Delightfully Absurdistan

Cover AbsurdistanGary Shteingart: Absurdistan

Absurdistan bears the same relationship to Russia that John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces bears to New Orleans: It paints a wildly satiric picture that somehow comes up more true than the original. The Ignatius O’Reilly of this book is Misha Vainberg, the grossly overweight, rich and rubbed son of a Jewish oligarch who eventually finds himself stranded in the rapidly disintegrating Republic of Absurdistan (known for its TV remote control factory), an oil-rich enclave by the Kaspian Sea. Misha wants to return to New York where went to Accidental college and learned to appreciate rap, junk food and assorted versions of psychoanalysis:

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 smposiums on Overcoming Shyness and Facilitating Self-Expression. And it wasn’t just Accidental College. 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.

It really is no point trying to explain the plot here, to the extent that there is one. The language and the casual kicks in many directions (the role of the Golly Burton company in instigating civil war to get various military contracts, for instance) is howlingly funny and yet oddly irritating. Misha Vainberg is a despicable character, but with enough money and borrowed cachet that nobody seems to care. he blunders through a disintegrating republic where people are shot in the streets and bombed for the benefit of television, returing to his hotel room to read today’s menu and seeking to escape on the American Express VIP train:

"Wow", I said in English. I turned around to look at my manservant. "Did you see that, Timofey? We did it. We saved a life. What does it say in the Tamud? ‘he who has saved a life has saved and entire world.’ I am not religious, but my God! What an accomplishment. how do you feel, Sakha?

But Sakha could not supply the words of gratitude I deserved. He merely breathed and drove. I decided to give him some time. I was already componsing an electronic message to Rouenna about the day’s exploits. What had she told me in that dream about the eight-dollar apple? Be a man. Make me proud. Done and done. […]

Respectful of the Hyatt sign, the soldiers waved us through, the locals banging on the sides of our vehicle, hoping we could enable their safe passage to the hotel. "Unfortunately we have to save our own hides first," I said to Sakha.

Unfortunately, Sakha, a local democracy advocate with uncertain background and appalling dress sense, gets shot about two minutes later. This eventually earns him a statue and Misha the post of Minister of Multicultural Affairs, with the job of trying to get Israel to finance a Holocaust center and the USA to invade.

And there you are – a novel impossible to classify, howlingly funny, and highly recommended.