So goes the opening sentence of Absurdistan, Gary Shteyngart’s second novel. It wasn’t, to be perfectly honest, quite the sort of lede I’d expected from the man. In fact, eyeing it for the first time, I found myself breaking out into something of a panic. My hands went clammy, a crop of sweat sprouted atop my forehead, my eyes clouded over with murky visions of Joyce Carol Oates and Park Slope townhouses and stacks of Deborah Solomon mash notes wrapped in pink taffeta bows. A “book about love”? Really? What was this? Had it actually happened? Could they have gotten to him, too? Had Shteyngart thrown it all over — the puns, the easy hilarity, the wit, the delightfully jaundiced eye — just to ride with that most notoriously earnest band of New York literati, the Jonathan Safran Krauss cabal of the extremely precious and incredibly lachrymose?
As it turns out, no.
It was a nervous moment I had there at the beginning, but after the opener things settled down nicely, with Shteyngart slipping back into his casual, loping rhythms, effortlessly blending once again the sacred and profane. If nothing else, the man has a voice, an easy golden tone that ferries him across shallows where less agreeable writers might well run aground. At his best he marries this tone to surprising insights and great depths of feeling, but even when these latter quantities are absent, one can ride quite contentedly atop the former. Paul Desmond playing show tunes at a Holiday Inn is the closest equivalent that comes to mind.
But anyway, Absurdistan. Essentially, the story concerns Misha Vainberg, phenomenally obese son of a Russian oligarch (the country’s 1,238th richest man), one-time resident of New York City, and a graduate of the small but well-respected Midwestern institution of higher learning, Accidental College. It is the summer of 2001 and Vainberg finds himself kicking around St. Peterburg, having been denied re-entry to the United States ever since his father killed an Oklahoma businessman. When, in the space of a few weeks his father is assassinated by a landmine and his beloved Bronx girlfriend, Rouenna Sales dumps him for her Hunter College creative writing professor (one Jerry Shteynfarb), Misha decides that it’s time to get back to the West any way he can — and so he heads to the former Soviet republic of Absurdistan, where for a couple hundred thousand bucks he can buy Belgian citizenship.
And then, well, things begin to go awry. Reputedly oil-rich, the place is awash in home-grown gangsters, global conglomerates, military strongmen, State Department flunkies, and, of course, those omnipresent scourges of the international scene — Halliburton and KBR contractors. Adding to the disarray, Absurdistan is heading towards civil war as an initially low-level conflict between the country’s two Christian sects (the Svani and the Sevo) turns from a cynical gambit for media attention into a bloody and full-blown battle. Misha, meanwhile, complicates things for himself just a little bit more by taking up with Nana, the daughter of a local crime boss.
It all sounds a bit labyrinthine, true, but readers of Shteyngart’s first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, will find themselves in fairly familiar territory. A man, after a series of curious machinations, finds himself stuck in an awkwardly westernizing Soviet Bloc country — in love, in cahoots with all manner of shady elements, and unable to get out of the place and back to his home. Trade the third-rate poets and deluded ex-pats of the first novel for the democracy-touting bureaucrats and money-grubbing oilmen of the second, and you’ve got a pair of books that in many ways look very much the same.
Absurdistan, though, is the distinctly weaker of the two. It’s hard to imagine a more pitch-perfect rendering of young American expats than that Shteyngart offered in The Debutante’s Handbook. In Absurdistan, he’s taken on a somewhat more ambitious (and arguably even more deserving) set of targets, but the satire feels for the most part less revelatory than it does perfunctory — the sort of obvious (if perfectly valid) potshots that typically populate the comments sections of your better-traveled political blogs.
Beyond that, there is throughout the book a fundamental absence of feeling. As a writer, Shteyngart traffics chiefly in types. His characters are, more often than not, caricatures — the semi-literate café-going scribbler, the West-obsessed Russian strumpet, the eternally disappointed Jewish mother. He typically draws these caricatures quite well, hilariously so, in fact, but it’s when he pauses to peer beneath these grotesques that his work feels most fully realized. The finest example of this is Morgan Jenson from Debutante’s Handbook. Shteyngart introduced her, as he is wont to do, as a stock sort of healthy, good-hearted, Midwestern American girl, with a few broad strokes drawing a type immediately recognizable to the vast majority of readers. Then, though, he began to slowly peel away the layers, tenderly revealing her complications, her contradictions, exploring the tension between the caricature and the underlying character, the way in which one acts upon the other, the extent to which the two are inextricably bound. Lovely and startling, it gave the book its emotional core and was, quite simply, beautifully done.
There’s no comparable performance in Absurdistan. The caricatures by and large remain just that. Rouenna, perhaps the most obvious candidate, decamps for the Bronx early on in the going and pops up only briefly thereafter. Nana, Mischa claims again and again, he loves very dearly, but honestly, it’s rather hard to see why. Mischa himself seems less a character than a collection of appetites dragging along an unhappy past. As protagonists go, he’s pretty uncompelling. There is one very fine scene — at once riotous and tragic — involving a gang of prostitutes at a party of KBR contractors, that recalls the high points of Shteyngart’s first book. That aside, though, Absurdistan is something of a comedown.
Which, given the quality of his debut, was perhaps inevitable. And while Absurdistan is not quite so interesting a book as one might have hoped, Shteyngart remains a thoroughly interesting writer. His novel’s broad concerns, its fragile, fractious settings, its attention to the interaction of East and West, to the intersection of popular and traditional cultures, to the impact of the global on the local — its obsession, in short, with history (but history of a most contemporary, immediate kind) calls to mind Rushdie at his polyglot best. The ideas, in this case, never quite coalesced into an entirely satisfying piece of work, but one looks forward to what he might do with them in the future.