Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 787
Satire of America
Misha Vainberg idealizes America, especially New York. When he leaves America and discovers that he cannot return because his father has murdered a businessman from Oklahoma, Misha becomes depressed. Misha’s quest throughout Absurdistan is to return to New York and to his girlfriend, Rouenna Sales. However, as Absurdistan is a satire, readers should view such exaggerated love of America with caution. Throughout the novel, America is presented as the superficial fantasy of a Misha.
The things Misha loves about America are all superficial. He does not love the history of America or its traditional ideals. Instead, Misha is in love with the gluttony, greed, and wealth of America. He goes to topless bars and spends his time partying. When it comes to music, Misha’s favorite songs are all gangster rap, and he enthuses about rap music by rapping himself. Shteyngart has fun at both rap and Misha’s expense through Misha’s lyrics, including “My name is Vainberg / I like ho’s / Sniff ’em out / Wid my Hebrew nose.” Misha’s rap lyrics are consistently coarse. Still, while there may be no depth behind Misha’s resolve to return to America, there is certainly no lack of feeling.
Shteyngart also satires America itself. If America’s foreign policy is to help other countries, the ideal has become disconnected from the reality in Absurdistan. The Absurdis have staged a coup and a civil war just to draw the attention of the international media so they can receive foreign aid. However, the plan fails—because Americans do not know where Absurdistan is. To add insult to injury, the standard of geographical knowledge is not very intimidating: one group counts Americans as knowing where Indonesia is so long as respondents are aware that it is an archipelago.
However, this superficiality seems to have become the new norm. Misha’s Park Avenue psychologist does not have a pressing concern for Misha’s mental health. Instead, he tends to prescribe drugs for Misha or simply tell Misha what he wants to hear rather than help Misha overcome his problems. If America ever enjoyed a reputation for the depth of its culture or its international influence, Shteyngart suggests that both have become exaggerated. At the very least, it is not what outsiders like Misha notice.
Misha aspires to many goals. For example, he wants to be a philanthropist, so he starts “Misha’s Children.” He decides to obtain Belgian citizenship illegally, but when he reflects on his many questions about Belgium, he realizes that he does not have many questions. If there is one ambition that seems to motivate Misha besides returning to New York, it is the desire to be multicultural. However, Misha’s multiculturalism is consistently superficial.
Nanabrakov offers Misha a position within the Absurdi government, Misha decides he will become the Minister of Multiculturalism. Ironically, the Absurdis have no idea what multiculturalism means because there is no word for it in their language. In fact, it is misspelled on Misha’s office door. Although readers might expect such a position to be about adding depth to the relationships and dialogues between different cultures, Misha envisions the role as having more to do with holding festivals all the time. Eventually, Misha is put in charge of procuring grant money to create a Caspian Holocaust memorial. He obtains the majority of his information from the Internet and feels that by simply creating the museum he will improve the relations between the Absurdis and the Jewish community. Although Misha’s love of multiculturalism might suggest that he is tolerant of other cultures, he is often quite hostile to others. He is consistently hostile toward Hasid Jews, blaming them for his botched circumcision. He is just as hard on his homeland, Russia, and describes himself as an American trapped in Russia.
Still, cultural exploration is very popular in America, particularly in its literature. One of the most popular writers riding this wave in the novel is Jerry Shteynfarb, who has been critically acclaimed but is actually a hack. Shteynfarb’s first novel, The Russian Ariviste’s Hand Job, has become a great success. He is following it with an anthology of minority voices, including Rouenna’s. Unfortunately, before it can be completed, Shteynfarb takes a new job and moves away.
Rouenna reveals that Shteynfarb has also criticized Misha for the way he treats his manservant, Timofey. In particular, Rouenna suggests, it is wrong of him to throw his shoes at Timofey. Cultural relativism, Misha explains, allows room for cultures that require the rich to throw their shoes at their servants. Again, Shteyngart uses exaggeration to suggest that the reality of multiculturalism is often more superficial than the ideal.
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