Researcher and Writer in Washington, DC

Gary Shteyngart, Absurdistan: A Novel (NY: Random House, 2006)

Swung for the Fence but Hit a Flare into Short Right Field, by Kevin R. Kosar, May 15, 2007

During the first third or so of the book, one gets the impression that Shtenyngart is trying to pull off something big, something like Saul Bellow did in The Adventures of Augie March (Penguin Classics) or Henderson the Rain King (Penguin Classics). One also might see Shtenyngart as trying ape Phillip Roth’s first-person lament, Portnoy’s Complaint, or, as Shtenygart perhaps suggests himself, Dostoevski’s The Idiot. (“Like the prince, I am something of a holy fool… an innocent surrounded by schemers.” Behold Misha Vainberg, a 325 pound Russian slob and heir to an ill-gotten fortune whose breast carries an American heart within it, “American” here defined as crass and obsessed with consumer goods and pop culture.

Strangely, therafter, the book shifts from a character sketch to a love story, then, disappointingly, into a comic adventure tale. The reader is left scratching his head. Was this a series of short stories once? Yes, it is very funny at points- but what is this heap of prose?

The first chunk of the book is the strongest. Misha is an ugly and annoying character. Shtenyngart draws his protagonist vividly. Misha, like Portnoy, is self-absorbed (VAIN-berg, get it?), conflicted about his Jewishness (Vain-BERG, get it?), and seldom sees further then the edge of his girth. Some might fund Misha’s fretting over his foreskin interesting and his recitation of vulgar rap lyrics funny. Others might find that this stuff gets old very fast.

The second portion of the book describes Misha’s failed efforts at love and his discovery and forfeiture of a plump young woman from the Bronx. Rouella, it seems, represents America to him, and he is out of his head over her. The reader gets plenty of graphic depictions of these two corpulent characters in the sack. Alas, though, Misha loses Rouella to — yes, that’s right, a writer whose name (Jerry Shteynfarb) and background sounds awfully like that of Absurdistan author Gary Shtenygart. (Yuck, yuck!) One gets a sense of Rouella’s soul at points but, pardon the pun, she remains largely a canvas, a sheet onto which Misha can project his own neuroses.

The rest of the book collapses into a silly adventure story. Misha can’t get into America, so he tries to goto Belgium instead but first (yes, keep with me) must go to Absurdistan. There he finds a backward nation divided by ethnicity and yearning to become a petro-power. Halliburton, the bogeyman of the left, actually runs the country, with the indulgence of the U.S. Department of State. A civil war (of sorts) breaks out, Misha is separated from his sidekick and protector, and … The book completely breaks down into nonsense and tedium. One can almost feel the author struggling to find a way to finish the story and put a bow on it.

On the whole, then, it seems the author swung for the fence but hit a flare into short right field. Yes, it’s a hit, but not a big or pretty one.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Similar posts
  • Margaret Halsey, With Malice Towards ... A Best Seller in 1938 That Remains a Fun Read, by Kevin R. Kosar, September 22, 2009 Margaret Halsey was all of 27 years of age when she published With Malice Toward Some.  It sold 800,000 copies.  Not a bad way to start a writing career, for sure. The book’s birth was the product of [...]
  • Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of ... “A Peculiar, Amusing, and Impressive Story,” by Kevin R. Kosar, September 17, 2009 Christopher John Francis Boone has Asperger Syndrome, a disease a bit like autism that leaves its victims with very limited abilities to empathize or interact with other human beings.  This is his story.  As told by him. Before you say, “Oh, dear—too [...]
  • Roy Blount, Jr. Not Exactly What I Ha... Why I Will Never Again Trust Anything Garrison Keillor Says, by Kevin R. Kosar, August 30, 2009 I cannot recall where I found this book, but I snatched it up because I had heard that Blount was a funny writer.  The dust jacket includes effusive praise. Garrison Keillor exclaims, “Roy Bount’s stuff makes me laugh [...]
  • John Gardner, The Liquidator (NY: The... Once More to the Recycling Bin by Kevin R. Kosar I came across the book in a recycling bin; it was piled in there with other titles from three or more decades back.  Their authors were the pop stars of their time, DeVries, Simenon, Michener, and Ludlum. The books had been discarded because the owner [...]
  • Mark Haddon, A Spot of Bother (NY: Ra... Madcap, 21st Century Brit Fiction, by Kevin R. Kosar, August 20, 2008 Awfully funny, shockingly bawdy, and frequently quite touching. Haddon has a very good eye for people. If you like looney English fiction, you’ll probably enjoy [...]