every-day about Absurdistan. It is written in a raucous, hyper-animated prose and takes on big themes: globalization, petrol politics, and American imperialism.
In many ways, Absurdistan‘s protagonist is a metaphor for the book as a whole. Misha Vainberg, a Russian Jew, lives large and is large. As the son of the 1,238th richest man in Russia, he has a team of servants, an American education, and a seemingly bottomless wallet. As an insatiable 325-pound gastronome, he ingests cartoonish volumes of food and drink. But while Misha’s life might seem comfortable, he doesn’t have the one thing he truly wants: an American visa. Misha attended college in the States and subsequently lived in New York, meeting the love of his life, a South Bronx stripper named Rouenna, but he’s denied re-entry into the land of his dreams after his father murders an Oklahoman businessman.
Soon Misha’s father is himself murdered, and Misha’s desire to leave his homeland is reinforced. Misha finds a backdoor way to achieve Belgian citizenship, a scheme that takes him to Absursvanï, a former Soviet republic on the brink of civil war. There he gets embroiled in partisan politics as bombs begin to fall and Haliburton moves in, eyeing war-time profits. All of this may sound quite serious, but Shteyngart’s writing is satirical throughout, shedding light on the real world by accenting it’s absurdities.
Sidekick at the Fore
Absurdistan is not as engaging as Shteyngart’s brilliant debut, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, and Misha is partly to blame. The fat funny guy who slobbers on himself is usually a sidekick at best–often just a sideshow–but hardly ever a main character. There’s a reason for this. We’re happy to oblige such characters in spurts, but hang around them too long and discomfort and revulsion set in. Shteyngart has cited Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version as one of his favorite novels. Richler’s towering accomplishment in that book was creating a character who is utterly despicable yet totally irresistible. Shteyngart’s Misha is even more of a lush than Barney Panofsky, but he’s far less lovable.
Still, Absurdistan rarely carries on for more than few a pages without a moment of profound literary comedy. And if your patience is particularly tested, know that Absurdistan includes a major payoff toward the end, in a chapter called "A Modest Proposal."
Edge and Insight
In the civil war between the Sevo and the Svani, Misha sides with the former, and in an attempt to generate international support for their cause, they ask him to be their ambassador to Israel. If Israel is on their side, they believe, America will be too. But Misha isn’t interested in the position. His father had been an ardent Zionist, but Misha pines for New York, not Tel Aviv. Instead, he offers to be the Minister of Multicultural Affairs, and in this role proposes an initiative to court the influence of American Jewry.
Misha’s modest proposal: A Sevo Holocaust museum. What follows is four and half pages that may be the most insightful and hilarious satire of the American Jewish community written in this century. Composed in the form of a grant proposal for "The Institute for Caspian Holocaust Studies, aka the Museum of Sevo-Jewish Friendship" is Shteyngart’s ironic look at the pathologies of the American Jewish community.
What’s the problem with American Jewry? Misha provides the answer he knows the foundations are looking for. "Due to the overabundance of presentable partners in a country as tantalizingly diverse and half naked as America, it is becoming difficult if not impossible to convince young Jews to engage in reproductive sex with each other." The solution? "Identity is born almost exclusively out of a nation’s travails. For us–a prosperous, unmolested people safely nuzzled in the arms of the world’s last superpower (as of this writing, anyway)–this means holocaust, holocaust, holocaust."
Here we have it all–the obsession with continuity, it’s rhetorical connection to the Holocaust, and the most crucial, often overlooked element: the security, wealth, and power enjoyed by the average American Jew.
The Soviet Perspective
Much has been written about the fiction published by Soviet Jewish immigrants–namely Shteyngart, David Bezmozgis, and Lara Vapnyar–in the last few years. While grouping these writers solely based on their region of origin is reductive, the similarities, where there are any, are instructive. In this regard, Shteyngart and Bezmozgis share a satirical eye for the strange relationship North American Jews have with suffering and security. Shteyngart and Bezmozgis illuminate the community’s unselfconscious mix of power and victimhood in a way that American-born writers have yet to do.
Perhaps the most subtly brilliant aspect of Shteyngart’s "Modest Proposal," is its genre: the grant proposal, the vehicle through which American Jewish continuity is truly fetishized. Many of the American Jewish community’s new initiatives are fueled by fantasies of mass-procreation with oddly little interest paid to what sort of spiritual or moral mission the resulting Jewish babies will share. Future historians of American Jewry will undoubtedly study continuity project grant proposals as a window into the Jewish American soul circa 2006.
Shteyngart’s "Modest Proposal" should be studied even sooner.