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Absurdistan: A Novelby Gary Shteyngart
Synopses & Reviews
From the critically acclaimed, bestselling author of The Russian Debutante's Handbook comes the uproarious and poignant story of one very fat man and one very small country.
Meet Misha Vainberg, aka "Snack Daddy," a 325-pound disaster of a human being, son of the 1,238th-richest man in Russia, proud holder of a degree in multicultural studies from Accidental College, USA (don't even ask), and patriot of no country save the great City of New York. Poor Misha just wants to live in the South Bronx with his hot Latina girlfriend, but after his gangster father murders an Oklahoma businessman in Russia, all hopes of a U.S. visa are lost.
Salvation lies in the tiny, oil-rich nation of Absurdistan, where a crooked consular officer will sell Misha a Belgian passport. But after a civil war breaks out between two competing ethnic groups and a local warlord installs hapless Misha as minister of multicultural affairs, our hero soon finds himself covered in oil, fighting for his life, falling in love, and trying to figure out if a normal life is still possible in the twenty-first century.
With the enormous success of The Russian Debutante's Handbook, Gary Shteyngart established himself as a central figure in today's literary world — "one of the most talented and entertaining writers of his generation," according to the New York Observer. In Absurdistan, he delivers an even funnier and wiser literary performance. Misha Vainberg is a hero for the new century, a glimmer of humanity in a world of dashed hopes.
"Misha Vainberg, the rich, arrogant and very funny hero of Shteyngart's follow-up to The Russian Debutante's Handbook, compares himself early on to Prince Myshkin from Dostoyevski's The Idiot: 'Like the prince, I am something of a holy fool...an innocent surrounded by schemers.' Readers will more likely note his striking resemblance to John Kennedy Toole's Ignatius Reilly. A 'sophisticate and a melancholic,' Misha is an obese 30-year-old Russian heir to a post-Soviet fortune. After living in the Midwest and New York City for 12 years, he considers himself 'an American impounded in a Russian body.' But his father in St. Petersburg has killed an Oklahoma businessman and then turned up dead himself, and Misha, trying to leave Petersburg after the funeral, is denied a visa to the United States. The novel is written as his appeal, 'a love letter and also a plea,' to the Immigration and Naturalization Service to allow him to return to the States, which lovingly and hilariously follows Misha's attempt to secure a bogus Belgian passport in the tiny post-Soviet country of Absurdistan. Along the way, Shteyngart's graphic, slapstick satire portrays the American dream as experienced by hungry newborn democracies, and covers everything from crony capitalism to multiculturalism. It's also a love story. Misha is in love with New York City and with Rouenna Sales, his 'giant multicultural swallow' from the South Bronx, despite the pain they have caused him: a botched bris performed on Misha at age 18 by New York City's Hasid-run Mitzvah Mobile, and Rouenna running off with his stateside rival (and Shteyngart's doppelganger), Jerry Shteynfarb (author of 'The Russian Arriviste's Hand Job') while Misha is stuck in Russia. The ruling class of Absurdistan is in love with the corrupt American company Halliburton, which is helping the rulers in a civil war in order to defraud the U.S. government. Halliburton, in turn, is in love with Absurdistan for the money it plans to make rebuilding Absurdistan's 'inferstructure' and for the plentiful hookers who spend their nights and days by hotel pools looking for 'Golly Burton' employees to service. And everyone is in love with America — or at least its money. Everything in Shteyngart's frustrated world — characters, countries, landscapes — strives for U.S.-style culture and prosperity, a quest that gives shape to the melancholy and hysteria of Shteyngart's Russia. Extending allegorical tentacles back to the Cold War and forward to the War on Terror, Shteyngart piles on plots, characters and flashbacks without losing any of the novel's madcap momentum, and the novel builds to a frantic pitch before coming to a breathless halt on the day before 9/11. The result is a sendup of American values abroad and a complex, sympathetic protagonist worthy of comparison to America's enduring literary heroes. (On sale May 2)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"When you land in Russia these days, you are likely to see this sign: 'Rossiya strana vozmozhnosty' ('Russia is the land of opportunity'). And then, amid the expected shabbiness, you see Hummers and Rolls Royces. Russians exceed even Americans in their taste for size, status and ostentatious wealth. The situation lends itself to parody, and Gary Shteyngart's new novel, 'Absurdistan,' does a... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) marvelous job of satirizing the new Russian oligarchy, as well as the American lifestyle and the two countries' shared megalomania, consumerism and appetite for exploiting small countries. The narrator, son of the 1,238th-richest man in Russia, is Misha Vainberg, a 30-year-old 'incorrigible fatso' with an unrestrained appetite for whiskey, women and sturgeon. He was sent to the United States 'to become a normal prosperous American at Accidental College.' But during a trip back to Russia, his Mafioso father is charged with having murdered an Oklahoma businessman and then assassinated himself. Under those circumstances, Misha can't obtain a visa to return to his beloved USA. In desperation, he buys Belgian citizenship and a passport in Absurdistan, a new country being forged out of a staged war between the Sevo and Svani peoples in a small territory between Iran and Russia. The founding fathers of Absurdistan are gangsters working with a large American corporation called Golly Burton (say it out loud — Russian mouths tend to turn h's into g's). Together they devise a scheme in which the U.S. government will pour billions of dollars into their country. The war is orchestrated from the top of the Hyatt hotel, where hired Ukrainian gunmen bomb sections of Gorbigrad in front of an international crew of TV journalists. But the performance gets out of hand. 'The radio station was playing Tchaikovsky's 'Swan Lake,'' Misha notes, 'a sure sign that things were much worse than they appeared.' There are 3,000 dead and hundreds of U.N. tents with tens of thousands of starving refugees, which makes Misha a little uncomfortable while dining at the expensive hotel. The whole situation is beautifully absurd, reminiscent of 'Catch-22,' and offers a provocative critique of oil wars and war profiteering. Despite Misha's education in multicultural studies, he spews out sardonic comments about anything ethnic. He doesn't spare Judaism, although he is Jewish. (Drunken Hassids in Brooklyn botched his circumcision badly when he came to the States as a college student.) While making love to his young stepmother, Misha lectures her on religion: 'Whatever you may think of Judaism, Lyuba, in the end it's just a codified system of anxieties. ... You should pay particular attention to the character of the Hebrew God and His utter contempt for all things democratic and multicultural.' Misha even derides America, despite his proclaimed love for it, and especially American colleges: 'A surprising number of graduates,' he notes, 'went on to raise organic asparagus along the Oregonian coast.' They 'mostly have gay parties on rooftops where they reflect at length upon their quirky electronic childhoods and sometimes kiss each other on the lips and neck.' Shteyngart makes fun of everything, even himself. He appears as a minor character, Jerry Shteynfarb, a writer aspiring to become the Jewish Nabokov. He immigrated to the States at the age of 7 and made his fame by writing 'The Russian Arriviste's Hand Job.' (Shteyngart emigrated at the age of 7 and in 2002 published a hugely successful novel called 'The Russian Debutante's Handbook,' which made him a literary sensation.) One risk of relentless irony and humor, though, is that we might lose the drama. Like many comic novels, this one is light on suspense. The ridiculed characters come off as caricatures. With his barrage of ridicule directed at others and himself, we can't worry much about Misha, his grotesque love affairs (rendered in full detail) or his quest for Belgian citizenship. Everybody is a crook of one stripe or another, and that induces a certain degree of predictability and monotony. Nearly everybody Misha meets in the new country offers the same formulaic greeting: 'When you are in Absurdsvani, my mother will be your mother, my wife your sister, and you will always find water in my well to drink.' Funny the first two times, not so much the 10th. Several other jokes are repeated, too, with diminishing returns. However, the exuberance of Shteyngart's language keeps us engaged. Misha describes himself as 'an American impounded in a Russian body.' Energetic wit shines through every page. Seeing one of the women he's interested in, Misha says, 'Gone was her usual Leather Lyuba motif; in its place, a blouse and skirt of dark contemporary denim fastened by an oversized red plastic belt with an enormous faux-Texan buckle. It was very Williamsburg, Brooklyn, circa right now.' The novel is grounded in a noble literary lineage. You can hear echoes of Rabelais' 'Gargantua and Pantagruel,' with its glorification of size and appetites. Misha is a man of leisure on the order of Goncharov's Oblomov, who spends most of his time in bed. Although it's not written with as much compassion as 'A Confederacy of Dunces' (justifiably so — do we need to sympathize with the oligarchy?), 'Absurdistan' exhibits a similar sense of humor mixed with sharp insights into the absurdity of the modern world. Josip Novakovich, the author of 'April Fool's Day,' is a Fulbright fellow in St. Petersburg, Russia." Reviewed by Josip Novakovich, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"[R]iotously original....Richly satiric and filled with trenchant one-liners, this tale often reads like a Russian version of A Confederacy of Dunces (with a bit of The Idiot and The Mouse That Roared thrown in). Highly recommended." Library Journal
"Absurdistan is not just a hilarious novel, but a record of a particular peak in the history of human folly. No one is more capable of dealing with the transition from the hell of socialism to the hell of capitalism in Eastern Europe than Shteyngart, the great-great grandson of one Nikolai Gogol and the funniest foreigner alive." Aleksandar Hemon, author of Nowhere Man
"The entire second half of Absurdistan suffers from a lack of clarity and momentum....In the end Misha gives new meaning to that archetype of Russian literature — the 'superfluous man' — while Mr. Shteyngart's novel manages to seem equally beside the point." Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"Gary Shteyngart's humor fits firmly in the satirical Russian tradition of Gogol and Goncharov....The novel is a long, funny, heartbreaking lament for home, whatever that means, and wherever that might be." Los Angeles Times
"Like its narrator, Absurdistan is weighty. But when Shteyngart is at his best, his book is a riotous, often sad, but redemptive ride that is never weighed down by its big topics." Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Absurdistan is a Monster Truck Rally of a satire, sort of Jonathan Swift does South Park with help from Rabelais, Gogol, Kafka, the Marx Brothers, Evelyn Waugh and Joseph Heller." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"Compared with most young novelists his age, who tend toward cutesy involution, Shteyngart is a giant mounted on horseback. He ranges more widely, sees more sweepingly and gets where he's going with far more aplomb." Walter Kirn, New York Times
"[Shteyngart's] characters are too grotesque to prompt much sympathy. And yet again, an author relies on the fact that 9/11 is approaching to pump up his climax's suspense....Leaves a very sour aftertaste — but that's probably the point." Kirkus Reviews
About the Author
Gary Shteyngart was born in Leningrad in 1972 and came to the United States seven years later. His debut novel, The Russian Debutante's Handbook, won the Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction and the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction. It was also named a New York Times Notable Book, a best book of the year by the Washington Post and Entertainment Weekly, and one of the best debuts of the year by the Guardian. His fiction and essays have appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, GQ, Esquire, and many other publications. He lives in New York.
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