If man is truly a political animal – and every time we vote we reconsider the proposition – one should ask why politics inevitably resolves itself into a struggle for money and power or a balance of these two insatiables. Now I am not a cynical person by any means; but a healthy view of political systems should be tempered by the reality that even democratically elected governance, if unwise, can be as destructive as the most prideless king. Alliances form and fade like waves; betrayal becomes the expected result of all human commitment; and only one rock-solid principle remains: those who hold sway even over the smallest municipality will do whatever it takes to keep it. A good adage to paste upon the cover of this recent novel.
Our hero is Misha Vainberg, a Russian-American mountain of a man, a millionaire, and most importantly, perhaps, a secular Jew. Born and raised in St. Petersburg, Misha is dispatched around Communism's last May Day blowout to an American left-wing haven (perhaps not the best tonic for a lifelong victim of Marxist stupidity), Accidental College, to learn proper English and become a true man of the world. That is the ostensible reason. We may add that Misha and his gangster father Boris – commonly referred to simply as "Beloved Papa" – have lost the stabilizing force in their miserable existences, Misha's equally Beloved Mama, who died of cancer, her abridged life having begun with Stalin and ended with Andropov (as Misha quips, "what a pathetic time to have been alive"). Misha spends a good decade becoming American, listening to rap (the novel's most omissible passages), gorging himself on every sort of delicacy, and understanding the choices of a real man, which means, we can safely assume, that he does some drugs and women and reflects on the endless possibilities of both habits.
Ah, America. We are only given snippets of this magical realm. But is evident that Misha Vainberg sincerely embraced the fifty nifty states for being free enough to allow someone of his girth and insecurities to pursue a relatively normal life at a relatively normal college and fall in love with, among other nebulous entities, multiculturalism. If there is one overarching and underlying theme in Absurdistan, it is that variety is the spice of life; the only problem is whether your tastebuds are sufficiently discriminating. These are good times, fast times even; and although Misha does not reasonably expect to outlive the average dead Russian male of fifty-six, he also does not expect to return to his native land where Jews were so unabashedly abused and so happily released. That is, until Boris murders an Oklahoman over some trivial dispute and Misha finds that the State Department no longer wishes to facilitate his travel, legitimate or otherwise. Morose, lacquered by booze and hangers-on, and the son of "the 1238th richest man in Russia," Misha endures nine non-immigrant visa refusals at the St. Petersburg consulate before Boris's gangster lifestyle catches up with him – and takes his head off in the process. It is at this terrible juncture that Misha realizes he needs another plan, and it involves a Belgian passport, an unscrupulous private defense company, and a small former Soviet Republic called, among other things, Absurdistan.
From the beginning we know Misha's limitations: obesity, Judaism, the fact that he is an orphan and an exile, as well as someone who is rich because of his family's disreputable dealings. These limitations cannot be dismissed for the plot's convenience. Since one should be an astute observer of what careful artists place at the center of their works, it is worth noting that Misha is abandoned in Absurdistan by his best friend Alyosha-Bob precisely halfway through his fictional odyssey (Misha is omnipresently known as being "sophisticated and melancholic," as well as for having slept with his stepmother, but that's a tale for another day). The plot or plots that Misha encounters in Absurdistan bespeak a political disingenuousness on his part that no real Russian could ever have, and yet we are squarely convinced that he knows no better. He loves a large woman of color named Rouenna, but she will leave him for the dissolute rising star author Jerry Shteynfarb. Comfort is found in his twenty-one-year-old stepmother's bed, an event that contradicts his oath never to sleep with his co-nationals, then in the arms of Nana, the daughter of a very important Absurdi leader. Nana is a tour guide during the summers between her semesters at NYU, and it is in this harmless context that Misha and she meet as only two lovers of New York far away from that megapolis could:
They [the Svanii, Nana's Absurdi clan] had reached all kinds of accommodations with their Persian (or Ottoman) overlords during the Three Hundred Year War of the Footrest Secession, and they had the habit of putting stones around Sevo [the other clan's] churches to claim them for their own. I'm not sure why this was significant, but the serious way in which Nana related these preposterous things only made me hotter for her, for when she talked her hooey, she resembled an actress longing to be recognized, a veritable American starlet with a full-moon face and the readiest of lips.
This sleazy and somewhat irreverent paragraph may be taken out of context as the typical postmodern tripe about pleasure-seeking and historical relativism. But Shteyngart is thankfully not a member of those back-slapping, self-congratulatory fraud circles that would never, in any case, be featured on these pages. I perused his novel a couple of years ago, then came back to it after recently attending one of his readings and being surprised to find a self-effacing, chirpy intellectual bereft of the pessimism so common in satirists. What sets Absurdistan apart from his other works as well as similar strikes at the already long-dead Socialist stallion is the type of protagonist employed. Misha is a fat, repulsive Philistine tasked with mocking a country now led by fat, repulsive Philistines – or so we're told – that inherited the selfsame land from another bunch of Philistines, just as fat and repulsive, but now old or dead. In a word, little has changed except consumerism, which is only remarkable to, well, a Philistine.
The result has Misha as both the brave anathema to the Soviet machine and a typical New Russian basking in the sun's glow off his stacks of bullion. Our rotund protagonist humbly recognizes this duality (there is, shall we say, enough of him to go around), which may explain his frightful indecision. The inherent problem with satire is that it can only really be as profound as the material it abuses. And even if it is somewhat more profound, it will soon discover that laughter and mockery only take it so far. Shteyngart's comic gifts are much heralded (how Alyosha-Bob books their accommodations in the Absurdi capital had me roaring), but his precision of thought is even better:
The palaces on Nevsky Prospekt, wishing to say goodbye to me properly, dusted themselves off and bowed their chipped baldachins in my direction; the canals flowed most romantically, hoping to outdo one another; the moon fell and the sun rose to demonstrate the nocturnal and diurnal lay of the land; but I would not be moved.
There are dozens such passages in Absurdistan, but they are outyelled by politics and philandering misfits, hookers and oil derricks, thugs and Kalashnikovs, and the ever-present voice of Boris Vainberg – father, husband, Zionist, millionaire, murderer – a valiant oligarch who once urinated on an anti-Semitic dog. Not that your average, run-of-the-mill Soviet Jew mechanical engineer could ever have spawned a gentle giant like Misha Vainberg.