Ditch the wit and embrace the action
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.