I read Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Handbook at the recommendation of a trusted book advisor. While I liked it, I wasn’t as crazy about it as the recommender. It was readily apparent that Shteyngart had talent to burn though, so I was eager to read his second novel, Absurdistan. I was not prepared to be thoroughly dazzled (with some qualifications), however.
Shteyngart’s novel is, as the title suggests, an absurdist view of the Former Soviet Union. His anti-hero, Misha Vainberg, is Russian but years for the west. Misha is the son of a Russian
oligarch crime boss and whose mother died when he was young. In an attempt to make Making his papa proud, Misha comes to the US to be circumcised in Brooklyn at 18 (such a mitzvah!) and to attend Accidental College. Did I mention that Misha is also morbidly obese. Between the descriptions of Misha’s disgusting eating habits, the not too funny references to “Accidental” College, and really bad rap like:
My Name is Vainberg
I like ho’s
Sniff ‘em out
Wid my Hebrew nose
I was considering abandoning the book about 30 pages in. I’m glad that I stuck with it. I have a friend who bailed on the book and can not be talked into continuing. Govern yourself accordingly.
After falling in love with a Puerto Rican stripper, Misha travels back to Russia for a visit. Misha’s father is killed, and his visa back to the US is denied when it comes to light that his father was responsible for the death of an Oklahoma businessman. Then he loses his girlfriend. Thus is Misha’s world turned upside down and the absurdity begins. Believe me, right now, somewhere, there is a lonely grad student working on a master’s thesis comparing Misha to Yossarian.
Kicking off the absuridity, a villain in the book is a (very) thinly disguised version of Shteyngart himself, Jerry Shteynfarb. Shteynfarb is a former classmate of Misha’s from Accidental, who later steals Misha’s girlfriend. Here’s Misha’s description of Shteynfarb:
Let me give you an idea of this Jerry Shteynfarb…a perfectly Americanized Russian emigre (he came to the States as a seven year old) who managed to use his dubious Russian credentials…After graduation, he made good on his threat to write a novel…the Russian Arriviste’s Hand Job or something…Americans naturally lapped it up.
But back to that adult circumcision. Needless to say, it doesn’t go well at the hands of drunken Hasids. Misha had not been circumcised as a child, his mother fearing the attention it might draw to their religion in Soviet Russia (Think Borat). Already ambivalent about his religion, Misha is now openly antagonistic to those who are outwardly Jewish. Of course, Misha is constantly the subject of antagonism because he himself is outwardly Jewish.
The crises of Misha’s identity are interesting enough, but the book hits its stride when Misha travels to Absurdsvanï (Absurdistan). Misha decides to travel to Absurdistan, because he hears that he can obtain a Belgian passport on the black market there. Surely the US will allow entry to a simple Belgian businessman, right?
Once in Absurdistan, things get…absurd. A civil war is about to erupt between two factions of the Eastern Orthodox church whose main point of contention is the direction that the footrest thing-y on the Eastern Orthodox cross slants. In the meantime, a third, secular, branch has begun bombing the capital, which they control, in an effort to get on CNN. All of the machinations are an attempt to keep Halliburton, and subsidiary KBR, working on their pipeline. The representations of Halliburton (pronounced Golly Burton! by the locals) is worth the price of admission alone. Misha is pulled into various intrigues as any and all are familiar with his father, the oligarch.
Without giving too much away, Misha soon finds himself living among the Mountain Jews of Davidovo, a village near the border with Absurdistan. Here Misha comes to grips with his religion, as illustrated by a nifty piece of simple typography that says volumes. From Davidovo, Misha plots his triumphant return to NYC. I won’t throw out any spoilers that’ll ruin the ending. Let’s just say that this book is also in the Russian tradition.
I’m a big fan of this book, even though it took me five months to get around to posting about it. It is a solid piece of absurd satire. I think that comparisons to Catch-22 are not far off the mark. I’d recommend it if that sort of thing appeals to you. If you do decide to pick it up and you find yourself wanting to throw it out the window early on, do stick with it.
Speaking of Russians, Shteyngart was part of NPR’s You Must Read This reading series this past summer. His favorite book is Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev. Now you know. This is the second in what will hopefully soon be a series of posts on three books by modern (post 1800’s) Russians that I’ve recently read.