Ditch the wit and em­brace the ac­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Michael Wild­ing Ab­sur­dis­tan By Gary Shteyn­gart Granta Books, 333pp, $ 26.95

AB­SUR­DIS­TAN reads like three abortive nov­els that fi­nally com­bined their forces into a sin­gle pi­caresque romp. Their pro­tag­o­nist is Misha Boriso­vich Vain­berg, son of the 1238th rich­est man in Rus­sia. He weighs, in Amer­i­can mea­sure­ments, 328 pounds and is a self- de­clared ‘‘ fatso’’, though the term is no doubt po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect in the US.

But this is not a po­lit­i­cally cor­rect novel. Its recipe for hu­mour is to sug­gest of­fence, whether in de­scrib­ing women, sex acts or eth­nic peo­ple. It is as redo­lent of strong smells as any of Ge­orge Or­well’s de­scrip­tions of the English work­ing class. You would prob­a­bly need a provo­ca­teur’s li­cence to re­peat some of the Jewish jokes, but as a thir­tysome­thing Rus­sian- born Jew billed as ‘‘ a Granta best young Amer­i­can nov­el­ist’’, Gary Shteyn­gart seems to have got away with it. And get­ting away with it is one of the re­cur­rent mo­tifs of this book.

Novel one deals with Misha’s ed­u­ca­tion in mul­ti­cul­tural stud­ies at Ac­ci­den­tal Col­lege in the US mid­west. The sopho­moric hu­mour of fra­ter­nity house car­ry­ings- on dom­i­nates th­ese episodes. The scene of priv­i­leged young men high on mul­ti­ple tabs of LSD hurl­ing the prod­ucts of Amer­i­can con­sumerism through the win­dows of their room is rep­re­sen­ta­tive. For a more lit­er­ary touch, they also shred pages of Paster­nak and Nabokov in a gi­ant fan. Noth­ing is sa­cred. The cir­cum­ci­sion per­formed on Misha is an­other set piece, more grue­some, alas, and not as funny as the fa­mous Se­in­feld episode. And there is lots of gangsta rap.

Novel two deals with Misha’s en­forced stay in St Petersburg. His fa­ther is a new Rus­sian en­tre­pre­neur, ben­e­fit­ing from the skills and con­tacts made when jailed for uri­nat­ing on an anti- Semitic dog out­side KGB head­quar­ters in the Soviet era. In the course of busi­ness he has re­cently mur­dered an Oklahoman busi­ness­man, and Misha is con­se­quently un­able to pro­cure a visa to re­turn to the US. While hang­ing around he ob­serves his fa­ther blown up and de­cap­i­tated by a land­mine, though, in a char­ac­ter­is­tic comic touch, it is a land­mine tossed on to the roof of the car rather than buried be­neath it. He fills in time by hav­ing sex with his brown mul­ti­cul­tural sex part­ner Rouenna. When she re­turns to the US, he pops it into his fa­ther’s for­mer wife. Ah, the con­fronting of ta­boos.

Mean­while Rouenna is im­preg­nated and de­serted by pro­fes­sor of creative writ­ing Jerry Shteyn­farb, a pre­sum­ably post­mod­ern au­tho­rial al­ter ego, who writes ‘‘ un­funny short sto­ries chron­i­cling the dif­fer­ences be­tween Rus­sians and Amer­i­cans’’.

Novel three is set in Ab­sur­dis­tan, a for­mer Soviet repub­lic on the Caspian Sea, where Misha goes to ob­tain a fraud­u­lent Bel­gian pass­port to re- en­ter the US. Again, there are some steamy sex scenes and a pow­er­ful lo­cal drug, lanza. But Ab­sur­dis­tan is about to plunge into chaos. Civil war breaks out be­tween its two re­li­gious fac­tions, Sevo and Svani, whose dif­fer­ence de­pends on which way a bar is tilted on their rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the cru­ci­fix. Well, Swift re­duced the re­li­gious and po­lit­i­cal con­flict of the English Civil War to a dis­pute over whether eggs should be bro­ken at their big or lit­tle end. It is a clas­sic dis­missal of the se­ri­ous­ness of re­li­gious ide­olo­gies and the po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic re­al­i­ties they em­body.

No doubt at one level this ab­sur­dist por­trayal of fac­tion­al­ism can be seen as par­tic­i­pat­ing in a lib­eral disen­gage­ment from the rhetoric of in­ter­ven­tion. But it is the sort of dis­missal of the con­cerns of dis­tant peo­ple that led to dis­as­trous hu­man con­se­quences.

The con­spir­acy view of the events in Ab­sur­dis­tan is that it is all about its oil wealth. But it turns out there is no oil. The re­serves have been de­pleted. The war was a ploy to in­vei­gle the US to in­ter­vene and bring in Hal­libur­ton — or Golly Bur­ton, as the lo­cal hook­ers term the com­pany — to en­gage in re­con­struc­tion.

Lively and en­er­getic, the hu­mour of Ab­sur­dis­tan de­pends pri­mar­ily on in­ci­dent and ac­tion. There is not a lot of wit in the writ­ing, nor much ver­bal sub­tlety or in­ven­tive­ness. Per­haps that is the na­ture of im­mi­grant writ­ing, lack­ing depth in the embed­ded cul­tural tra­di­tions of the adopted lan­guage. Or pos­si­bly it is a char­ac­ter­is­tic of con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can fiction, sub­sumed into the one- di­men­sion­al­ity of Hol­ly­wood and television scriptwrit­ing.

The grad­u­ate school of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism at Ac­ci­den­tal Col­lege might find this a suit­able topic for a dis­ser­ta­tion. Michael Wild­ing’s latest novel is Na­tional Trea­sure.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Igor Sak­tor

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