on February 14, 2006
Sometimes the 2nd novel is a let-down. ABSURDISTAN follows a debut, THE RUSSIAN DEBUTANTE'S HANDBOOK that is frankly, hard to top. Shteyngart has done it. ABSURDISTAN is the story of Misha Vainberg aka "Snack Daddy." The son of a Jewish Russian Gangster, "Snack" got an education at a ritzy private American college called Accidental, kind of a cross between Antioch and Oberlin. After his father assassinates a competitor, a guy from Oklahoma, "Snack Daddy" is unable to obtain a visa to return from Russia to his beloved New York. His girlfriend is back in New York and Misha finds out that she is being seduced by one of his former classmates, a Professor Shteynfarb. Misha is determined to find a way back to America. He heads to Absurdistan, an oil-rich former Soviet republic on the Caspian. From his perch in the penthouse of the Hyatt Snack Daddy watches the country dissolve into civil war. All he wants is a Belgian passport and his next meal. ABSURDISTAN is a comic farce and a tour de force. I laughed my way through it.
on February 5, 2007
Absurdistan is a satire that skewers virtually every topic it touches; it manages to cover plenty of ground. As the reader, it's strangely difficult to get your intellectual bearings, but you never become completely unmoored - it's an interesting sensation, something similar to how I feel reading Vonnegut and quite an accomplishment for an author.
The book follows the misguided adventures of an overweight, Russian secular Jew who studied at a small liberal arts college in the United States. In doing so, Shteyngart manages to mock being overweight, Russian, Jewish, non-Jewish, secular, American and liberal arts educations circa 1990 (great fun if you went to one of those schools around that time). In other words, Shteyngart shows all of us to be worthy of some mockery. At the same time, however, the inherent good points of everything Shteyngart mocks show through quite clearly.
Our anti-hero takes us through St. Petersburg, New York (through flashbacks and imagination) and a fictitous country that was a former republic of the USSR. The result is really rather good and often very funny.
If you like "Confederacy of Dunces," anything by Vonnegut, or generally consider yourself to be a hopeful cynic - you're going to like this book. Even as Absurdistan pokes fun at everything in its path, it also brings out the redeming qualities of each of its targets.
The dark humor comes pouring out figuratively and literally in Gary Shteyngart's new novel skewering post-Soviet culture, American imperialism and the mixed blessings of capitalism in one fell swoop. The story's focal point is the grossly overweight Peter Pan-prototype Misha Vainberg, the son of the 1,238th richest man in Russia, who is desperate to return to the U.S. where he went to college, spent several years of penthouse life in New York City, fell for a trash-talking Bronx girl named Rouenna and engorged himself on the full spectrum of American cuisine. The comic and slightly surreal premise lends insight into what sudden exposure to democracy can do to a person's spirit and reason for living. Stuck in St. Petersburg (or as he likes to call it, St. Leninsburg), Misha has one dream - to attain a visa from the US consulate, but he fails to make headway with the governmental bureaucracy. His last remaining hope is going to Absurdistan, a former Soviet republic rich in oil, where he can get his hands on a Belgian passport that will allow him to get to the states.
Political instability, however, overtakes the tiny country and a most absurd civil war breaks out in a way that reminds me of Peter Sellers' first film about the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, "The Mouse That Roared". Mired in corruption where billions in petro-dollars are at stake, Misha is appointed the minister of multicultural affairs. Whether fighting for his life or discovering new love with the daughter of a local warlord, he finds he cannot escape his Russian past with ease. Shteyngart's unique gift is painting a panorama rich in cultural observations and personal chaos. The author also does not shy away from politically incorrect stereotypes because he shows them through Misha's jaundiced perspective of entitlement. Shteyngart challenges us to sympathize with an insensitive, often repellent glutton living in relative luxury, and he amazingly succeeds because Misha's journey toward self-awareness engulfs the reader in the absurdities faced by our reluctant hero. In what could be seen as the flip side of "Doctor Zhivago", the author illuminates the clashes between capitalism and socialism in highly inventive and shrewdly observant ways, showing us what a comedy of errors it has become to assimilate into a world so dominated by commercialism.
I approached Gary Shteyngart's second novel, "Absurdistan" with a mixture of anticipation and fear. I very much enjoyed Shteyngart's first novel, "The Russian Debutante's Handbook", and thought it held the promise of even better books to come. But second novels pose a challenge for both the author and the reader. The author must face the dreaded "sophomore slump" and live up to the heightened expectations for his next piece of work. The reader faces a similar challenge. It is one thing to pick up a book and be pleasantly surprised. It is quite another to pick up a book expecting it to be excellent. Shteyngart has passed this test with ease. "Absurdistan" is a page turning farce that kept me laughing throughout.
Absurdistan traces the life, loves and misadventures of one Misha Vainberg. Misha is the 1,238th-richest man in Russia. He is a man of immense proportions (Shteyngart has a number of amusing ways to describe how various parts of his body quiver) and appetites. When he eats his intake of food is enormous and the process of mass ingestion is treated by Misha with something akin to an orgiastic spiritual exercise.
Misha was raised in Leningrad, now known as St. Petersburg. His father was a minor-league Jewish dissident whose chief claim to fame was relieving himself on the dog of an officious Soviet bureaucrat. After the fall of the USSR, Papa rose to wealth and fame by becoming a successful criminal in the "new Russia". Educated in the U.S. at the prestigious liberal-arts Accidental College where he is known as "snack daddy" to his friends, Misha finds his way to New York where he falls in love with Rouenna, a sultry young lady from the South Bronx (think J-Lo but with a bigger trunk). Life falls apart for Misha after his father kills an American competitor. He finds himself stuck in St. Leninsburg (Misha's hilariously apt description of post-Soviet life) with no possibility of obtaining a visa to return to the U.S. In short order Misha's father is murdered. After receiving a multi-million dollar `settlement' from the mobster that killed his father, Misha schemes to return to New York. The plan calls for him to travel to the Republic of Absurdistan, a former Soviet state on the Caspian Sea, obtain a Belgian passport, move to Brussels and from there find his way back to the United States.
As one might expect, the best laid plans of mice and the son of the 1,238th richest man in Russia don't turn out for the best. Rouenna falls into the arm of another man, the unscrupulous Jerry Shteynfarb, an incurable lothario, Russian emigre and author of a well received book with a title very similar to The Russian Debutante's Handbook but which cannot be set out on a family site. The Absurdistanis are divided into two competing sects, the Sevos and Svanis and before too long the nation is embroiled in a civil war for reasons that will remind the reader (as a previous reviewer noted) of Peter Seller's movie The Mouse That Roared. I agree although I would add "as influenced by Heller's Catch-22".
Will Misha make it out of Absurdistan? Will he win Rouenna back or marry the beautiful daughter of one of Absurdistanis leaders? Those questions are answered in the book but the enjoyment is as much in the journey as in the conclusion. Shteyngart has a keen eye for the social and racial distinctions that run through life in the US and in the "new Russia". The dialogue is mordant, sharp, and almost invariably funny. The book is not without its flaws. Misha is not a very attractive character even when he elicits our sympathy. It is hard to get emotionally vested in a character imbued with the gargantuan tastes and appetite of Misha. That is clearly Shteyngart's intent and it serves a purpose in terms of the novel's underlying themes. However, the reader should be aware going in that the 'hero' of the book bears little resemblance to George Clooney. Some may find the descriptions of Misha's loves (eating and women) to be just a bit crude. I thought it worked, but readers should not expect to see refined descriptions of high cuisine and gentle love making. Last, although I thought using Gerry Shteynfarb as a sort of alter-ego nemesis for Misha was amusing, if a bit self-referential, the connection may not be made by those who haven't read The Russian Debutante's Handbook.
All in all, Absurdistan is funny, irreverent, and also in many ways a thoughtful reflection on how our relationship with our family (even if they aren't as wealthy as Misha's) influences our own life choices. Absurdistan was an excellent book and one that I do not hesitate to recommend.
on September 7, 2006
Absurdistan is relevant politically, disturbingly realistic, well written, and very entertaining. In the recent months I have fallen behind with current events in the Middle East (not surprising since I only read the LA times...well the comics at least), but after reading Absurdistan I feel that I can just fudge the names and get a pretty good idea of the situation in that part of the world. For a piece of fiction, it struck me as awesomely applicable to today's world and Shteyngart was able to craftily place political messages neatly into an entertaining story. Looking back on the book as a whole, it's disturbing that although every event in the book seems made-up and far fetched, they also seems like they could happen everyday in that part of the world. That mix of fictional events with the mind state of today's real world is what makes Absurdistan so engaging to read.
Shteyngart's characters are just a deftly crafted as the world that those characters exist in. My only problem with the story was that after getting to know every character there wasn't a single one that was a decent person. Mischa is just a grossly obese man trying to escape the life his father created who just loves food, money, women and maybe men a little too. Though he's the hero I just couldn't bring myself to like him. Rouena breaks Mischa's heart and even though she tries to come back around by the end, I just couldn't forgive her. Even Alyosh-Bob, the only character that I thought had a chance to be a hero, leaves Mischa when the going gets tough. Perhaps the lack of morality in Shteygart's characters is just another piece of commentary on today's world. Nevertheless, there is no lack of entertaining and funny material to satisfy any reader. Absurdistan is truly a pertinent piece of literature that and an excellent satire of today's world.
on November 13, 2006
The book's greatest merit is the humor, deprecating and revealing. It goes beyond mere entertainment because it satirizes both foreign attitudes and the American mindset. In the most hilarious manner it reveals how far removed the American reality is from the rest of the world and how enticing some of the positive attributes of our culture can be. One can also enjoy the hilarious accounts of other viwpoints and mentalities where the notion of legislating away our baser instincts is inconceivable. The downside of the book is that it ends with a wimper. I enjoyed it enough to order one of his other books.
on February 3, 2007
For most of the two weeks or so that I spent reading this book, I was pretty sure I didn't like it. I definitely didn't like the first 50 pages -- in fact, after four days I was still on page 37. I didn't like the writing; I found the "humor" not particularly funny. I found the subject matter either gross (detailed obese sex scenes!) or annoying. After page fifty, the book seemed better, but it still didn't hold my interest very well. It wasn't until the end of the book that I really started to enjoy it. All the subtleties came to light and I was able to enjoy the satire, the plot, and even some of the characters. After our book club met to discuss the book, I found myself liking it even more, and actually laughing pretty hard over certain passages of the book. So, all things considered, I can say I really liked it. It had moments of "Confederacy of Dunces" mixed with "Slaughterhouse Five." It hits its mark. My only recommendation is for the editors: Omit all those disgustingly vulgar scenes!!! They aren't necessary, and frankly distract from the satire, the quality of writing, and the emotional impact of this novel. They were almost enough for me to give up on this book altogether, and I am so glad that I did not. Readers: be warned!
on September 8, 2007
Which I do.
This is a coarsely satirical novel of very modern times. Coarse, Contemporary, and well written in comparable measures, this book caused me a great deal of amazement. The storytelling is witty, and deeply imaginative, while the protagonist, An americanized rich russian fatty, is at once wholly sypmathetic, fatuous, and wise. His point of view is not ours, and in seeing through his eyes, truth is told about the world that otherwise would remain inveigled. Before I get too caught up in description, I should mention that this book is, primarily, funny. Much of the craft in the writing is for humor and wit. So much so, that the breakdown is often into 'something funny, or some bit of wit in each paragraph' as opposed to 'on every page'.
While other reviewers make the comparison to Ignatius Riley in 'Confederacy of Dunces' our main man is much more reminiscent in my mind of John Self in Martin Amis's dashing 1984 novel 'MONEY'. Both Steyngart's and Amis's first person storytellers strike on Rabelaisian themes of excess and size and appetite, and both are clueless berks or chelovecks, fascinated with money, media, big business, and internationalism. Both make clear the surface deep 'greatness of America'. Both are living (to quote Martin Amis) "Low life in High Style". If John Self is ultimately a Dupe of his own vision to tell his life story on the big screen, Misha Vainberg is similarly self-deluded in his quest to return to a very idealized New York, and to his equally idealized Latino-esque girlfriend. Both characters have good things to say about New York, Fatness & general gluttony,Women's sexuality (and their exploitation), relationships, International Travel, and the rigors of achieving one's aims. Steyngart also takes a rare page out of Amis's book, and writes himself into a self-parodying small cameo role in his own story.
Another great comparison that I feel should be made with Absurdistan is to Hunter S. Thompson, for the point of view writing, where the reader is taken on a wild ride, seen through the eyes of the protagonist. Many things that we'd all find rather alarming, if not shocking, don't seem much to phase Misha (witness his aplomb in calmly taking an energetic beating from two Russian toughs, who are guards for hire at the U.S. Embassy in Moskwe. All end up lying exhausted on the floor, drinking together, and overcome by Russian brotherhood).
All in all I found this book ingenious, and meticulously put together. Even as our hero/anti-hero is a rather selective, and therefore unreliable narrator, we gain surprising insight into his psychology, giant physiognomy, family life and general character, at the same time getting such a skewed view of the world-at-large, that it somehow rings crystal-true. While coarse, the book overall is uplifting, endearing, and above all funny.
on September 6, 2006
In Absurdistan, Gary Shteyngart captures humanity--or more specifically the struggle for humanity, for human connection to the dead and the living, with sometimes unrelenting grit and honesty. With his sophisticated understanding of "cultural relativism," and of the omnipotent authority of the American dollar, the author guides the reader through post-perestroika Soviet Union his with both cynicism and pathos.
As Misha "Snackdaddy" Vainberg, the novel's fleshly protagonist, with his disfigured purple khui and infinite reserves of material wealth, eats, raps, and screws his way throughout the former USSR, he reveals a profound sense of longing and alienation. Mischa's futile attempts establish human connection in a realm void of humanity render him a kind of obese postmodern Sisyphus. More than a materialist, he is a self declared sophisticate and melancholic--a hopeless believer in the redemptive power of Western culture. Mischa supplements his grossly extravagant lifestyle with an idealistic belief in "multiculturalism," Americanization, and unmitigated self-hatred. I was frightened and yet somehow gladdened to find similarities between Mischa Vainberg, myself, and perhaps every sentient being living on this earth. Whether we like it or not, we all relate to his base desires for food, love, and acceptance, to his naive belief in goodness--that "one person can change the world." Encouraged by the motto of his alma mater, Accidental College, and by his own adorable humanity, Mischa tries in vain to adopt the starving orphaned children of ghettos of New York, St. Petersburg, and Absurdistan. In the end, his beneficiaries, including his beloved Rouenna, are never as appreciative as expected, and Mischa's attempts at human connection are severed by worldly corruption and bad moblenick service.
In Absurdistan, globalization's war-torn Petrol wasteland, Shteyngart, much like absurdist playwright Edward Albee, invents a world that is simultaneously ludicrous and veristic. Filled with references from Novokov to Zagat, this wickedly funny and painfully honest portrayal of a corrupt sturgeon-filled world and the characters who are forced inhabit it is consistently hilarious on every page.
on April 12, 2007
"Absurdistan" is absurd in many ways - it's an absurdly funny satire of an absurd, but realistic world. There's absurd narrative, an absurd protagonist, absurd characters, absurd dialogue --- all of that works but then there is the absurd plot and absurd ending that don't work very well at all. Greatness would have been achieved with a little more attention played to the storyline. Occasionally there are setups in the plot such as when Misha Vainberg, the protagonist, becomes the Minister of Multi-Cultural Affairs in Absurdistan, and you think, at last, he's been put in a position to do something that advances the story. But he doesn't really. He just stumbles from scene to scene, never moving from passive to active. But it's still a delight to read, because it's so hilarious.