Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart

Once in awhile a cleverly written book with an unusual protagonist comes to my attention. On the recommendation of a friend, I gave this delightfully peculiar tome a chance. Gary Shteyngart did not disappoint.

Misha Vainberg is a spoiled overweight Russian heir to a fortune his father accumulated in post-Soviet Russia. Misha wants to believe that the world is generally good as are the people he encounters. Unfortunately, in his encounters he learns that the world and its people are far from scrupulous and there was and is more to his father than he'd realized.

After a brief stint in the United States attending college at the fictituous midwestern "Accidental College" (a not so subtle jab at many private midwestern liberal arts colleges such as Albion, Adrian, Alma, and Antioch) and living briefly in Manhattan Misha reluctantly returns to Russia.

Due to his father's shady dealings, an Oklahoman with the ironic name of Roger Daltrey, ends up dead. And thus poor Misha Vainberg is denied re-entry into the United States and a reunion with his girlfriend, Rouenna Sales, from the Bronx.

The book is written as an appeal to INS, or perhaps a love letter to America where Misha so desperately desires to return to. In Misha's struggle to secure a false Belgian passport in the fictitious former Soviet Republic Absurdistan he encounters a bevy of fun and unusual characters. The book is an exceptional satire of the American dream as soon through the foreign eyes of burgeoning democracies, the defense industry, and even takes a few not so subtle jabs at Haliburton.

The one flaw of this otherwise enjoyable tale is the intellectual condescension that seeps through in Shteyngart's writing. Misha's attraction to Rouenna is largely due to their multicultural pairing. He seems to have a hero complex, like he's rescuing a poor girl from the Bronx. Maybe he is doing just that, but there's still that hint of condescension that he's better or knows better what's best for her. The poor are portrayed as an object of pity, whether or not they're deserving of that pity is beside the point. Granted, this is a minor flaw, that only detracts slightly from Shteyngart's enjoyable writing style.

Related Links
Absurdistan on Amazon.com
An Interview with Gary Shteyngart (Del Sol Literary Dialogues)
Absurdistan NY Times review

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