Literary Criticism and Significance
Absurdistan is Gary Shteyngart’s second novel. Shteyngart is a critically respected author who won The Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction as well as The National Jewish Book Award for Fiction for his debut novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. Absurdistan received an enthusiastic response from The New York Times, and both it and TIME Magazine included it in their lists of the top-ten books of the year. When responding to Absurdistan, critics tend to praise Shteyngart’s prose, humor, and portrayal of Misha.
It may be that Shteyngart’s greatest achievement is his unique brand of satire. Writing for TIME Magazine, Lev Grossman suggests that satire is
easy to like, but hard to love. It’s thin, it’s shallow, it dates easily, it rarely feels larger than the thing it’s making fun of.
However, Grossman goes on to explain, Gary Shteyngart overcomes these genre limitations in Absurdistan. In particular, Grossman praises Misha Vainberg, who in so many ways is exaggerated and excessive. Misha’s fantasy with America is just as absurd as the (once) oil-rich Absurdistan and its plan to rebuild by attracting American aid. Misha’s fantasies about America seem hopelessly out of sync with reality.
Walter Kirn of The New York Times sees Misha as a fantastic comic figure. Kirn applauds Gary Shteyngart’s novel for being “burstingly sure of its barbaric excellence.” Kirn goes on to discuss the breadth of Shteyngart’s vision and how the author’s focus shifts from America to love to Russia with ease. This vision, Kirn asserts, makes Shteyngart a
master panoramist who paints in just three tones: exhausted grays, despairing browns and superficial golds.
Shteyngart’s satire may be depressingly comical, but it is at least intelligent. The prose itself is complex and meets the needs of Shteyngart’s satire and Misha’s depressed worldview.
Absurdistan is a strong representation of Gary Shteyngart’s body of work. Shteyngart’s heroes have all been of Russian and Jewish descent, and Absurdistan is no exception. As per usual, Shteyngart tells the stories of the immigrant’s life in America, especially New York City, from a comically exaggerated perspective. In particular, Shteyngart’s satire is often expressed at the expense of his heroes, who tend to be pathetic, helpless men. With Misha Vainberg—particularly his melancholy, his wealth, and his gluttony—Shteyngart has created a character representative of his fiction. Misha is insightful yet comically loathsome, a perfect hero for an author who lampoons his debut novel in his second book. The Russian Debutante’s Handbook earned Shteyngart critical attention, and he solidified his reputation as a literary satirist in Absurdistan.