Although Shteyngart came to the United States from Russia at the tender age of seven, he must have brought with him in his luggage a sense of his native country’s literary traditions. His penchant for the bizarre, for instance, may remind readers of Gogol, just as his bleak vision of “St. Leninsburg” sometimes resembles Raskolnikov’s St. Petersburg. Yet Shteyngart’s sense of his adopted home as the world’s deeply flawed last best hope is an idea expressed by a number of America’s major writers. Just recently, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America seemed to suggest that imperfect as this country is, it’s better than a lot of others. Like Shteyngart’s first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (2002), Absurdistan is both funny and perceptive. He does, however, seem more in control of the material this time, resulting in an equally funny but more polished novel that begins to overheat only at the very end. Peopled by a cast of dubious characters that runs the gamut from a lascivious stepmother Lyuba to Nana, the equally lecherous daughter of an Absurdistani gangster, the novel’s often despairing tone is offset by the wickedly absurd-- it’s not called Absurdistan for nothing—humor that overflows its pages.
The Russian Debutante’s Handbook featured Valdimir Girshkin, an unwilling immigrant resolved to return to his mother country. Once there, though, the validity of not wishing for something because you might get it proved all too true. Misha Vainberg, the protagonist of Absurdistan, knows from the start that he prefers America; stranded in “St. Leninsburg,” he has nothing good to say about his country of origin and longs to return to New York. He describes flying into St. Leninsburg and seeing from the plane window “defeat on the ground. Windstrewn, deserted suburban fields. The gray shell of a factory sliced in two by some unnameable force, its chimney leaning precariously.” Nor does it get better. The city “has taken on the appearance of a phantasmagoric third-world city, our neoclassical buildings sinking into the crap-choked canals,” etc. etc. Misha sees it as an “illogical impossibility” that a place like Russia exists “alongside the civilized world, of Ann Arbor, Michigan” and shares “the same atmosphere with, say Vladivostok. It was like one of those mathematical concepts I could never understand in high school: if, then. If Russia exists, then the West is a mirage; conversely, if Russia does not exist, then and only then is the West real and tangible.” This notion of total incompatibility fuels the entire novel because if Russia can exist, as it patently does, then the dream of the America on which Misha depends for his sanity, such as it is, is untenable. His vision of the country, centered in the messy South Bronx, is just that—messy, inchoate, but real, a place where he can find happiness. After making love for the first time with Rouenna, his dream woman, he imagines himself floating above New York, over “the carpeted grid of Manhattan.” He sees the “the garlands of yellow light . . . that form the headlights of taxi caravans: the garlands of yellow light . . . that form a final resting place for the collected hopes of our civilization.”
Misha, then, is a visionary of sorts, assisted by megadoses of Ativan and a steady supply of alcohol. A non-practicing Jew whose father has him circumcised at an advanced age, he is both figuratively and literally larger than life. Weighing in at over 300 pounds and blessed with a gargantuan appetite for sex, food and liquor, he harbors equally large dreams of what life might be if he could get back into America. The son of Russian gangster Boris Vainberg, who is also the 1,238th richest man in the country, Misha has been denied a visa to return to the U.S., where he attended Accidental College, moved to New York, and fell in love with Rouenna, a “South Bronx girlie-girl,” his “big-boned precious . . . with her crinkly hair violently pulled back into a red handkerchief, with her glossy pear-shaped brown nose always in need of kisses and lotion.”
Stuck in St. Leninsburg, Misha overindulges his appetites, hanging out with an ex-pat called Aloysha-Bob, his manservant Timofey, and other fringe types. When the novel opens, Rouenna is in town for a brief visit during which Papa Vainberg is murdered by a land mine. Misha thus inherits a fortune that he immediately scatters in all directions. Like Dostoyevksy’s Prince Myshkin, he is something of a “holy fool. I am an innocent surrounded by schemers. I am a puppy deposited in a den of wolves.” This is deceptive, however, as Misha is no fool. He may exist in an alcoholic haze, but he is well-read, noting, for example, that one of his female friends is no Fenechka, a character in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. Instead, she is “more like a modern-day Anna Karenina or that silly brat Natasha and War and the Other Thing.” He describes himself more than once as an Oblomov, a reference to the tormented and apathetic hero of Goncharov’s nineteenth-century novel. He pretends to rely on frequent phone calls on his mobilnik to his Park Avenue analyst, Dr. Levine, who prescribes the large amounts of Ativan that Misha washes down with liquor, but this is clearly a ruse to avoid taking responsibility.
Finally, he learns that by bribing enough people and going to Absurdistan he can obtain a Belgian passport which will then allow him access to the U.S., so off goes Misha to the country’s capitol, Svanï City, which from the plane looks like an apocalypse. Staring down, he sees a “corroded desert” up against a “band of grey that was in fact the Caspian Sea.” Once on the ground, he finds a landscape consisting “of gray-brown lakes surrounded by the skeletons of oil derricks and the modern spheres of refineries.” There is barbed wire everywhere, and trailer-trucks “bearing the logo of Kellogg, Brown & Root” honk at them “maniacally. Even with the car windows up, Absurdistan smelled like the moist armpit of an orangutan.”
Readers will recognize the terrain; Afghanistan out of Uzbekistan out of Dubai, etc., they will be familiar too with the Hyatt where Misha stays, a beehive of activity where “multinational men buzzed from one corner to another with the hungry, last-ditch exasperation of late-summer flies.” A very complicated revolution ensues, which is just when readers may fear that the novel is running amok. Although Shteyngart’s portrayal of the shenanigans of the KBR men and their pals from Halliburton is right on, the prose takes on a hectic quality that is sometimes more annoying than amusing. It’s a relief, then, when Misha, stranded in the besieged Hyatt, quite suddenly takes control. With little to eat that looks edible, he loses weight, and manages to escape Absurdistan on his way to a new life in New York. The novel ends with a reassuringly domestic scene. Doing the laundry with Rouenna, always a favorite chore, Misha silently asks her to have faith in him: “On these cruel, fragrant streets, we shall finish the difficult lives we were given.” It’s a nice note on which to close.