Monday, January 10, 2011

Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart

Misha Vainberg, a 325 pound Russian Jew, is the son of the 1,238th richest man in Russia. Sent in 1990 by his Beloved Papa to get his education at the American Accidental College ("located deep in the country's interior and safe from the gay distractions of the eastern and western seaboards"), Misha majored in multicultural studies, ate Doritos and Oreos and Cheetos and pizza, smoked dope, learned to rap ("My name is Vainberg/I like ho's/Sniff 'em out/Wid my Hebrew nose"), and picked up the nickname "Snack Daddy." Eventually, he ended up in Brooklyn. Misha is truly, madly, deeply in love with all things American. He's in love with American music and American people, especially the black and brown people of Brooklyn, with American smells and American food, and--most of all--he's in love with the large, street smart Rouenna.

But, as his story opens in June of 2001, Misha has been exiled back to Russia, far, far from all that he loves. Beloved Papa has killed--whacked, in the appropriate gangster parlance--an Oklahoma businessman, making Misha persona non grata in the States. But when Beloved Papa is himself murdered in turn, Misha sees his chance to leave the country he hates, and embarks on his quest to return to America. A Belgian passport is to be had, he's told, from a corrupt Belgian official who is posted in the oil rich country of Absurdvani. Run by Halliburton, on the verge of civil war (its two warring religious sects disagree as to which side the footrest in the image of Jesus on the cross should be), Absurdistan is a country desperately trying to fit itself into the twenty-first century. When war breaks out Misha is tapped as Minister of Multicultural Affairs and assigned the task of enlisting Israel's aid. Ultimately--in September of the year, and on the eve of the event that will change the country he loves forever--Misha must escape Absurdistan (and on an American Express train, yet).

Absurdistan is, well, absurd. It's also kind of wonderful, in a self-referential, self-conscious, post-modern, farcical way. Misha is the literary love child of Ignatius Reilly and Tyrone Slothrop, a blobby self-centered slob, who wants to do good but mostly wants to do good for himself, who is strangely attractive to women, who is paradoxically simultaneously hyper-aware of and utterly unaware of himself as he stumbles through the the war torn and often hallucinatory landscape (which, it must be noted, is quite the homage to Pynchon's bombed out Europe in Gravity's Rainbow). Absurdistan is brilliantly written and frequently hilarious--often uncomfortably so. However, in the end one is left feeling somewhat cold, and a little unsatisfied.

entered 1/11/11


Sandra said...

A lot of people liked this story though I'm not sure it's my thing. Glad to know a little about it in case I'm ever in the right mood.

Julie @ Knitting and Sundries said...

I giggled throughout the first paragraph. This sounds like a nice wild romp, even if the ending falls a bit flat. Thanks for the review!