26 August 2007


I actually finished Gary Shteyngart's Absurdistan two weeks ago, but I've had to cogitate over whether or not I really liked it in order to write an actual review.
Let me start out by saying, I liked it well enough. But I didn't always find it easy.

I won't claim the book has any great flaws. From a literary perspective I'm not qualified to claim that and, anyway, I don't have any nits to pick. Instead there were just so many little things that occasionally put me off. For example, the country for which the book is named, Absurdistan, doesn't appear in the book until almost halfway through. The author shows up and makes fun of himself for writing this book. The protagonist is... shall we say, he's not terribly easy to accomodate.

To wit, Absurdistan introduces us to Misha Vainberg, a Russian Jew, the son of a mid-level Russian gangster, a man of large appetites and the wherewithal to feed them. He is not easy for any of us to recognize. He is tremendously overweight, suffers from anxiety and depression, and does not work. He is in love with New York but cannot go there because of things his father the gangster did to Americans in the past. He is in love with a poor girl from the Bronx he met at a Coyote Ugly-type bar. What she sees in him, apart from money, I can never really understand, because to be honest, Misha is not, for the first half of the book, all that likable.

In fairness, as Misha himself explains, he is a Russian, not an American, so if Americans think some of the things he does are unusual... bah! In Russia it is acceptable to throw your shoes at your servants. (That he has servants sets him several levels above most of us who'll be reading about him.)

Misha also idolizes his father in ways that don't always seem healthy. To be honest at times I found myself wondering whether Misha was dancing around the fact that his father sexually abused him. It seems like it would fit. He never comes clean. He doesn't, to be honest, say much about his father, apart from occasional sermons on how much he misses and loved his father. That's all. There's a very weird vibe there, and I don't usually look for those sorts of things.

The first half of the book keeps Misha in Russia, a place he seems to want to leave but only for America--the one place he cannot go. He is miserable and does dreadful things. He is not, in short, easy to like, easy to care about, easy to really stay interested in.

This is not to say that protagonists have to be likable or good people or any of that rot. I would not wish to argue that. But, likable or not, I need a reason to care about what the protagonist is up to and why I'm bothering to read a story about him. This can work with unlikable people just fine, and is more fun with flawed people--and Misha is these things. But he's not... I don't know, I just couldn't get around to where I really cared about him. He's a difficult character. Shteyngart has won a lot of praise for this book, though, so perhaps I'm missing something.

Once we move from St. Petersburg to Absurdistan, however, things pick up. Yes, the action picks up, which is helpful, but what matters is that Misha picks up as a character, too. For half the book he talks about how he's really a decent person and wants to help, but he doesn't do much of it. Then, as he's on his way to Absurdistan, he finally takes action to demonstrate what he's been claiming--and, once in Absurdistan and when things start to go awry, he demonstrates at least some mettle, and finally I could really identify with him. He wasn't just all talk, he was actually going to try to do something. Nice. Took too long to get there.

Thus the book does reward your patience. Shteyngart does a good job of describing one of these post-Soviet countries where you live and die by the favor of the government and half the budget is made up of U.S. grants. Sort of like Kyrgyzstan, really. Absurdistan has been colonized by KBR--Kellogg, Brown & Root, a former division of Halliburton--and Shteyngart's description of how KBR works is... well, it's dead on accurate, which is pretty scary.

In any event the latter half of the book is well worth the first half, and since I still can't put my finger on exactly why I didn't care for the first half so much... well, maybe you'll like it better than I did. I don't know. But there was one character who so consistently irritated me I can't leave without a mention.

Professor Jerry Shteynfarb. Note the shocking resemblance to the author's own name. Indeed, this is... well, clearly Shteynfarb takes a great deal of his character from the author. Shteynfarb/gart both left Russia at the age of 7 and are American citizens, both teach in New York, both have written books that won them praise. Indeed, Shteyngart seems to have anticipated some of the reviews he'd get--one dust-jacket blurb notes that "No one is more capable of dealing with [the subject] than Shteyngart..." which Misha pointedly argues (persuasively, I might add) is hardly the case. Shteynfarb lets Shteyngart make fun of Shteyngart... but, really, do we need that? The criticism there, of the way a man who left Russia at 7 is treated as the great relater of Russian-ness to the West, that's valid. But is this the tool to use to make the criticism? Makes his reviewers, if not all of his readers, seem a bit daft to me. I don't buy it. Shteyngart's next book supposedly has Shteynfarb as the protagonist. I've been guilty of writing a book where the protagonist is based on me, and I think now I understand better why I never really warmed up to it as much as I thought I would. That book still needs a lot of work, and I probably won't be buying Shteyngart's next one. Take it for what you will.

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