The hero of Gary Shteyngart’s extremely funny second novel is Misha Vainberg, son of a “St. Leninsburg” oligarch who is, we are told, the 1,238th-richest man in Russia. Misha has unflattering things to say about Jews, gays, inner-city dwellers, and white guys from the State Department. He has a voracious sexual appetite unchecked by any notions of political or other kinds of correctness; among his many conquests, he has sex with his stepmother shortly after his dad’s funeral. (Misha’s defense: “It is a capital insult in this country not to make love to a naked woman, even if she is related to you.”)
But he has an even bigger appetite for food. Misha weighs 325 pounds and is unnervingly eloquent when it comes to describing his own physique, ruminating about “tits” and “buttery thighs.” Take this snapshot of the man at dinner:
My body fell into a rocking motion like the religious people rock when they’re deep in the thrall of their god. I finished off the first kebab and the one after that, my chin oily with sturgeon juices, my breasts shivering as if they’d been smothered with packets of ice. Another chunk of fish fell into my mouth, this one well dusted with parsley and olive oil. I breathed in the smells of the sea, my right fist still clenched, fingers digging into my palm, my nose touching the plate, sturgeon extract coating my nostrils, my little circumcised khui burning with the joy of release.
Incidentally, about that word khui. As readers have probably figured out from context, it’s a vulgar Russian term for a particular male body part, a word that graces the walls of toilet stalls across the former Soviet Union. Misha, as he informs us, has been mutilated in an unfortunate encounter with a bunch of manic Hasids, who have done a rather haphazard job of physically inducting him into the Jewish faith in the back of a “mitzvah mobile.” We are treated to several supremely lyrical descriptions of the hapless organ at choice moments in the story, and I can assure you that not a detail is wasted.
A botched circumcision is the least of it. Misha endures countless insults, bodily assault, war, and some serious overcharging. His father is blown up by a pair of discontented relatives. (“I think, in some measure, we’re all sort of responsible for his death,” one of them solemnly tells the grieving son.) And through it all our hero is mourning the loss of his great love, a Latina homegirl from the Bronx named Rouenna. They met a few years back, when Misha was getting a BA degree in the US. Since then, though, the two of them have been separated by circumstances beyond their control: before Misha’s father died, he ordered the killing of an American businessman, which is why Misha finds himself on an Immigration and Naturalization Service blacklist. The only way he can hope to visit the US again is by purchasing a Belgian passport on the black market in the fictional oil-rich ex-Soviet republic of Absurdisvanï, on the Caspian Sea. It’s a risk, and it won’t be cheap, but he has no choice. Misha, we soon see, is really a surrogate American trapped in the body of a post-Soviet Russian. So you can’t help feeling a bit of sympathy with him—even if he is a colossally self-indulgent, pill-popping child of the mafia with a propensity for tears and a Park Avenue shrink on his speed dial.
Shteyngart’s alter ego does have one virtue, though—his verve as a storyteller. I can’t recall when I last watched an American author gorging himself so shamelessly, Misha Vainberg–like, on the vast possibilities of the national idiom. Perhaps part of it is that relatively little of this book takes place in the US, thus rendering it instinctively immune to the various sorts of parochial self-absorption that pass for seriousness in contemporary American letters. Or perhaps it’s the simple fact that its author, Gary Shteyngart, was born in Leningrad in 1972 and arrived in the US as a child at the age of seven—a background that permanently disabled him from viewing any event (or word) in only one dimension. He is, as one of his characters might put it, a truly multicultural kind of guy.
Shteyngart knows how to capitalize on his biographical windfall. His first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, is about a Russian immigrant in his twenties who came to the US as an adolescent and is still trying to figure out whether he belongs in the East or West. His expert knowledge of the Russian language, Slavic cultures, and the psychology of American liberal arts college graduates makes him extremely useful to a group of Russian mafiosi headquartered in Central Europe, who involve him in a series of absurd adventures in the fictional Central European capital Prava (suspiciously similar to Prague). In the new novel, we watch the author, in the guise of the narrator, Misha, slyly tapping into a vertiginous array of Russian and American rhetorical resources, including (but not limited to) those of Zagat’s restaurant guides; impotent Russian monarchists; Holocaust Museum grant applications; Texas oilmen; nativist blustering from ex-KGB men turned post-Soviet politicians; stupendously obscene hip-hop lyrics; Putin-era wiseguys; Borscht Belt slapstick; self-esteem-boosting US university jargon; Jewish mommas; and nineteenth-century Russian classics. Almost all of it is sharply rendered; some of it is in heroically bad taste. And since most of the characters are trapped between worlds, we’re also treated to some virtuosic feats of translation. Here’s Misha during his student days, giving some tips to his friend Alyosha-Bob, an American who wants to be Russian:
We walked on, compacting the snow beneath us into tiny abstract monuments to our future friendship, following in the wake of the lamp-lit beacons of our own breath. “Let’s talk in Russian from now on,” he said. “I know only a few words. Shto eto?” He pointed at a contorted insect of a building, its chimney pumping effluent into the night. What is it?
“Waste incineration plant,” I said in Russian.
“Hmm.” I noticed his boots were untied but decided not to say anything, to preserve the sanctity of the moment. The landscape of the empty campus unfolded before us, as ominously still as a desert ruin. On most days I felt that the imposing neo-Gothic collegiate architecture was challenging me to excellence, but that night I felt the deep wooden hollowness of an Accidental College education, as if everything I needed to know lay in some puddle of blood on a street in Vilnius or Tbilisi. Perhaps the most important part of my college days would consist of instructing Alyosha-Bob, of forging his peculiar Russian-bound destiny. “A shto eto?” Alyosha-Bob asked, pointing at what looked like a broken spaceship.
“Student psychiatric clinic,” I said in Russian.
“A shto eto?”
“Gay and Lesbian Liberation Center.”
“A shto eto?”
“Nicaraguan Sister Co-op.”
“A shto eto?”
“The Amazon Rain Forest Experience.” The words in Russian were becoming progressively harder and inane-sounding, so I was particularly happy when the college campus exhausted itself and we found ourselves deep in the impoverished countryside that ringed Accidental. “Cornfield,” I said. “Cow barn. Mechanized tractor. Grain depository. Poultry shed. Pig corral.”
Shteyngart evidently has a particular knack for the old satirical strategy of taking the status quo at face value, thereby exposing the silliness that lies beneath—as when Misha is “challenged to excellence.” It’s a technique that is perfectly suited to exploring the absurdities of a world where the American dream and foreigners’ imagined versions of it mingle in all sorts of startling ways.
Once, during my term as a foreign correspondent stationed in Russia, I was investigating a story about the residents of a Moscow suburb who were trying to defend their homes, and a local nature preserve, against the encroachments of a rogue real estate developer rumored to have close ties with prominent politicians. I gave my card to the foreman at the building site, not really expecting to hear anything back. But not long after that, my cell phone rang, and a voice on the other end invited me to a meeting where the developers wanted to explain their side of the story. I was instructed to drive down the road to a restaurant called the Tsar’s Hunt, a famous hangout for Moscow’s newly rich, where the menu offered a serving of strawberries and cream for what was then about one tenth of an average Russian’s monthly salary. The developers’ apologist turned out to be an elegant twenty-something woman who showed up in a Mercedes jeep and insisted on speaking smooth East Coast English. Shaking her head, she told me that she just didn’t get it. Why, she wanted to know, was I so worried about the low-income locals who stood to lose their homes as the developer pushed them out with death threats and blandishments? “All those people, they’re just old Communists—better to let them die off. Don’t you understand? We’re on your side. We love America.”
In retrospect, it seems odd that we had to wait for Shteyngart to come along to realize the dark comic potential of this situation. Perhaps it’s simply that there aren’t many extremely talented writers in the US who share his intimate familiarity with the former USSR, a part of the world where the obsession, both negative and positive, with things American has achieved perhaps its greatest extremes. The characters who inhabit Misha’s world have no time for Jeffersonian civics lessons. Some, like the nationalist politicians in Absurdisvanï, merely hope for a place at the feeding trough of American patronage and might. The wimpy human rights activist Sakha is a craven junk food addict and patron of the discount New York department store Century 21.1 When Absurdisvanï breaks out into its overdue ethnic conflict between the Sevo and the Svanï, the republic’s rival peoples, he is the first one to get dumped by his US embassy sponsors, with fatal results. The infatuation with the land of the dollar goes so far that the whores in the local Hyatt Hotel won’t even sleep with their post-Soviet countrymen, only with employees of Halliburton, which has come to cash in on the republic’s oil resources. Trying to import the American way of life into post-Soviet conditions is a recipe for dystopia:
By the year 2001, our St. Leninsburg has taken on the appearance of a phantasmagoric third-world city, our neoclassical buildings sinking into the crap-choked canals, bizarre peasant huts fashioned out of corrugated metal and plywood colonizing the broad avenues with their capitalist iconography (cigarette ads featuring an American football player catching a hamburger with a baseball mitt), and what is worst of all, our intelligent, depressive citizenry replaced by a new race of mutants dressed in studied imitation of the West, young women in tight Lycra, their scooped-up little breasts pointing at once to New York and Shanghai, with men in fake Calvin Klein jeans hanging limply around their caved-in asses.
Century 21 also crops up in the work of Lara Vapnyar, another deft émigré writer whose work is sometimes compared with Shteyngart's. I'm still waiting for the appearance of a novel of Joycean excess based on the fates that crisscross in the store—the secret heart of New York's overlapping worlds.↩
Century 21 also crops up in the work of Lara Vapnyar, another deft émigré writer whose work is sometimes compared with Shteyngart’s. I’m still waiting for the appearance of a novel of Joycean excess based on the fates that crisscross in the store—the secret heart of New York’s overlapping worlds.↩