Gary Shteyngart: Absurdistan

Gary Shteyngart
Random House

At 325 pounds, Misha Vainberg, the ironic, sad, and insatiably hungry protagonist of Gary Shteyngart's hip and hilarious second novel, is the literary hero our troubled times have been waiting for. The "deeply secular" Jewish son of Russia's corrupt "1,238th richest man," Misha arrives in America for college. Just as Misha's post-college life in New York is getting good, he is beckoned back to St. Petersburg by Vainberg pere, who proceeds to kill an Oklahoma business associate—prompting the INS to ban Misha from returning to New York. The old man's subsequent death sets in motion a political satire that is equal parts internet-age comedy of errors and indictment of U.S. globalization.

In St. Petersburg, we meet a Helleresque cast of characters, including Timofey, Misha's much-abused manservant; Rouenna Sales, his ample, Bronx-bred girlfriend who comes for a visit; and Alyosha-Bob, his American expat best friend and moral compass. Distraught, Misha loafs about the house, obsessively checking e-mail and keeping appointments with his ineffectual Fifth Avenue therapist via his trusty mobilnik. To make matters worse, upon returning home, Rouenna dumps Misha for her Hunter College professor, Misha's former undergrad buddy. This joker turns out to be a successful novelist and philanderer—the familiarly named Jerry Shteynfarb, author of The Russian Arriviste's Hand Job (Shteyngart had a hit with his 2002 debut The Russian Debutante's Handbook).

After a slow start—Misha is a layabout, after all—the action picks up when Misha travels to Absurdistan, a fictional nation on the edge of the Caspian Sea. (While there, he hopes to buy himself Belgian citizenship, and sneak his way back to the U.S.) Mounting racial tension between the Sevo and Svanï populations—the "distinctions between [whom] are all but meaningless"—and rumored oil deposits make the country ripe for plundering by American conglomerate Halliburton. (The Absurdi prostitutes call it "Golly Burton"). When Misha falls for the daughter of a power-hungry Sevo activist, he plays the dupe in the start of a pointless civil war, from which Halliburton stands to profit handsomely. What ultimately unfolds from Misha's hijinks is a story about the ecstasy and misery of love, both for the unfaithful Rouenna and the hopelessly confused nation of America—home to the flawed, the crooked, and against all odds, the good.

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