Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Review: Absurdistan, by Gary Shteyngart

Oh my. Ahem. Alrighty, then. Take that, traditional immigrant novel. It’s virtually impossible to know where to begin describing and assessing Gary Shteygart’s high-octane and deliriously brilliant 2006 book Absurdistan. I don’t think I’ve engaged this much with (and laughed so hard over) a novel’s complexities since Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated. All I can say is that when I hear people talking smack about Canadian literature – the dourly formulaic immigrant coming-of-age tomes, the reflexive holding up of mirrors to quotidian minutiae, the survival-in-nature themes, the menopausal navel gazing in small-town Ontario – I think this is what they’re talking about. I think they’re asking: Why can’t Canadians write books like that?

Ahem. Okay. Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, a little bit of assessment. Absurdistan serves up the monstrously comic protagonist Misha Vainberg: a corpulent (he tips the scales at 325 pounds) young émigré, son to the 1,238-richest man in Russia, nicknamed “Snack Daddy” by his buddies at the fictitious university he attends in the US Midwest called Accidental College, Misha’s appetites and humour are as large as his frame. When Misha’s father kills a high-profile Oklahoman businessman, the entire Vainberg family is barred by the INS from re-entering the United States. Consequently, Misha finds himself stranded back in his native St. Petersburg (which he, having grown up during the Communist era, refers to hilariously as St. Leninsburg) and is desperate to return to America and his one true love, a stripper named Rouenna, whom he met in a New York City ‘titty bar.’

Alrighty, then. What follows is a mad caper of epically sarcastic proportions. When Misha gets a chance to acquire a fake Belgian passport, he travels to the fictitious nation of Absurdsvanϊ (“Absurdistan”), located on the Caspian Sea near the Iranian border. An ex-Soviet republic, Absurdistan has, thanks to its alleged oil reserves, become a poster child for globalization, perestroika, free-market economics and classy Hyatt hotels. (All you really need to know is that the nation’s main urban area has been dubbed “Gorbigrad.”) Misha arrives to acquire his phony passport but soon finds himself embroiled in a burgeoning civil war between Absurdistan’s two main ethnic groups – the Sevo and Svanϊ. (The crux of their conflict is based on a dispute over which way the "footrest" of the Orthodox cross should be tilted.) Of course, the war is actually nothing more than a concoction of the Halliburton corporation, and hilarity ensues as Misha attempts to flee the country with his life.

Try pitching all that to a Canadian publisher, would you.

It’s really difficult to sum up the vast array of sacred cows, current affairs and cultural phenomena that Shteyngart is skewering in this novel. Capitalism, communism, strip joints, the Iraq War, the “immigrant experience”, senses of national identity, 9/11, porn, globalization and Mother Russia herself all fall victim to his fearlessly satiric eye. Shteyngart shows tremendous skill in creating a protagonist like Misha, who is as lovable as he is repugnant. (Beyond his unapologetic obesity, he also, over the course of the novel, sleeps with his stepmother, watches online porn, and tears a strip off a super-Orthodox fellow Jew who refuses the kosher meal on an airline flight.) But like any lasting humour, Absurdistan’s comedy is as engrained in its language as it is in its situations. Take this passage, lifted from one of the novels many tangential scenes set in Russia:

Club 69 is a gay club, but anyone who can afford the three-dollar cover charge – in other words, the richest 1 percent of our city – shows up there at some point during the week. Homosexuality aside, this is without a doubt the most normal place in Russia, no low-level thugs in leather parkas, no skinheads in jackboots, just friendly gay guys and the rich housewives who love them. It brings to mind that popular phrase bandied about by expatriate Americans over their bagels and cream cheese: civil society.

Nearly every paragraph of the novel is written with this kind of verve. Shteyngart has not only created a character as obscenely memorable as Ignatius Reilly and a picaresque worthy of Cervantes; he has created an entire world, one caustically similar to our own but infinitely more comic, and more tragic.

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