So Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan was apparently one of the great critical successes of 2006, landing on a half-dozen or so Top Ten Books lists (including that of the New York Times) and otherwise garnering ridiculous praise. I’m mystified by this; the book certainly had its high points, but I preferred it in its first incarnation, when it was called A Confederacy of Dunces.
I’m not the only one to make this connection; Josip Novakovich’s review for the Washington Post, quoted on every online bookseller’s site, and the review in Publishers Weekly both point out the resemblance, but almost wave it off as irrelevant. But whereas the humor in Ignatius J. Reilly comes from his personality, his actions, and his words, the humor in Absurdistan comes from the situations and places that its antihero protagonist, Misha Vainberg, comes across, almost an unwitting victim of history in motion.
The plot of this book is almost irrelevant: Misha, a Russian-born secular Jew and the son of a dissident-turned oligarch, has become Americanized but is currently banned from the United States because his father killed a man from Oklahoma. Returning to New York is his sole goal, so he travels to the former Soviet republic of Absurdistan to buy a Belgian passport. While he’s there, the Absurdi government collapses and Misha ends up in the middle of a civil war while he’s “popping” the daughter of the leader of one of the factions.
Absurdistan isn’t really about Misha, though; it’s an attempt at a satire of modern foreign relations, of life in post-Soviet Russia, of the American government, and of a few other things I probably missed or just ignored because I was getting tired of figuring it out. There is humor to be found in all of these areas, but in trying satirize all of them, Shteyngart ends up creating a farce, where his portrayals of the local Absurdi (divided into SvanÃ¯ and Sevo, who disagree over the direction of the footrest on Jesus’ crucifix) are superficial and companies like Halliburton (mentioned by name, oddly enough) are accepted as corrupt despite figuring heavily into the plot.
Shteyngart, whose first novel was called The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, isn’t above a bit of self-parody, as one never-seen villain in Absurdistan is the Russian Ã©migrÃ© novelist/professor “Jerry Shteynfarb,” whose first novel was called The Russian Arriviste’s Hand Job. And that’s one example of the facet of this book that bothered me the most: Its unrelenting crudeness. Shteyngart seeks to mine humor from bodily functions, from physical disfigurements and defects, from the fat and from the stupid (OK, I’ll admit I’m comfortable with that last one), and his heavy use of vulgar language – not just profanities – amounts to beating the reader over the head with the words, almost as if he was a twelve-year-old boy who has just learned a half-dozen terms for the female genitalia and wants to show them off to his friends. It gets in the way of the humor, and all that crudeness coming from the mouth of the main character made him even less sympathetic than he already was. Yes, there are some funny lines, but he beats even his better jokes to death, like the fact that Misha and his friend Alyosha-Bob enjoy American gangsta rap. (I particularly enjoyed the reference to DJ Assault, a real hip-hop artist whose song “F*ck You Hoe” remains the all-time pinnacle of unintentional comedy in rap.)
I’ve loaded this review with some criticisms of the book because most of what I’ve read about it has been praise, often without restraint, and the fact is that this book has its flaws. Shteyngart is not a humorist like Waugh or Wodehouse, and he lacks the insight into personalities that Toole displayed in that one masterwork. What Shteyngart does very well in Absurdistan is build up – and then, in his way, tear down – a ridiculous situation that almost resembles an elaborate con. Had he focused his sights more squarely on foreign relations in an age of short attention spans and a surfeit of media outlets, he could have produced a brilliant satire for our age that sums up the way wars are created more than fought, a modern take on Waugh’s Scoop that added the dimension of the economic depression that the Soviet Union is still foisting on its unfortunate progeny. But in my opinion, Shteyngart set his sights too low and lowbrow and missed his opportunity. I liked the book enough to go back and read his first novel, but from a critical perspective, this book just didn’t cut it for me.