Saturday, June 30, 2007

Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart

Absurdistan is the story of Misha Vainberg, the American-educated 325-lb. son of the 1,238th richest man in Russia. His father has murdered a businessman in Oklahoma, an act which prevents Misha from obtaining a visa and leaving the country to return to America and be with his ghetto girlfriend Rouenna. After his father's murder, he is offered a solution: travel to the obscure former Soviet republic of Absurdistan and obtain a Belgian passport from a corrupt official there. While there, Misha gets accidentally tangled up in the conflict between the two ethnic groups in Absurdistan, the Sevo and the Svani, their main difference being whether Christ's footrest, the bottom crossbar on the Slavonic cross should be tilted to the left or right. In particular, he falls in love with a girl who turns out to be the daughter of the leader of the Sevo minority forces, and becomes a part of their circle, only to find out that he's been deceived about the nature of the conflict.

This is a good book, but not as good as it could have been, I think, or good as I expected it to be (Absurdistan was the final competitor to The Road in The Morning News' 2006 Tournament of Books), though it has many virtues. It's quite funny and clever in parts, and part of its charm is the way it satirizes the modern mixing of different cultures--Misha, for instance, considers hip hop to be the voice of his generation. But in many ways it's muddled, and its plot, once it gets off the ground, doesn't quite fit together.

Two observations: 1.) I would put good money on the notion that Shteyngart has read Martin Amis' Money, which I finished just a week or so ago, because as a character Misha bears a lot of similarities to John Self, the rich and fat protagonist of that novel. Similarly to Amis, Shteyngart also writes himself into the novel, but as Jerry Shteynfarb, the duplicitous professor for whom Rouenna leaves Misha. Amis did it with more subtlety, though, like most of this book, which lack's Money's fine sense of detail and structure. 2.) There is much to ponder, I think, about the way Shteyngart ends his book on September 10th, 2001, as Misha seems just about to leave Absurdistan once and for all. What's the purpose of this? To suggest that Misha may be stuck in Absurdistan for just a little longer? To suggest that the world Shteyngart depicts is one that stopped existing on September 11th? For the most part, Shteyngart lets the fact pass without mentioning its significance, and while I couldn't fault the rest of this book for having too little subtlety, it would be nice to understand this choice a little better.


Carlton said...

Someone was trying to recommend this book to me the other day, but they did a realy poor job of describing it.

Christopher said...

Now I have described it for you in perfect detail.