“Absurdistan is not just a hilarious novel, but a record of a particular peak in the history of human folly. No one is more capable of dealing with the transition from the hell of socialism to the hell of capitalism in Eastern Europe than Shteyngart, the great-great grandson of one Nikolai Gogol and the funniest foreigner alive.”
From the critically acclaimed, bestselling author of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook comes the uproarious and poignant story of one very fat man and one very small country
Meet Misha Vainberg, aka Snack Daddy, a 325-pound disaster of a human being, son of the 1,238th-richest man in Russia, proud holder of a degree in multicultural studies from Accidental College, USA (don’t even ask), and patriot of no country save the great City of New York. Poor Misha just wants to live in the South Bronx with his hot Latina girlfriend, but after his gangster father murders an Oklahoma businessman in Russia, all hopes of a U.S. visa are lost.
Salvation lies in the tiny, oil-rich nation of Absurdistan, where a crooked consular officer will sell Misha a Belgian passport. But after a civil war breaks out between two competing ethnic groups and a local warlord installs hapless Misha as minister of multicultural affairs, our hero soon finds himself covered in oil, fighting for his life, falling in love, and trying to figure out if a normal life is still possible in the twenty-first century.
With the enormous success of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Gary Shteyngart established himself as a central figure in today’s literary world—“one of the most talented and entertaining writers of his generation,” according to The New York Observer. In Absurdistan, he delivers an even funnier and wiser literary performance. Misha Vainberg is a hero for the new century, a glimmer of humanity in a world of dashed hopes.
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.76(d)|
About the Author
Gary Shteyngart is the New York Times bestselling author of the memoir Little Failure (a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist) and the novels Super Sad True Love Story (winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize), Absurdistan, and The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (winner of the Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction and the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction). His books regularly appear on best-of lists around the world and have been published in thirty countries.
Hometown:New York, New York
Date of Birth:1972
Place of Birth:Leningrad, USSR
Education:B.A., Oberlin College, 1995
Read an Excerpt
The Night in Question
June 15, 2001
I am Misha Borisovich Vainberg, age thirty, a grossly overweight man with small, deeply set blue eyes, a pretty Jewish beak that brings to mind the most distinguished breed of parrot, and lips so delicate you would want to wipe them with the naked back of your hand.
For many of my last years, I have lived in St. Petersburg, Russia, neither by choice nor by desire. The City of the Czars, the Venice of the North, Russia’s cultural capital . . . forget all that. By the year 2001, our St. Leninsburg has taken on the appearance of a phantasmagoric third-world city, our neoclassical buildings sinking into the crap-choked canals, bizarre peasant huts fashioned out of corrugated metal and plywood colonizing the broad avenues with their capitalist iconography (cigarette ads featuring an American football player catching a hamburger with a baseball mitt), and what is worst of all, our intelligent, depressive citizenry has been replaced by a new race of mutants dressed in studied imitation of the West, young women in tight Lycra, their scooped-up little breasts pointing at once to New York and Shanghai, with men in fake black Calvin Klein jeans hanging limply around their caved-in asses.
The good news is that when you’re an incorrigible fatso like me—325 pounds at last count—and the son of the 1,238th richest man in Russia, all of St. Leninsburg rushes out to service you: the drawbridges lower themselves as you advance, and the pretty palaces line up alongside the canal banks, thrusting their busty friezes in your face. You are blessed with the rarest treasure to be found in this mineral-rich land. You are blessed with respect.
On the night of June 15 in the catastrophic year 2001, I was getting plenty of respect from my friends at a restaurant called the Home of the Russian Fisherman on Krestovskiy Island, one of the verdant islands caught in the delta of the Neva River. Krestovskiy is where we rich people pretend to be living in a kind of post-Soviet Switzerland, trudging along the manicured bike paths built ’round our kottedzhes and town khauses, and filling our lungs with parcels of atmosphere seemingly imported from the Alps.
The Fisherman’s gimmick is that you catch your own fish out of a man-made lake, and then for about US$50 per kilo, the kitchen staff will smoke it for you or bake it on coals. On what the police would later call “the night in question,” we were standing around the Spawning Salmon pontoon, yelling at our servants, drinking down carafes of green California Riesling, our Nokia mobilniki ringing with the social urgency that comes only when the White Nights strangle the nighttime, when the inhabitants of our ruined city are kept permanently awake by the pink afterglow of the northern sun, when the best you can do is drink your friends into the morning.
Let me tell you something: without good friends, you might as well drown yourself in Russia. After decades of listening to the familial agitprop of our parents (“We will die for you!” they sing), after surviving the criminal closeness of the Russian family (“Don’t leave us!” they plead), after the crass socialization foisted upon us by our teachers and factory directors (“We will staple your circumcised khui to the wall!” they threaten), all that’s left is that toast between two failed friends in some stinking outdoor beer kiosk.
“To your health, Misha Borisovich.”
“To your success, Dimitry Ivanovich.”
“To the army, the air force, and the whole Soviet fleet . . . Drink to the bottom!”
I’m a modest person bent on privacy and lonely sadness, so I have very few friends. My best buddy in Russia is a former American I like to call Alyosha-Bob. Born Robert Lipshitz in the northern reaches of New York State, this little bald eagle (not a single hair on his dome by age twenty-five) flew to St. Leninsburg eight years ago and was transformed, by dint of alcoholism and inertia, into a successful Rus- sian biznesman renamed Alyosha, the owner of ExcessHollywood, a riotously profitable DVD import-export business, and the swain of Svetlana, a young Petersburg hottie. In addition to being bald, Alyosha-Bob has a pinched face ending in a reddish goatee, wet blue eyes that fool you with their near-tears, and enormous flounder lips cleansed hourly by vodka. A skinhead on the metro once described him as a gnussniy zhid, or a “vile-looking Yid,” and I think most of the populace sees him that way. I certainly did when I first met him as a fellow undergraduate at Accidental College in the American Midwest a decade ago.
Alyosha-Bob and I have an interesting hobby that we indulge whenever possible. We think of ourselves as the Gentlemen Who Like to Rap. Our oeuvre stretches from the old-school jams of Ice Cube, Ice-T, and Public Enemy to the sensuous contemporary rhythms of ghetto tech, a hybrid of Miami bass, Chicago ghetto tracks, and Detroit electronica. The modern reader may be familiar with “Ass-N-Titties” by DJ Assault, perhaps the seminal work of the genre.
On the night in question, I got the action started with a Detroit ditty I enjoy on summer days:
Heah I come
Shut yo mouf
And bite yo tongue.
Alyosha-Bob, in his torn Helmut Lang slacks and Accidental College sweatshirt, picked up the tune:
You think you bad?
Let me see you
Bounce dat ass.
Our melodies rang out over the Russian Fisherman’s four pontoons (Spawning Salmon, Imperial Sturgeon, Capricious Trout, and Sweet Little Butterfish), over this whole tiny man-made lake, whatever the hell it’s called (Dollar Lake? Euro Pond?), over the complimentary-valet-parking-lot where one of the oafish employees just dented my new Land Rover.
Heah come dat bitch
From round de way
Box my putz
Like Cassius Clay.
“Sing it, Snack Daddy!” Alyosha-Bob cheered me on, using my Accidental College nickname.
My name is Vainberg
I like ho’s
Sniff ’em out
Wid my Hebrew nose
Pump that shit
From ’round the back
Ack ack ack
This being Russia, a nation of busybody peasants thrust into an awkward modernity, some idiot will always endeavor to spoil your good fun. And so the neighboring biznesman, a sunburned midlevel killer standing next to his pasty girlfriend from some cow-filled province, starts in with “Now, fellows, why do you have to sing like African exchange students? You both look so cultured”—in other words, like vile-looking Yids—“why don’t you declaim some Pushkin instead? Didn’t he have some nice verses about the White Nights? That would be very seasonal.”
“Hey, if Pushkin were alive today, he’d be a rapper,” I said.
“That’s right,” Alyosha-Bob said. “He’d be M.C. Push.”
“Fight the power!” I said in English.
Our Pushkin-loving friend stared at us. This is what happens when you don’t learn English, by the way. You’re always at a loss for words. “God help you children,” he finally said, taking his lady friend by one diminutive arm and guiding her over to the other side of the pontoon.
Children? Was he talking about us? What would an Ice Cube or an Ice-T do in this situation? I reached for my mobilnik, ready to dial my Park Avenue analyst, Dr. Levine, to tell him that once again I had been insulted and injured, that once again I had been undermined by a fellow Russian.
And then I heard my manservant, Timofey, ringing his special hand bell. The mobilnik fell out of my hand, the Pushkin lover and his girlfriend disappeared from the pontoon, the pontoon itself floated off into another dimension, even Dr. Levine and his soft American ministrations were reduced to a distant hum.
It was feeding time.
With a low bow, manservant Timofey presented me with a tray of blackened sturgeon kebabs and a carafe of Black Label. I fell down on a hard plastic chair that twisted and torqued beneath my weight like a piece of modern sculpture. I bent over the sturgeon, sniffing it with closed eyes as if offering a silent prayer. My feet were locked together, my ankles grinding into each other with expectant anxiety. I prepared for my meal in the usual fashion: fork in my left hand; my dominant right clenched into a fist on my lap, ready to punch anyone who dared take away my food.
I bit into the sturgeon kebab, filling my mouth with both the crisp burnt edges and the smooth mealy interior. My body trembled in- side my leviathan Puma tracksuit, my heroic gut spinning counter- clockwise, my two-scoop breasts slapping against each other. The usual food-inspired images presented themselves. Myself, my Beloved Papa, and my young mother in a hollowed-out boat built to resemble a white swan floating past a grotto, triumphant Stalin-era music echoing around us (“Here’s my passport! What a passport! It’s my great red Soviet passport!”), Beloved Papa’s wet hands rubbing my tummy and skirting the waistband of my shorts, and Mommy’s smooth, dry ones brushing against the nape of my neck, a chorus of their hoarse, tired voices saying, “We love you, Misha. We love you, bear cub.”
My body fell into a rocking motion like the religious people rock when they’re deep in the thrall of their god. I finished off the first kebab and the one after that, my chin oily with sturgeon juices, my breasts shivering as if they’d been smothered with packets of ice. Another chunk of fish fell into my mouth, this one well dusted with parsley and olive oil. I breathed in the smells of the sea, my right fist still clenched, fingers digging into palm, my nose touching the plate, sturgeon extract coating my nostrils, my little circumcised khui burning with the joy of release.
And then it was over. And then the kebabs were gone. I was left with an empty plate. I was left with nothing before me. Ah, dear me. Where was I now? An abandoned bear cub without his li’l fishy. I splashed a glass of water on my face and dabbed myself off with a napkin Timofey had tucked into my tracksuit. I picked up the carafe of Black Label, pressed it to my cold lips, and, with a single tilt of the wrist, emptied it into my gullet.
The world was golden around me, the evening sun setting light to a row of swaying alders; the alders abuzz with the warble of siskin birds, those striped yellow fellows from our nursery rhymes. I turned pastoral for a moment, my thoughts running to Beloved Papa, who was born in a village and for whom village life should be prescribed, as only there—half asleep in a cowshed, naked and ugly, but sober all the same—do the soft tremors of what could be happiness cross his swollen Aramaic face. I would have to bring him here one day, to the Home of the Russian Fisherman. I would buy him a few chilled bottles of his favorite Flagman vodka, take him out to the farthest pontoon, put my arm around his dandruff-dusted shoulders, press his tiny lemur head into one of my side hams, and make him understand that despite all the disappointments I have handed him over the past twenty years, the two of us are meant to be together forever.
Emerging from the food’s thrall, I noticed that the demographics of the Spawning Salmon pontoon were changing. A group of young coworkers in blue blazers had shown up, led by a buffoon in a bow tie who played the role of a “fun person,” breaking the coworkers up into teams, thrusting fishing rods into their weak hands, and leading them in a chorus of “Fi-ish! Fi-ish! Fi-ish!” What the hell was going on here? Was this the first sign of an emerging Russian middle class? Did all these idiots work for a German bank? Perhaps they were holders of American MBAs.
Meanwhile, all eyes fell on a striking older woman in a full-length white gown and black Mikimoto pearls, casting her line into the man-made lake. She was one of those mysteriously elegant women who appeared to have walked in from the year 1913, as if all those red pioneer scarves and peasant blouses from our jackass Soviet days had never alighted on her delicate shoulders.
I am not enamored of such people, I must say. How is it possi- ble to live outside of history? Who can claim immunity to it by dint of beauty and breeding? My only consolation was that neither this charming creature nor the young Deutsche Bank workers now shouting in unison “Sal-mon! Sal-mon!” would catch any tasty fish today. Beloved Papa and I have an agreement with the management of the Home of the Russian Fisherman restaurant—whenever a Vainberg takes up a rod, the owner’s nephew puts on his Aqua-Lung, swims under the pontoons, and hooks the best fish on our lines. So all Czarina with the Black Pearls would get for her troubles would be a tasteless, defective salmon.
You can’t ignore history altogether.
On the night in question, Alyosha-Bob and I were joined by three lovely females: Rouenna, the love of my life, visiting for two weeks from the Bronx, New York; Svetlana, Alyosha-Bob’s dark-eyed Tatar beauty, a junior public-relations executive for a local chain of perfume shops; and Beloved Papa’s twenty-one-year-old provincial wife, Lyuba.
I must say, I was anxious about bringing these women together (also, I have a generalized fear of women). Svetlana and Rouenna have aggressive personalities; Lyuba and Rouenna were once lower-class and lack refinement; and Svetlana and Lyuba, being Russian, present with symptoms of mild depression rooted in early childhood trauma (cf. Papadapolis, Spiro, “It’s My Pierogi: Transgenerational Conflict in Post-Soviet Families,” Annals of Post-Lacanian Psychiatry, Boulder/Paris, Vol. 23, No. 8, 1997). A part of me expected discord among the women, or what the Americans call “fireworks.” Another part of me just wanted to see that snobby bitch Svetlana get her ass kicked.
While Alyosha-Bob and I were rapping, Lyuba’s servant girl had been making the girls pretty with lipstick and pomade in one of the Fisherman’s changing huts, and when they joined us on the pontoon, they reeked of fake citrus (and a touch of real sweat), their dainty lips aglow in the summer twilight, their teeny voices abuzz with interesting conversation about Stockmann, the celebrated Finnish emporium on St. Leninsburg’s main thoroughfare, Nevsky Prospekt. They were discussing a summer special—two hand-fluffed Finnish towels for US$20—both towels distinguished by their highly un-Russian, shockingly Western color: orange.
Listening to the tale of the orange towel, I got a little engorged down in the circumcised purple half-khui department. These women of ours were so cute! Well, not my stepmother, Lyuba, obviously, who is eleven years younger than me and happens to spend her nights moaning unconvincingly under the coniferous trunk of Beloved Papa, with his impressive turtlelike khui (blessed memories of it swinging about in the bathtub, my curious toddler hands trying to snatch it).
And I wasn’t hot for Svetlana, either; despite her fashionable Mongol cheekbones, her clingy Italian sweater, and that profoundly calculated aloofness, the supposedly sexy posturing of the educated Russian woman, despite all that, let me tell you, I absolutely refuse to sleep with one of my co-nationals. God only knows where they’ve been.
So that leaves me with my Rouenna Sales (pronounced Sah-lez, in the Spanish manner), my South Bronx girlie-girl, my big-boned precious, my giant multicultural swallow, with her crinkly hair violently pulled back into a red handkerchief, with her glossy pear-shaped brown nose always in need of kisses and lotion.
“I think,” said my stepmom, Lyuba, in English for Rouenna’s benefit, “I thought,” she added. She was having trouble with her tenses. “I think, I thought . . . I think, I thought . . .”
I sink, I sought . . . I sink, I sought . . .
“What are you sinking, darling?” asked Svetlana, tugging on her line impatiently.
But Lyuba would not be so easily discouraged from express- ing herself in a bright new language. Married for two years to the 1,238th richest man in Russia, the dear woman was finally coming to terms with her true worth. Recently a Milanese doctor had been hired to burn out the malicious orange freckles ringing her coarse nubbin, while a Bilbao surgeon was on his way to chisel out the baby fat flapping around her tufty teenager’s cheeks (the fat actually made her look more sympathetic, like a ruined farm girl just coming out of her adolescence).
“I think, I thought,” Lyuba said, “that orange towel so ugly. For girl is nice lavender, for boy like my husband, Boris, light blue, for servant black because her hand already dirty.”
“Damn, sugar,” Rouenna said. “You’re hard-core.”
“What it is ‘harcourt’?”
“Talking shit about servants. Like they got dirty hands and all.”
“I sink . . .” Lyuba grew embarrassed and looked down at her own hands, with their tough provincial calluses. She whispered to me in Russian, “Tell her, Misha, that before I met your papa, I was unfortunate, too.”
“Lyuba was poor back in 1998,” I explained to Rouenna in En- glish. “Then my papa married her.”
“Is that right, sister?” Rouenna said.
“You are calling me sister?” Lyuba whispered, her sweet Russian soul atremble. She put down her fishing line and spread open her arms. “Then I will be your sister, too, Rouennachka!”
“It’s just an African-American expression,” I told her.
“It sure is,” Rouenna said, coming over to give Lyuba a hug, which the temperate girl tearfully reciprocated. “ ’Cause, as far as I can tell, all of you Russians are just a bunch of niggaz.”
“What are you saying?” Svetlana said.
“Don’t take it the wrong way,” Rouenna said. “I mean it like a compliment.”
“It’s no compliment!” Svetlana barked. “Explain yourself.”
“Chill, honey,” Rouenna said. “All I’m saying is, you know . . . your men don’t got no jobs, everyone’s always doing drive-bys whenever they got beefs, the childrens got asthma, and y’all live in public housing.”
“Misha doesn’t live in public housing,” Svetlana said. “I don’t live in public housing.”
“Yeah, but you’re different from the other peeps. You’re all like OGs,” Rouenna said, making a ghetto gesture with her arm.
“Original gangsters,” Alyosha-Bob explained.
“Look at Misha,” Rouenna said. “His father killed an American businessman over some bullshit, and now he can’t get a U.S. fucking visa. That’s, like, hard-core.”
“It’s not all because of Papa,” I whispered. “It’s the American consulate. It’s the State Department. They hate me.”
“Again, what it is ‘harcourt’?” Lyuba asked, unsure where the conversation was heading and whether or not she and Rouenna were still sisters.
Svetlana dropped her line and turned on me and Alyosha-Bob with both hands on her negligible waist. “It’s your fault,” she seethed in Russian. “With all of your stupid rapping. With that idiot ghetto tech. No wonder people treat us like we’re animals.”
“We were just having fun,” Alyosha-Bob said.
“If you want to be a Russian,” Svetlana told my friend, “you have to think of what kind of image you want to project. Everyone already thinks we’re bandits and whores. We’ve got to rebrand ourselves.”
“I apologize with all my soul,” Alyosha-Bob said, his hands symbolically covering his heart. “We will not rap in front of you from now on. We will work on our image.”
“Damn, what are you niggaz going on about?” Rouenna said. “Speak English already.”
Svetlana turned to me with her fierce off-color eyes. I stepped back, nearly tipping over into the Spawning Salmon waters. My fingers were already skirting Dr. Levine’s emergency speed dial when my manservant, Timofey, ran up to us in great haste, choking on his own sour breath. “Ai, batyushka,” my manservant said, pausing for air. “Forgive Timofey for the interruption, why don’t you? For he is a sinner just like the rest of them. But sir, I must warn you! The police are on their way. I fear they are looking for you—”
I didn’t quite catch his meaning until a baritone yelp from the neighboring Capricious Trout pontoon caught my attention. “Police!” a gentleman was braying. The young bank workers with their American MBAs, the old czarina in her black pearls and white gown, the Pushkin-loving biznesman—everyone was making for the complimentary valet parking where their Land Rovers were idling. Running past them were three wide gendarmes, their snazzy blue caps embossed with the scrawny two-headed Russian eagle, followed by their leader, an older man in civilian clothing, his hands in his pockets, taking his time.
It was apparent that the pigs were headed squarely for me. Alyosha-Bob moved in to protect me, placing his hands on my back and my belly as if I were in danger of capsizing. I decided to stand my ground. Such an outrage! In civilized countries like Canada, a well-heeled man and his fishing party are left in peace by the authorities, even if they have committed a crime. The old man in civvies, who I later learned had the tasty name of Belugin (just like the caviar), gently pushed aside my friend. He placed his snout within a centimeter of my own, so that I was looking into a grizzled old man’s face, eyes yellow around the pupils, a face that in Russia bespeaks authority and incompetence both. He was staring at me with great emotion, as if he wanted my money. “Misha Vainberg?” he said.
“And what of it?” I said. The implication being: Do you know who I am?
“Your papa has just been murdered on the Palace Bridge,” the policeman told me. “By a land mine. A German tourist filmed everything.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Working in the Caucasus for 14 years, I found this book to be really familiar and of course, anyone that knows the Caucasus can say all written in this book is possible and even likely to track along side reality of life there. I found it to be very funny in a quirky way and very topical. I liked the writing style very much. Some moments are a little 'TMI' but again that probably made it all the more 'honest in an absurd way'... I have recommended this book to all of my clients and those that have worked with me and love the Caucasus for all of it's quirky good and bad alter universe moments!
I bought this book based on its great write up in the NYTimes, expecting a funny semi-political satire. I may have smiled during a few moments, but most of this book is about a bumbling Russian trust fund kid who I could not relate to, and found both distasteful and annoying. The story itself is weak and not very compelling- this is one of those books where upon reaching the end I was happy it was over as opposed to being disappointed that it had ended so soon.
My teacher recommended this book to me. At first i was a bit reluctant in getting it. Though, at the first chapter it already interested me. Absurdistan is about Misha Borisovitch Vainberg, a russian jew, who lost his father and is trying to find meaning in his life. As befuddled as he was, Misha knew that he had to escape from Russia and move to America. So,before going to America, Misha winds up in a country known as Absurdistan which is remote from the world. During his stay in Absurdistan, Misha experiences bouts of jollity, and anxiety, inundated sexual pleasure, and overwhelming moral lugubrious anguish. However, through all these obstacles that he encountered, he ultimately spawned a new affinity for the Jewish people, and progressively transmogrified into a more philanthropic human being. Gary Shteyngart is a very powerful, comical writer and i would absolutely recommend this book without hesitation to anyone.
Upon first reading, I found the book entertaining and politically insightful. I'm not generally a fan of cruel humor, which this book's treatment of its narrator first seemed. The more I think about it, however, the smarter it becomes and more lovable and tragic Misha becomes. Despite the laughs (which often feel cheap), this book longs for a long-term engagement with questions of identity, intimacy and values in a globalized, consumerist world of perpetual simulacra.
The story is an epic. Absurdistan is kind of a modern, deconstructed Moby Dick. Everybody is seeking something, like in Gravity's Rainbow. And like Gravity's Rainbow, the world is falling apart in the most disconcerting ways. Misha is, literally, his own white whale, and by finding what he's looking for, he resolves the story beautifully. I read a review here where the reader found the character distasteful and annoying. That's not surprising since the character himself insists he's distasteful, spoiled, effete, parasitic and annoying. But he's not, he's magnificent. I'm sorry that person didn't give the book a chance. It's really worth the trouble.
The book is a strange story about love, the affection for a beloved papa, for the city of New York, for a sweet and poor girl in the Bronx and for the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service). The story is told by Misha Borisovich Vainberg, aka "Snack Daddy" a grossly overweight man, an in your face secular Jew with a distinguishably parrot beak and above all, the son the 1238th richest man in Russia. While in the US, on a student visa, he has earned a degree in multicultural studies from Accidental College NY and his sole ambition is to immigrate to the USA and live with his hot Latina girlfriend. However it was not meant to be, it was discovered his gangster father had murdered a businessman in Oklahoma, and to make matters worse his visa card was revoked. Misha sees his salvation in the oil-rich nation of Absurdistan where consular officers can be easily bought and will sell him a Belgian passport. With his new identity and help from his friend Alosh-Bob and his manservant Timofey, Misha hopes to circumvent previous hurdles but things do not go as planned and everything turns south.. I am surely not the only one to realize that 338 pages of satire quickly becomes a drag especially if the story doesn't grab you from the start. Maintaining a steady diet of satire and mockery has its limits and is not meant for everyone, Misha's pathetic sex driven and unappealing character reaches a point of over exposure and a turn off. I felt the book to be mostly ridiculous, unbelievable and above all absurd. All this said, it may nevertheless appeal to a certain group with a broader sense of humour.
Wading through `Absurdistan,¿ you will slush by floating logs of banal satire and bobbing accounts of smutt. Perhaps you trudge on, grappling for the 'masterful panoramic descriptions' Walter Kirn promises in his NY Times review, but these glimmering moments in Shteyngart's book are just as brief and extraordinary as the protagonist's flatulence. One would hope that the virtuoso of indulgence that is Misha Vainberg would win the reader over with humorous appeal, or at least some endearing quality...something..., but Shteyengart heavily relies on Misha's disclosure to the reader alone to make him a feasible hero. Midway through and one lewd sexual encounter too many, you'll find yourself drowning in a swamp of predictable stereotypes, convoluted plotlines, and plates of Hyatt buffalo wings. If you can¿t grab hold of the inadequate culturally and socially relative rafts the author dangles over you, then perhaps, as he seems to believe, sultry descriptions of prostitutes¿ backsides and junk food will keep you afloat.
I'm not sure if I found this book amusing because of its inherent goodness or because I dated a Russian for five years, and--boy howdy--this really has certain things about that culture dialed in, at least from a humor vantage. Part "Borat," part "Everything is Illuminated" (Jonathan Safran Foer), this book keeps the butchered English and ridiculous hijinks flying at you at the expense of any sort of plausible plot. It's raunchy, it's irreverent, it's the travesty of the Second World in the limelight. Absurdistan, of course, doesn't really exist. But that doesn't stop Shteyngart from pretending it does and sending our protagonist, the 350-pound son of a recently-offed crime boss, there to flounder through various life-threatening, world-peace-threatening adventures. Funny. Shameless. Somewhat tiring by the end.
I did not care for this book. I felt the humor was quite juvenile and the characters not interresting. I got very tired of hearing about body parts, especially Misha's botched circumcision. I had hoped to gain some insight into recent Russian immigrants, but I didn't.
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.
The main character's ignorance in this book is partly what makes it simultaneously funny and sad. The author's incredible ability to capture stereotypes and co-mingle elements of Eastern European and American modern culture - such as hip hop - painting a picture of a wealthy modern cross-national youth absorbed in consumer culture and plopping him into a destitute war torn society. The book is filled with cracks toward the author himself and pretty much every Eastern European, Jewish and American stereotype, and yet the main characters are all very sympathetic. You will grow to love Snack Daddy Misha. My only criticism of the book was that the humour was a bit redundant and by the end of the book I wasn't laughing so much anymore.
From the moment I heard the interview with Gary Shteyngart and an excerpt from his new book on NPR, I knew that Absurdistan would be a book worthy of reading. In my opinion, the greatest fiction novelists are those who can plump up a sentence so thick with precisely chosen words that you have no problem feeling as if you are a part of the very fabric of the story itself. Largely, these authors also know the secret of creating great characters. Without great characters, a story is only a place and a time and feels as desolate and empty as a world ravaged by nuclear war. But with juicy sentences like engorged ticks and characters brimming with life, an ordinary time and place becomes extraordinary. This is the experience one has when reading Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart.Absurdistan is not a comedy. However, one cannot help but laugh often while reading it. Perhaps it is the candid view of exposed scenes of base humanity that causes the laughter. We tend to laugh the most at things we can identify with the most. For example, while I don't have a khui and have, thus obviously, never been circumcised, I do understand pain and can certainly identify with the horror it must be for a 17-year old male to have to undergo such a procedure involuntarily upon entry into a foreign country as Misha does.Shteyngart is a master of words. Considering that Shteyngart and his main character are both Russian, it's no surprise that the author chooses to flavor the story with Russian words here and there. However, he does it in such a way that one needs no dictionary to immediately know what kottedzhes are or what a khui is. The author is also very talented at coming up with the perfect tongue-in-cheek figures of speech that bring the story gloriously to life. When Misha reaches the USA, his cab stops "in front of an old but grand house whose bulk [is] noticeably sinking into its front columns the way an elderly fellow sinks into his walker."The character that tells his story to us in Absurdistan is "Misha Borisovich Vainberg, age thirty, a grossly overweight man with small, deeply set blue eyes, a pretty Jewish beak that brings to mind the most distinguished breed of parrot, and lips so delicate you would want to wipe them with the naked back of your hand". Since he is quite wealthy, Misha has a "manservant" named Timofey who dutifully accompanies him through thick and thin (but mostly "thick" considering Misha's size). Misha tells of a particularly hot day in which "Timofey had to accompany me around town putting icecubes between my tits in a desparate effort to refrigerate me." In the first chapter, we find our hero in Russia talking to his father about travelling to study abroad in the USA at Accidental College (somewhere in the midwest). "I nervously squeezed at my left thick left breast," Misha tells us, "funneling it into a new oblong shape. I noticed a stray piece of salami peel on the table and wondered if he could eat it without Papa noticing." It seems as if he is always focusing on a stray piece of food somewhere instead of what is going on around him.Everything in Misha's life tends to happen to him accidentally. He inherits a fortune, beautiful women seduce him, he can't get back to his beloved USA because of the wrongdoing of his father, he ends up with a Belgian passport in the middle of Absurdistan, and he's appointed as Absurdistan's Minister for Sevo-Israeli Affairs Ministry of Mulitculti despite neither being a practicing Jew nor a Sevo. Misha is tremendously ordinary yet tremendously intriguing at the same time.Misha says of himself, "how can one be angry at a man of such few qualities?" Yet, people are always imbuing him with qualities he doesn't have. His to-do list for his job as "Ministry of Mulitculti" includes such ambitious items as "get Internet installed in office" and "encourage multiculturalism in everything I do". Upon finding a man shooting missles from roof of the Hyatt hotel, Misha exclaims with shock, "Oh, God.
Several months ago, I added Gary Shteyngart's novel, Absurdistan, to my bedside pile of books. Listed on the NY Times book review as one of '06's 10 best books, the Times promised me "smart, funny and incredibly moving". They suggested the creation of a 21st century antihero in the grossly overweight, self-centered Russian oligarch, Misha Vainberg. Hoping for some needed humor and light reading wrapped in clever, modern writing, I found neither. The story plods, with little that felt plausible or even all that interesting. The characters, the hapless Vainberg, his Bronx Puerto Rican girlfriend, his modelesque Absurdistani lover, all rather dull and ephemeral. The fictional and fractious nation of Absurdsvani was neither plausible nor interesting enough to matter. I felt at times as if I was listening in on a conversation between strangers, full of inside information I was never supposed to understand and that no one really wanted to let me in on. Shteyngart's imposing of an alter ego (perhaps?) of the Russian emigre writer Jerry Shteynfarb who becomes the American lover of Vainberg's ghetto girlfriend, was annoying at best.I didn't get it. Perhaps I'm not deep enough, or literate enough to understand the style and references of this contemporary acclaimed writer. I finished the book more in the hope that it would redeem itself in the end. And in the end, it didn't.
I didn't enjoy this book at all. It tired me and I found very little even moderately amusing. It is readable but the most absurd thing about the book was that I kept reading it.
This is an entertaining look at American society through the eyes of the foreigner, specifically Russian ones that belong to Shteyngart. Having myself grown up with immigrant grandparents, I don't find the same color in the use of dialect in the writing that others might, though it does spice up the narrative which is well done. I just can't stand the portions of the book where he compares himself, albeit in falsely insincere way, to Nabakov. If I want Nabakov, I'll read Nabakov. Shtyngart ought better just write in the way that his voice tells him and leave the comparisons to others outside of his novels. But that's nit-picky, picky, picky. This is a marvelously entertaining novel; I look forward to his next.
Funny, solid, political. This book's connection to (and references to) current events makes me worry it won't age well, but this was great fun to read.
The commercial for Tempurpedic mattresses features a young lady in pajamas jumping on one side of a mattress fashioned from "space-age foam" while an unmolested wineglass stands firm before her bouncing feet. We have a Tempurpedic and typically I'd agree with that infomercial's assessment of the stability of its product. But while reading Absurdistan I was beset by a storm of guffaws so potent the resultant quaking could have bounced an entire wine cellar off our Tempurpedic and clear down York Road to the Chesapeake Bay. I'm afraid A Confederacy of Dunces has been dethroned as the funniest book I've ever read.* In Gary Shteyngart's novel the Apocalypse doesn't arrive with a bang or a whimper, but with great gales of laughter. In fact, the Apocalypse is unfolding around us right now, a great drama of hilarious doom. Laugh while you can.*Mr. Toole's masterpiece, remains, however, a superior literary achievement--Shteyngart's is funnier, but less substantial, and does lose its potency about two-thirds of the way through. Buy them both!
The clever satiric writing earned it three stars for me and the story, location, etc, was enough to put it over to four for me. Was it "Catch 22"? Not quite, but quality satires are hard to come by of late!
I wish I could say I liked this one more than I did. Shteyngart puts on a virtuoso performance here in the funny, observational, hyper-referential and very contemporary mode of someone like, say, Zadie Smith. He's got Smith's transnational sensibility, too, building his novel around an obese, fabulously wealthy Russian Jew who feels American down to his very bones but finds himself marooned in a third-world backwater with a slightly improbable name. Shteygart's prose is so polished in gleams, his narrator's voice always rings true, and the book's soul is truly global. The author seems to understand both why so many young people around the world find the United States and its cultural products so alluring and why so many privileged young Americans are so fascinated by the hardscrabble existences of people further down the socioeconomic ladder, and that's no mean feat. Our millionaire protagonist eats caviar by the jarful and raps unselfconsciously while a young Russian he meets says he wants to travel to New York "to play basketball with blacks on the street." For Shteyngart, it's just another day on planet earth. Shyteyngart's novel is perhaps most touching when tracing these weird cultural mix-ups. Improbably enough, "Absurdistan has some of the most delicious descriptions of New York in the summertime that I've ever read, and Shteyngart has a keen eye for the weird, dissonant juxtapositions that unbridled global capitalism can create. I've been told that post-Soviet humor is surreal, and, if that's true, the author gets the tone just right. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he did his own research by spending some time in go-go post-Lenin St. Petersburg, and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he's got a genuine preference for voluptuous women of color. The two he includes here, Nana, an Absurdi beauty, and Rouenna, a Latina stunner from New York, are flat-out gorgeous, and perhaps the hottest fictional women I've met since I clapped eyes on Molly Bloom. You just can't fake a love like that. Still, it's the novel's relentless physicality that more or less ruins it for me. The body in text is one of my personal obsessions, but even I found the author's frequent descriptions of Misha's elephantine, sweat-drenched body and unstoppable appetites hard to take. I don't, like some readers, have to necessarily like the characters I read about, but Misha's egotism and frankly adolescent worldview grew tiresome. The author probably made the right move when he chose to make this point by penning a clever satire instead of a ponderous, hand-wringing book of essays, but did he have to make it so grotesque? I don't know what I'm reading next, but I hope that none of its male characters refer to their "tits" half as often as Misha does. Eesh. I felt like I needed a shower and a diet plan after I reached the last page of "Absurdistan," and while that might mean that Shteyngart's book was effective, I'm still not sure that it was enjoyable as it should have been. In the final analysis, "Absurdistan" isn't really about the fictional country it borrows its title from, or even about Russia. Shteygart's argument here is that thanks to globalization, we're all more or less citizens of Absurdistan, and that Misha's really much more American than he knows. What to do about it, though? At times, Shteyngart seems to be challenging the educated left-leaning readers that he knew would be his most likely audience: he mocks Misha's lazy, facile education in multiculturalism, for example. At the same time, I'm not sure that his caricatures of American contract workers and the book's twist ending are too far from the average MSNBC editorial. Shteyngart is, again, at his best when he writes about New York and considers what really being a global citizen might mean. The book ends with this line, and you might want to stop reading here if you haven't finished it: "Have faith in me. On these cruel, fragrant streets we will finish the difficult lives we w
I hardly got past the description of a botched circumcision, but I continued to read. Why?Parts of this story seem to appeal to a human urge to gawk at roadkill or other horrors - like reality TV. There are some really funny moments and intelligently written passages in this gluttenous "coming to america" story, but I don't think I'll ever really like or understand Misha, the Russian immigrant. The book (being either too cerebral, political or satirical) is certainly beyond my reach, but one thing is for sure, it did live up to the title. Then again, using the LT unsuggester on this one, brings up some of my favourite authors. : )
It may be unfair to rate a book on only 10 pages read, but I feel like I dodged a bullet by stopping there. Unfunny, annoying, and trying to hard are ways I'd describe this one.
Shteyngart leads his character through interesting states of mind but fails to really get the reader into it. Why did he choose to dot his book with digusting genital detailed descriptions (i hate the Russian word "khui")? is it meant to keep any normal reader away? If so, goal is achieved. Otherwise, it was totally and utterly unecessary.
Why did I choose this book? Why did I finish it?Horrors!March 2007
a smart satire without being too clever; drags a bit in the middle; great homage to Swift's A Modest Proposal
A funny, bittersweet picaresque satire of contemporary Russia and Russian-Jewish ennui. Misha is a mixed-up sweetheart, lovable yet deeply dysfunctional. A good read, well-written.