So what’s the Gary Shteyngart story?
Shteyngart’s first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, inspired a New York Times Magazine profile, complete with a visit to the author’s proud parents weeks in advance of the book’s copious raves. These, generously excerpted in the paperback’s first eight pages, compare Shteyngart–whose new novel, Absurdistan, captured the full cover of the New York Times Book Review–to Rushdie, Roth (Philip and Henry), Hemingway, Kafka and Henry Miller.
Kiss and kvell: On one hand, this 34-year-old Soviet-born writer is the avatar of a new Jewish-American literature and a poster child for immigrant success. On the other, he’s an inveterate Eastern European trickster, opportunistically–or, more likely, compulsively–playing every angle even as he chases the vapors of his lost Leningrad childhood. Or so the flamboyant rogue would have us believe.
Published in 2002 and set a decade earlier, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook tells the tale of one Vladimir Girshkin, 25, eager-to-please slacker and hapless picaroon, “part P.T. Barnum, part V.I. Lenin”–and part parody Shteyngart. Working for the Emma Lazarus Immigrant Absorption Society, living in seedy East Village domesticity with the professional dominatrix he calls Challah, Girshkin hustles through a diminished Bright Lights, Big City-scape before fleeing to Prava (Shteyngart’s looking-glass Prague, then in its early ’90s heyday as a make-believe Paris of the ’20s).
In this émigré playground, and thanks to the gangster son of a psychotic Russian immigrant Girshkin had helped obtain US citizenship, Shteyngart’s self-deprecating, grandiose alter ego successfully turns the tables on his American peers. He creates a literary journal–named for the charlatan Cagliostro and part of a larger Ponzi scheme–to reinvent himself, at last, as “the small poet and businessman around whom all of Prava’s expatriate world would now seem to revolve.”
Girshkin’s adventures are sensationally recounted in high-spirited, flavorsome prose spiced with lively sex scenes (all comic except, perhaps, for the one in which our shifty shlemiel is assaulted by an amorous Catalan gangster) and multilingual literary puns. The narrative is so manic in its Saber Dance orchestration, it might have been scored by the gypsy punks of Gogol Bordello or the Finnish surf band Laika and the Cosmonauts, whose 1997 CD Absurdistan anticipated the title of Shteyngart’s new novel as well as its programmatic multiculturalism.
In many ways a stunning encore, Absurdistan presents Debutante‘s readers with a less charming, yet more sympathetic, protagonist–and, this time, narrator. Misha Borisovich Vainberg is 30 years old and 325 pounds, “a giant florid hymie with big, squishy hands and a rather mean-looking overbite” (and, on his back, a “toxic hump”). This rap-loving fatso, dubbed Snack Daddy by his friends at Accidental College, the Ohio liberal arts playpen where he majored in multicultural studies, considers himself an American trapped in an outsized Russian body. He also embodies the freakish patrimony of Russian Jewry–son of a refusenik turned criminal oligarch, his father is the 1,238th richest man in Russia when, as the first chapter ends, he is assassinated by rival gangsters on St. Petersburg’s Palace Bridge.