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At the Trough

Absurdistan

by Gary Shteyngart
Random House, 333 pp., $24.95

1.

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.

2.

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.

Needless to say, this is a bit rich coming from Misha, who spends the entire novel trying to get back into the US. But then, as Misha would undoubtedly argue, his educational background uniquely qualifies him to understand what truly is great about America:

At Accidental College, we were taught that our dreams and our beliefs were all that mattered, that the world would eventually sway to our will, fall in step with our goodness, swoon right into our delicate white arms. All those Introduction to Striptease classes (apparently each of our ridiculous bodies had been made perfect in its own way), all those Advanced Memoir seminars, all those symposiums on Overcoming Shyness and Facilitating Self-Expression…. All over America, the membrane between adulthood and childhood had been eroding, the fantastic and the personal melding into one, adult worries receding into a pink childhood haze….

Or, maybe it’s the sensitive discernment conferred upon Misha by his status as a “sophisticate and melancholic” that affords him superior insight. After all, he’s a man of taste (he wears only vintage Puma tracksuits) as well as a connoisseur of American high culture (he conscientiously rejects European electronic music in favor of Detroit ghetto tech). In the medieval period, Church Latin was the medium of international communications; in the age of US hegemony you have to know hip-hop. And Misha, as a truly cultivated man of his time, can bust rhymes with the best of them:

My name is Vainberg
I like ho’s
Sniff ‘em out
Wid my Hebrew nose
Pump that shit
From ‘round the back
Big-booty ho
Ack ack ack

One of the book’s running gags, in fact, turns on Shteyngart’s insight that the countries of the former Soviet Union and America already have a lot more in common than you might have thought. When Rouenna, visiting Misha in St. Petersburg, wants to know “where the niggaz at,” all Misha has to do is take her to a nearby neighborhood, where “yellowing, waterlogged apartment houses” are surrounded by

corrugated shacks featuring, in no particular order, a bootleg CD emporium, the ad hoc Mississippi Casino (‘America Is Far, but Mississippi Is Near’), a kiosk selling industrial-sized containers of crab salad, and the usual Syrian schawarma hut smelling invariably of spilled vodka, spoiled cabbage, and some kind of vague, free-floating inhumanity.

For the denizens of Absurdistan, as they struggle to survive their substance-abusing, misogynistic, thug-ridden urban wastelands, the gangsta rap anthem “Fuck tha Police” is a lot closer to home than, say, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Even Misha’s security escorts in Absurdisvanï dream of “their Los Angeles destiny, a fate that could not be articulated in words, only in gunfire and the hot-tub embrace of naked women.”

Luckily there are some representatives of the world’s only remaining superpower on hand to correct any distortions in America’s image abroad. There’s the somewhat predictable, on-the-make Halliburton crew—we know about them already. But the State Department diplomat (and fellow Accidental College alumnus) Misha runs into in Absurdisvanï is a paragon of imperial virtue:

So, let’s talk politics, dog,” Alyosha-Bob said, changing the subject. “Word on the Absurdi street is that the Sevo are gonna go apeshit if Georgi Kanuk’s idiot son takes over. What’s the official US position on this one?”

We’re not really sure,” Josh Weiner admitted as he pillaged a bowl of complimentary smoked almonds. “We’ve got a little problem. See, none of our staff actually speak any of the local languages. I mean, there’s one guy who sort of speaks Russian, but he’s still trying to learn the future tense. You dogs are both from this part of the world. Do you know what’s gonna happen after Georgi Kanuk dies? More democracy? Less?”

Whenever there’s any kind of upheaval in this country, the pistols come out,” Alyosha-Bob said. “Think of the Ottoman rebellion of 1756 or the Persian succession of 1550.”

Oh, I can’t think that far back,” Josh Weiner said. “That was then, and this is now. We’re in a global economy. It’s in no one’s interest to rock the boat. Look at the stats, homeboys. The Absurdi GNP went up by nine percent last year. The Figa-6 Chevron/BP oil fields are coming online in mid-September. That’s, like, a hundred and eighty thousand barrels a day! And it’s not just oil. The service sector’s booming, too. Did you see the new Tuscan Steak and Bean Company on the Boulevard of National Unity? Did you try the ribolita soup and the crostini misti? This place has serious primary and reinvestment capital, dogs.”

This would be funny if it weren’t quite so eerily close to some of the spin you actually get from US officials in dysfunctional parts of the world—especially that bit about the service sector.2 Of course, it’s not long after Weiner’s observation that a war breaks out, revealing America’s superiority (and the republic’s economic prosperity) for the façades that they are:

The Hyatt was no longer a magical destination for the city’s priciest hookers, but rather, an open-faced checkerboard of five hundred squares, each marked by an identical queen-sized bed, cherrywood dresser, and marble-topped desk. The office towers, on the other hand, were a complex geometry of scrambled workstations and blasted modular units, a dizzying white-collar crush akin to the world’s most difficult flowchart. But beneath this sophistication lay a simple, exposed fact: the West, when stripped bare, was essentially a series of cheap plastic components, pneumatic work chairs, and poorly framed motivational posters.

3.

Shteyngart is a whiz of a writer but he’s also done his reporting. If anything, his penchant for comic hyperbole is complemented, rather than undercut, by his knack for the revealing detail. Anyone who has spent time in countries of the Absurdisvanï ilk will feel a shiver of recognition at this description of Misha finding his way through the Hyatt:

In my golden, glassed-in elevator, I fell like Icarus from my lofty penthouse to the busy hotel lobby, where the local merchants promptly sold me a Gillette Mach3 razor, a bottle of Turkish Efes beer, and a box of Korean condoms.

Or this:

The American embassy was situated in the shadows of the Exxon-Mobil skyscraper, a freshly built rectangle of salmon-hued glass with art deco bands of chrome meant to evoke permanence and easy history. The embassy itself was housed in an old pastel academy once used to educate the sons of local czarist nobility. In the wake of the attacks on American embassies in Africa, a moat of trenches and razor wire surrounded the American out-post in Absurdistan. The gathering crowds, however, were well equipped with wire cutters and the like, and they charged the compound with bravado, as if the incoming helicopters had convinced them they were extras in a Hollywood historical drama.

Now that would seem to capture the present state of world affairs with fairly brutal precision. Can we conclude that Shteyngart was out to make some sort of political point in this book? I’m inclined to doubt it. The novel’s politics are wildly incoherent. Some of the time Misha seems to suggest that there’s no real difference between the Sevo and the Svanï, the two Absurdi ethnic groups; at other moments their differences are all too real and seem to matter a lot. Yet we also learn that the republic’s civil war is all about “the oil pipeline.” Then, a bit later, we’re informed that there is no oil. Still, Halliburton elects to stay on, since the republic’s closeness to Iran means that there’s a growth market in work for the US military.3 One might argue that the resulting muddle looks a lot like real life, with many competing motives and interpretations for every event. But it’s certainly not conducive to conveying a message. And when Misha’s philosophizing occasionally veers toward the overtly ideological (as when he observes that “democracy…had the makings of the best Disney cartoon ever made”), the narrative sags. The only political perspective I am able to make out in the novel is what one might call the epicurean-anarchist view, and the only member of the party is Misha Vainberg.

In fact, Misha’s supreme self-absorption is one of the novel’s most reliable comedic devices. Here’s how he describes the beginning of his affair with Nana, the daughter of a malevolent would-be Absurdi dictator (and a senior at New York University): “The next week I spent in love—with her, with the distant American city we held in common, and with myself for being able to so quickly recover from the post-traumatic stress of Sakha’s murder and Aloysha-Bob’s flight.” His tryst with this newfound love interest is so gratifying that Misha just can’t help himself, confessing to her father: “Your Nana has made me so happy here. I almost wish this war would never end.” His most earnest convictions seem to depend largely on the company he’s keeping at a given moment, as when he’s hanging out with the Sevo nationalists: “God help me, but I found their feudal mentality charming.” Or take this wonderful excursus:

On that night I was left with only the truth that nothing of our personality survives after death, that in the end all that was Misha Vainberg would evaporate along with the styles and delusions of his epoch, leaving behind not one flutter of his sad heavy brilliance, not one damp spot around which his successors could congregate to appreciate his life and times.

I started to shake in both anger and fear, wrapping my arms around me in a sorrowful embrace, for I so loved my personality that I would kill everyone in my path to ensure its survival.

It’s at moments like these that Shteyngart’s indebtedness to Vladimir Nabokov makes itself felt most clearly, and for good reason. I don’t think it will be inflicting any reductive indignities upon Misha Vainberg to say that he looks a bit like an early-twenty-first-century descendant of Humbert Humbert, yet another antihero whose epic capacity for self-delusion and prattle about his own sophistication make him so monstrous—and such a pleasure to read. To be sure, Vainberg is raunchy where Humbert contented himself with steamy circumlocution; I can’t imagine Nabokov depicting one of his heroes, as Shteyngart does, with a girlfriend’s exploring finger in the “mossy bull’s-eye of my ass.” Yet they do have some things in common. Both characters are parodic emissaries between the Old World and the New who end up exposing the convictions of both; both end up dabbling in criminality as they pursue their respective passions; both are in love with American females whose vulgar simplicity helps to make them desirable. And both use their manic odysseys as occasions to show off the riotous, extravagant possibilities of the English language that they’ve appropriated.

And style, in the end, is what Shteyngart is really after. Misha, like Humbert, comes to life through his own rapacious command of words. The modern day’s holy grail of authenticity matters nothing to these greedy shape-shifters. All too often we take language as the great identifier, the ultimate bar code. You are what you speak. But what if you can do the talk like Misha? Then you’ve transcended mere identity politics and turned identity into opportunity, something huge, ravishing, and multifarious. Our blood, or our governments, would have us be one thing. Language lets us be many.

Especially, as in Misha’s case, when it’s illuminated by love. Here’s Misha, still trapped in Absurdistan, after a crucial e-mail from Rouenna has summoned his imagination away from his physical address:

But I wasn’t there.

I was on that stretch of East Tremont Avenue in the Bronx, our stretch, which starts from El Batey Restaurant near Marmion Avenue and then swelters down to the Blimpie franchise on Hughes, where, back in ‘98, Rouenna’s favorite cousin was busted by the cops for some complicated, non-sandwich-related offense.

East Tremont Avenue, solider purveyor of unattainable dreams, where stores will sell you toda para99¢ y menos, 79¢ gets you a whole chicken at Fine Fare, and $79 will land you a flowery upright mattress with a “five-year warrenty”; where a 325-pound Russian man with a hot mamita on his arm is respected and accepted by all; where dudes wheeling by on bicycles and young mothers languidly window-shopping at She-She Juniors & Ladies will subject me to the same breathless local query: “Yo, Misha, ¿qué ongo, a-ai?

In the end, after all his travails, Belgian passport held close to his heart, Misha sets out to reclaim the girl of his dreams—in stark contrast to Humbert, by the way, who writes his story in prison. (On the very last page of the novel, as he’s preparing to head back to the States, Misha refers to his Rouenna as “Ro”—a nice flick in the direction of Humbert’s “Lo” that underlines this fundamental difference.) Still, can a beast like Misha ever really have a home? The book ends before we can know for sure. Strangely enough, for all of his gross indiscretions, we find ourselves wishing him well. The New World is about nothing if not second chances. The Bronx as a study in salvation: if Shteyngart’s hero can pull it off, perhaps there’s something to be said for America after all.

  1. 1

    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.

  2. 2

    In the interest of fairness I feel compelled to interject that many State Department diplomats know the local culture and history of their host countries as well as anyone. Shteyngart, as a novelist, luckily does not have to make any pretense to fairness.

  3. 3

    Never mind that, in real life, the US military was recently kicked out of the post-Soviet republic of Uzbekistan (also close to Iran) because the State Department criticized the bad human rights record of the local dictator—leading one to argue, perhaps, that American foreign policy’s greatest virtue is its inconsistency. But I understand what Shteyngart’s on about. His Absurdisvanï is based on modern-day Azerbaijan (perhaps with a bit of Georgia thrown in), and his story line does have its real-world equivalents.

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