In many ways Absurdistan shows Gary Shteyngart to be a remarkably bold writer. Brash in his swipes at the cheapness of American urban culture while happily kicking away the rubble that the defeated, post-Cold War Russian soul has piled around itself, Shteyngart weaves the story of a spoiled young man’s crisis of conscience together with that of the imaginary oil-producing nation of the novel’s title. While at times Shteyngart delivers his sharp humor at too constant and too strong a pressure, the author’s spirited jibes at everything from his character Misha’s reluctant Jewishness to America’s heavy-handed foreign policy carry the novel along at a fast clip. His thickly written but often powerful evocations of Misha’s earnestly felt appetites give heart to what might have otherwise have become bitter and callous global satire.
The story is told by Misha Borisovich Vainberg, age thirty, a self-described “grossly overweight man” who is able to maintain his girth, as well as the “respect” he enjoys receiving from the less fortunate, thanks to the immense wealth of his father, whom he calls Beloved Papa. One of the novel’s most colorful characters, Boris Vainberg, the 1,238th richest man in Russia, reached his status via the post-Soviet black market, making his first million off a car dealership that sold anything but cars. Beloved Papa shows his love for his overweight son by sending him, at age eighteen, to America for circumcision, and then to Accidental College in the Midwest for Americanization. Upon Misha’s return to St. Petersburg, Beloved Papa promptly murders a visiting Oklahoma businessman and effectively makes it impossible for Misha to leave. Hopes of regaining his now-beloved New York and returning to his Brooklyn lover Rouenna are killed along with the Oklahoman, for the act has left an ineffaceable blot upon Misha’s records at the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).
Even when seeing himself in the role of the victim of fate, Misha often has penetrating reactions to his surroundings, as in his introduction to the United States:I found myself in a livery cab, roaring through a terrifying Brooklyn neighborhood. In the Soviet Union, we were told that people of African descentNegroes and Negresses, as we called themwere our brothers and sisters, but to the newly arriving Soviet Jews at the time, they were as frightening as armies of Cossacks billowing across the plains. I, however, fell in love with these colorful people at first blush. There was something blighted, equivocal, and downright Soviet about the sight of underemployed men and women arranged along endless stretches of broken porch-front and unmowed lawnit seemed that, like my Soviet compatriots, they were making an entire lifestyle out of their defeat.
Almost always, however, his insights descend into the sensual. After his first insights while traveling through Brooklyn, he adds that “some of the young girls, already as tall and thick as baobab trees, their breasts perfectly shaped gourds that they regally carried down the street, were the most beautiful creatures I’d seen in my life.”
Shteyngart is at his lightest in describing how seriously Misha’s weight affects almost every aspect of his life: flab and sweat flap and fly freely across these pages. Misha even reacts to moments of psychic discomfort through the medium of the fleshy “toxic hump” that rides his shoulders. His efforts to find friendship, love, and self-discovery are all affected and shaped by the enormous folds of his physical being. This flesh cannot be easily discarded, however. Even the pleasures of sex, ample as they are, pale beside the raptures of consuming such delicacies as sturgeon kebabs.
The question of weight naturally affects the most important relationship in the book, that between father and son. While Misha feels uncomfortably put upon by Beloved Papa, he dreams of his earlier childhood days, which turn out to be his pre-fat days, when Beloved Papa was physically demonstrative of his love. Misha now spends his father’s money freely on pleasures, an indulgence that fails to replace what is lost.
To Misha, Russia is “a nation of busybody peasants thrust into an awkward modernity,” and he himself is “an American impounded in a Russian’s body.” Fortunately, he is not impounded without friends, giving Shteyngart a chance to demonstrate his penchant for colorful and slightly absurd personalities. Accidental College buddy Robert Lipshitz, whom Misha nicknames Alyosha-Bob, has successfully established himself in Russia with the DVD import-export firm aptly named ExcessHollywood. Misha also leans upon the sympathetic ear of Dr. Levine, his New York psychotherapist, via mobilnik. Although oddly invisible for...
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