follows a 325-pound Russian Jewish immigrant with a botched circumcision and a penchant for wearing outlandish track suits as he traverses post-Communist Eastern Europe mixing it up with gangsters, dictators, and defense contractors while wooing a nononsense Dominican-American girlfriend back in the States.
Shteyngart has a gift for writing about American immigrant cultures, particularly the way in which children of immigrants from wildly different cultures seek one another out as friends and lovers, bonded by their shared sense of dislocation. “So many of my friends in New York are first-and second-generation immigrants,” he said. “I would say in most of these cities, we’ve taken over the arts and everything. We represent half of the population anyway. When you’re an immigrant and you’re between two cultures, it creates a very easy approach to narrative because you’re able to contrast things.”
At the core of his latest novel is a first-generation immigrant couple falling in and out of love while America burns. Lenny and Eunice’s relationship — that of an older man and younger woman — is a parable of a United States that clings to its youth and its belief in its “exceptionalism.” As Lenny announces in the novel’s first sentence, “Today I’ve made a major decision. I’m never going to die.” In that sense, surly, practical Eunice (who in college double-majored in images and assertiveness) is far more than Lenny’s paramour; she is the embodiment of his desire to not age. Lenny is constantly berated by his younger co-workers for indulging in all the fleshly pleasures that make life worth living. During an ill-fated trip to Italy to find clients, Lenny struggles with how he has internalized a worldview that revolves around stress, harm, and vice reduction. “With each second I had spent in Rome ... rapturously [having sex with] Fabrizia, drinking and eating enough daily glucose to kill a Cuban sugarcane farmer, I had paved the toll road to my own demise.”
By contrasting the lovers’ ages, Shteyngart expertly captures the world of literate humanism and how it has receded from a globe tarted up in moving images and ersatz porno swagger. As part of the sexualized culture, Eunice and her young girlfriends affectionately tease one another with sobriquets like “slut,” “ass hoo-kah,” and “betch” and wear nippleless bras from a company named Total Surrender while essentially remaining chaste, timid suburban girls at heart. Where Lenny talks in arch, complex sentences that speak to a pre-internet print culture, Eunice’s blank and bawdy email-speak is the perfect language with which to surrender to this new dystopian state where all personal information is captured and disseminated. People no longer read or talk. Instead they scan texts and “verbal” to one another when they tire of texting on their äppäräti.
The novel’s premise is absurd but never far-fetched. For example, New York University has already offered a seminar to incoming freshmen on how to communicate in person without the aid of smartphones or social networking. Shteyngart said his novel has struck a nerve with American readers in ways that his two previous novels — set in Russian and fictionalized Eastern European places — never have. “ Absurdistan went to some dark places, but it was kind of abstract because most of the readers don’t live in an Absurdistantype country,” he said. “It’s interesting, making that shift from writing about Russia. It’s darker material, and it’s more relevant.”