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.
Upon graduating from Accidental, Misha moved to Lower Manhattan, where he rented an entire floor of an early-twentieth-century skyscraper in the shadow of the Twin Towers (“they looked to me like the promise of socialist realism fulfilled”), took an internship in a downtown art foundation, acquired a Park Avenue shrink and, one lunch hour in a Nassau Street titty bar, met the love of his life, the “mostly Dominican” homegirl Rouenna Sales. “Dang, jumbo, I think I finally made it,” she exclaims when Misha brings her home to see his “hangar-sized living space.”
Fin de siècle New York was a kind of crazy paradise, but when we meet Misha in June 2001, it’s a paradise lost–and a confusing historical moment. Misha may be living large in grotesquely globalized Petersburg, carousing in the company of his Accidental homie, Alyosha-Bob (whom the local skinheads know as “a vile-looking Yid” and whose company, ExcessHollywood, has made him the local DVD import-export king). But he’s stuck inside of Russia (where “even the sun has a distinctly anti-Semitic disposition”) with the South Bronx blues again. Thanks to the crimes committed by his Beloved Papa, notably the murder of a mysterious Oklahoma businessman, the son’s visa has been lifted; Snack Daddy can no longer return to New York and his beloved Rouenna.
Our hero is doubly, triply and ultimately four times exiled. Did I mention that he’s also a Jew? (An alienated Jew, that is, who will at one point explain to Beloved Papa’s young widow, eager to convert, that Judaism is essentially “a codified system of anxieties” designed “to keep an already nervous and maligned people in check.”) Shteyngart has more than once described the humiliations to which he was subjected as a poor 12-year-old refugee in a Queens, New York, Jewish day school. Misha amplifies this suffering in a manner proportional to his girth.
En route to Accidental College and thanks to Beloved Papa’s contrivance, the 18-year-old Misha was waylaid in Brooklyn, where he was circumcised by Hasidim drinking from a bathtub full of vodka and onions, who gave him the Hebrew name Moshe and evidently botched the graphically described job. (“The infection set in that night.”) But if Misha’s scarred and much-spoken-of khui resembles an “abused iguana,” this does not preclude a reasonably full sex life, abetted by his amiable disposition and $35 million net worth, and including relations with his erstwhile stepmother.
A gentleman of leisure lounging around in a “leviathan Puma tracksuit,” Misha imagines the reader might compare him to that obese and indolent landowner who is the eponymous antihero of Goncharov’s Oblomov. As an alternative, he proposes another Russian literary archetype–and near homonym–in the person of Dostoyevsky’s holy innocent, Myshkin.
Absurdistan is filled with such literary observations–Misha must have learned something by Accidental. Indeed, we learn that with his support, Rouenna has forsaken the fleshpots of Nassau Street for Hunter College, where she enrolled in a creative writing class and in her Snack Daddy’s absence fell under the spell of instructor Jerry Shteynfarb, the fake refu-Jew author of The Russian Arriviste’s Hand Job and Misha’s classmate at Accidental–where their scurvy sidekick, Vladimir Girshkin, also studied.
Absurdistan encompasses Debutante and follows the earlier novel’s structure by eventually relocating itself to a new old place–Eastern Europe, after the fall–and in this case, the even more eastern former Soviet republic of Absurdsvanï, Land of Oil and Grapes, hopeful Norway of the Caspian. This fanciful combination of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, where Shteyngart has gone on occasion to chill, and neighboring Azerbaijan is poised for destruction, divided between the Sevo and the Svanï, rival yet virtually indistinguishable ethnicities. (In the ultimate narcissism of small differences, their schism is predicated on the opposite diagonals they use to traverse their crosses.)
Prince Misha hopes to purchase Belgian citizenship as a means of returning to New York, but like his classmate Girshkin in Prava, he finds himself instead–or perhaps finds his inner Myshkin, or at least finds a new girlfriend in the robust, golden form of Nana Nanabragovna, beloved daughter of a local Sevo fixer and unhappily displaced NYU student who wears her jeans “lower than a Lower East Side mami.”
The transition from phantasmagoric, decomposing Petersburg and fondly remembered New York to Absurdsvanï is a bit rocky. The reader suffers through several slapdash chapters before Shteyngart is able to re-establish his narrative in an unstable world of Gorbigrad favelas, American mega-corporations (the magic password is “Golly Burton”) and, forty stories above the civil war, the multinational safe house of the local Hyatt. Around the time Misha hooks up with Nana, the US Army arrives in Svanï City and Absurdsvanï reinvents itself as the Sevo Republic, “a small but attractive nation-state on the shores of the beautiful Caspian Sea.”
Absurdistan‘s final third lacks the finely observed visual specificity of earlier sections, and in it, Shteyngart’s ear for indigenous cliché is not quite as sharp as it has been. (The formulaic “my mother will be your mother,” with which both Sevo and Svanï initiate each duplicitous interaction, is considerably cruder than Snack Daddy’s gangsta raps or Rouenna’s patois.) Still, Absurdistan is written in prose so pungent that one can pick any page and find a superbly dense descriptive sentence. Misha and Nana flee Svanï City in an old Soviet locomotive newly globalized with a silk-screened American Express logo:
The smell of fresh excrement penetrated the bulletproof walls of our wagon, and we could hear members of the AmEx Rapid Reaction Force stomping about on the roof, threatening the dying men outside with the laser scopes of their rifles or else picking off the rare Daewoo steam iron in exchange for packets of contraband saltines and warm cans of Fresca.
In opposition to the warm Fresca of globalization, Shteyngart proposes a heroically displaced twenty-first-century hybrid crew: Alyosha-Bob, Nana from the Block, a disguised California Armenian who manages the Sevo City Hyatt and supersized Misha-Moshe-Myshkin-Snack Daddy himself.
The nineteenth-century Russian critic N.A. Dobrolyubov decried Oblomovism as a Russian disease in which inertia, self-absorption and chronic indecision were raised to the level of complete social paralysis. Repeated references to Oblomov may beckon the unwary to read Misha as a superfluous man, but this supersized shpritz artist is anything but apathetic: “I’m always ready to do something important!” Assuming Misha’s (nonexistent) connection to Israel, the new Sevo regime appoints him Commissar of Multicultural Affairs. (During his brief tenure, he proposes an Institute for Caspian Holocaust Studies.)
Like his half-assimilated creator, Misha is a philosopher of ethnic difference who advocates the mix-and-match. (“Due to the overabundance of presentable non-Jewish partners in a country as tantalizingly diverse and half naked as America, it is becoming difficult if not impossible to convince young Jews to engage in reproductive sex with each other,” he writes in a memo.) Such rampant vaudeville might remind you of Spike Lee. When Misha points out that there is no Russian word for “multiculturalist,” he puts his squishy finger on the crux of Shteyngart’s most profound utopian impulse–the notion of a promised land where everyone, and hence no one, is an immigrant.
What is the Shteyngart story? Absurdistan immediately announces itself as a book about love, as indeed it is. The novel amply demonstrates a love of language, a love of women and an unattainable longing for something else. Trapped between two worlds, Misha–or, rather, Shteyngart–attempts a hopeless reconciliation. He muses on mutual exclusion, “the logical impossibility of a place like Russia existing alongside the civilized world, of Ann Arbor, Michigan, sharing the same atmosphere with, say, Vladivostok,” and then attempts to effect it.
A lost love regained, an impossible reconciliation. Are these not the very themes of Nabokov’s Ada–the ultimate émigré novel, in which childhood paradise is regained on the imaginary planet of Antiterra, where all true Russians are happy inhabitants of the United States? And is it on some Anti-Antiterra that the poseur Jerry Shteynfarb imagines himself, so Alyosha-Bob tells Misha, to be the Jewish Nabokov? (Hearing this, two ExcessHollywood employees snort at the idea that such a creature could exist.) It’s at Accidental, at any rate, that Alyosha-Bob, in the course of an acid trip with Shteynfarb and Girshkin, shreds his copy of Ada by feeding it to an electric fan.
Last heard from, our narrator has found refuge among the prehistoric Mountain Jews of former Soviet Absurdsvanï, exiled again but still imagining his return: “Oh, my sweet endless Rouenna. Have faith in me. On these cruel, fragrant streets, we shall finish the difficult lives we were given.” What alternate universe enables this denouement? Only this one. Absurdistan, where time stands still and “the calendar will never pass the second week of September 2001,” is the dream-bright realm of literature.