How can we make this place more like Bosnia?
- Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart
Granta, 333 pp, £10.99, June 2007, ISBN 978 1 86207 972 4
Misha Vainberg, like a twisted 21st-century Whitman, contains multitudes. Son of the 1238th richest man in Russia. Graduate of Accidental College in the American Midwest, with a degree in multicultural studies. Victim of a botched circumcision at the hands of Hasidim in New York. A 325-pound behemoth with a fondness for grilled sturgeon and fried chicken wings. Possessor of a ‘toxic hump’ that floods his body alternately with sadness and rage. A ‘holy fool’, ‘an innocent surrounded by schemers’, a ‘modest person bent on privacy and lonely sadness’, a ‘giant florid hymie with big, squishy hands and a rather mean-looking overbite’, a ‘sophisticate and a melancholic’. He pops Ativan by the handful and swills Johnny Walker Black; an aficionado of hip-hop, he rolls with a manservant called Timofey in a Land Rover driven by a Chechen. Dressed in a vintage Puma tracksuit he resembles ‘the infamous North Korean playboy Kim Jong Il’; swaddled in a Hyatt Hotel robe he feels ‘like the Reichstag must have felt when it was being draped by Christo’. Squalid, horrifying and attractive, Misha is meant to embody the excesses and contradictions of our millennial stew of sexual confusion, ethnic tension, appalling consumerism and multicultural angst. You need a poster-sized Venn diagram to keep track of his entanglements, from New York to St Petersburg to the fictional former Soviet republic that gives the novel its name.
Gary Shteyngart would seem well placed to attempt an ambitious satire of the post-Cold War world in all its bloody ethnic feuds, byzantine oil politics and Western narcissism. He emigrated to America from Leningrad in 1979 at the age of seven. In the early 1990s he attended Oberlin, a liberal arts college in Ohio; like thousands of liberal-minded young Americans he landed in Prague in the mid-1990s, an experience that fuelled his first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. In 1999 he revisited St Petersburg and found Russia even sadder and stranger than the Communist superpower of his youth. In recent years, the New Yorker and Travel and Leisure have allowed him to wander around the world on an expense account and take notes, a great many of which, it seems, have found their way into Abusrdistan.
Any attempt at summarising the novel’s madcap plot seems not only, well, absurd, but almost beside the point. Nonetheless: it is mid-2001. Misha is in St Petersburg, prevented from returning to New York because his Russian gangster father has murdered an American businessman. The US consulate has rejected his visa application nine times. He dreams of New York mainly because his lover Rouenna – a sassy Latina homegirl he met in a Lower Manhattan ‘titty bar’, and who believes Dickens is a porn star – lives in the Bronx. When Misha’s father is himself murdered by a corrupt business associate, all seems lost. No father, no visa, no point in going on; until he is given $35 million in exchange for his father’s business assets. When a police chief happens to mention that a Belgian passport can be obtained from a corrupt consular official in Absurdistan, Misha catches a plane and lands right in the middle of an erupting ethnic conflict.