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.