Gary Shteyngart's satiric look at globalization, petrol politics, and the obsession with Jewish continuity.
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 AbsursvanÔ, 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.
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