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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

What I’m Reading: Absurdistan

Okay, time for the walk of shame on book reviews today. A book I finished in January.

Back in late January I listened to Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart, to coincide with the Olympics taking place in a location very close to the fictional setting of this novel.

Here is the plot from the publisher, then after you can find my detailed description of WHY you would or would not want to read this book:
Open Absurdistan and meet outsize Misha Vainberg, son of the 1,238th-richest man in Russia, lover of large portions of food and drink, lover and inept performer of rap music, and lover of a South Bronx Latina whom he longs to rejoin in New York City, if only the American INS will grant him a visa. But it won't, because Misha's late Beloved Papa whacked an Oklahoma businessman of some prominence. Misha is paying the price of exile from his adopted American homeland. He's stuck in Russia, dreaming of his beloved Rouenna and the Oz of NYC. 
Salvation may lie in the tiny, oil-rich nation of Absurdistan, where a crooked consular officer will sell Misha a Belgian passport. But after a civil war breaks out between two competing ethnic groups and a local warlord installs hapless Misha as Minister of Multicultural Affairs, our hero soon finds himself covered in oil, fighting for his life, falling in love, and trying to figure out if a normal life is still possible in the twenty-first century. 
Populated by curvaceous brown-eyed beauties, circumcision-happy Hasidic Jews, a loyal manservant who never stops serving, and scheming oil execs from a certain American company whose name rhymes with Malliburton, Absurdistan is a strange, oddly true-to-life look at how we live now, from a writer who should know.
First thing I need to say is that Shteyngart is a fantastic writer.  I used the publisher’s plot summary because it perfectly captures the tone of the novel.  This is a highly enjoyable, witty, smartly satiric, thought provoking, and darkly humorous novel. Every sentence is consciously constructed to wrangle out every last bit of satire, yet it never feels ponderous.  The book flowed and moved swiftly, catching my interest immediately and sweeping me along for the ride.

The effect of all of this heavy handed satire could be a bit much for some readers, but not for me.  I found it enlightening.  I was laughing at Misha, at the mess of the Civil War in Absurdistan [I mean the name of the country alone is worth it].  But, I was also in awe of the effectiveness of novel.  What seems like it could get too silly was actually extremely thought provoking.  Yes, Shteyngart made me think about geopolitical issues, the history of Jews in Russia, the fall of Communism, but his satire also forced me to take a long hard look at myself, my prejudices, my privilege, and my complicity in the world’s problems as I choose to sit back in my comfortable, upper middle class, American life and watch atrocities happen from afar.  For example, the parts of the novel devoted to the rebels trying to get the most International news coverage possible alternatingly hilarious and upsetting.

Absurdistan is also a textbook example of a character driven novel.  Yes, there is “action” in the form of the Civil War, but everything is about the self obsessed, indulgent, fat Misha.  If you don’t like Misha you will not like this novel.  Actually, I should clarify. You are not meant to “like” Misha as in you want to be his friend.  Rather, you need to get caught up in his characterization and want to follow him.  He is an awful person, but soooooooo intriguing. I couldn’t wait to be appalled by what he did next, and yet a few pages later, I would feel badly for him. Shteyngart has created a character so intriguing that it is almost as if the entire novel is a giant dare, as in, “I dare you to stop watching Misha.” You know he should be revolting but you still want to give him a hug and tell him that everything is going to be okay.  And then, you feel sick at yourself for thinking that he is worth consoling.  And so on.

If you are someone who needs to identify with a protagonist, this is NOT the book for you.  If you want to sit back and be entertained by an original character who will make you feel a full range of emotions, and force you to take a hard look at yourself in the process, this is the book for you.

There is also a villain back in America who torments Misha.  This man is a stand in for Shteyngart himself.  Seriously, Shteyngart pokes series fun at his own success, past novels, and general attitude.  I loved that.  It was a nice counter punch to the serious soul searching Shteyngart implcitiy is asking the reader to do here.  He is willing to join us and turn his critical gaze on himself too.  It is a perfect snapshot of the satire and dark sense of humor that pervades this book.

I also enjoyed the ominous ending on the eve of 9/11. Misha is beginning his journey back to America by taking his first steps out of Aburdistan and into the West, but it is the morning of 9/11/2001 in a European time zone. We know what is to happen in a few hours and that it means that he will not be getting to NY anytime soon. Plus the America he would return to will be completely different from the one he knew.  It is a perfect satirical ending that underscores the entire tone of this novel. It also leaves the ending completely open, which as we have seen in the years since, is exactly how the future still is for many former Soviet countries-- completely open and unresolved. And we are 13 years out from the end of this novel.

On a personal note, as a Jewish girl from NY/NJ area with family roots as a Russian Jew and my marriage to a first generation Ukrainian, I cannot deny that a lot of the appeal in reading Shteyngart comes from our shared ethnic, religious, and geographic backgrounds.  I get the humor, in fact, I crave it. But I equally understand that it is not for everyone.

But I also I think that Aburdistan  is a great backlist suggestion right now given the current tensions in this region of the world. Although it is fiction, this novel hits very close to the truth.  The satire is funny, but spot on, giving me a new perspective on current events in a human way that the news cannot always make clear.

A note on the audio: I would HIGHLY suggest listening to this novel.  The narration by Arte Johnson is fantastic.  He uses accents perfectly and fleshes out (pun intended) the larger than life Misha.  Also, since the novel is written like a confessional, with Misha pleading his case as to why he should be allowed to come back to America, listening to “Misha” tell you his tale enhances Shteyngart's stylistic choices.

Three Words That Describe This Book: darkly humorous, satirical, thought provoking

Readlaikes:  As I was reading Absurdistan, I was reminded of The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga immediately. So I went to NoveList to see where their appeals intersected.  They are both satirical fiction, with a darkly humorous tone, character driven plots and a witty writing style.  And although this is not in the NoveList choices of appeal, both also have a confessional first person narration that I found extremely compelling; this also made them both excellent audio choices.  Finally both take place in a developing country where the main character is able to move between the lines of the legal and illicit; a protagonist who is more meant to be observed than identified with.  Click here for my full write up of when I read The White Tiger.  I read it back in 2009, and Adiga’s book has stayed with me, as I think Absurdistan will too.

Other books that are similar in one way or another include:
  • The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson-- also satirical but it is skewering the art world, character driven with intense first person narration. While witty, The Family Fang is not as outrageous in its humor as Absurdistan; it is more subtle.
  • I think Jonathan Lethem has a similar writing style and dark humor as one finds with Shteyngart.  Dissident Gardens also features failed political movements, but it has a wider lens, looking at a long time period beginning in the 1950s and following three generations, while Absurdistan is set in a compressed time frame. This is a difference that may matter when suggesting as readalikes.
  • Although I was not a huge fan of The City and The City by China Mieville, I do feel like it is a good readalike option here.  Both novels have a heavy handed satirical tone and contemplate what it means for the average citizen when countries revolt and separate from one and other. I should also note, I was in the minority for being blasé on this award winning novel. 
  • For those who want more Jewish American satire mixed with political commentary, try The Plot Against America by Philip Roth.
Finally, in NoveList Victoria Caplinger offers the great readalike suggestion of A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, "These satiric and sprawling novels skewer hypocrisy, politics, and polite society, while relating their offbeat stories with darkly humorous charm. I am not one of the ACoDs  evangelists who are very common in the library world, but I totally see the similarities here.  

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