Reviews of Absurdistan (2006)
Review by wombat (2007-10-30)
i really did not enjoy this book. in fact, i can't even rate it because i didn't finish it. i got close but i was just so bored with it that i found lots of other books to read on the side and they took over. it was not without redemming qualities, but it never fully grabbed my interest. The main character held very little interest for me, he was an obnoxious baby. and since the book IS him, that sort of spoils the party.
Some books you race through because the writing is that good, and because you can’t wait to see how it all turns out. Other books you race through because you really want to be done with it and on to something else. “Absurdistan” falls into that second category. It contains within it an interesting novel about how the world looks from the other side of the ex-Iron Curtain. However, to get to that excellent novel you have to spend 80% of your time wading through the insufferable whining of the narrator, an obsessively self-described rich pathetic loser.
Misha Vainberg, a.k.a. “Snack Daddy,” is a grossly obese young Russian Jew. His father made a modest fortune (1,238th richest man in Russia) in various shady dealings following the fall of the USSR. Misha was educated at “Accidental” university in the Midwest and lived for several years in New York. Upon returning home he was unable to get a visa to return to the US, since his father had killed an American businessman. At the beginning of the book his father is assassinated by “business” rivals, and Misha inherits a pretty good fortune. The rest of the book details his interminable introspective monologue while he tries to return to the US and his girlfriend there. All the while he is reminding us how very, very pathetic he is.
He does do some vaguely good things, and he certainly has good intentions. He is paying for his girlfriend to go to college. Coming from an African-American family in the Bronx she’s the first one in her family to do so, and Misha keeps paying for her tuition even when she leaves him for the author’s alter ego (Gary Shteyngart, author of “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook” becomes Jerry Shteynfarb, author of “The Russian Immigrant’s Hand Job.” How cute.) Misha wants to do good things for people, and so showers money around aimlessly. In this he may represent the pre-9/11 America operating in the third world ( the book self-consciously ends on September 10, 2001), but maybe not.
The book gets more tolerable as our whiny protagonist actually gets to “Absurdistan” in his quest to get back to the states. He succeeds in getting a Belgian passport, but then gets stuck as Absurdistan devolves into a civil war that starts off as being staged for the Americans (so they’ll send rebuilding money via Haliburton) and then descends into real civil war as it turns out that Americans don’t care. Misha becomes separated from his support posse of people who actually know things, and ever so timidly begins to grow up a bit. Unfortunately by this time he’s spent so much time whining about how pathetic he is that we really couldn’t care less. When he is forced to sprint to avoid gunfire, I was really hoping he’d die of a heart attack, until I realized that in a first-person narrative the death of the hero is pretty unlikely.
There are some interesting sociological observations here, showing the ubiquity of prostitution, the central place that America holds in everyone’s plans, the ties of family, religion and business that make that part of the world go ‘round. Also, when Shteyngart breaks his narrative voice to bring us useful external descriptive passages (as opposed to the pages and pages of angst-ridden internal monologue), it can give you a real feel for the cities Misha finds himself in. However, the fact that you have to wait for the author to break through the narrative in order to find some enlightenment should tell you that you’ll probably want to find another book to read if you’re interested in the ex-Soviet regions of the world.