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Culture news
Absurdist man
05.19.2006 12:34

writers_gary_shteyngart By Todd Shy

Special to St. Petersburg Times

Speed is both midwife and temptress of literary comedy. To achieve lightness, prose must skate rather than amble, dart and not brood. It must be swift. And yet comedy that is nothing but speed and excess risks becoming frivolous. At its literary best comedy is promiscuous and open, but scored throughout with real human pain. This is true from Shakespeare and “Don Quixote” to Gogol and “Candide.” Something important is at stake. We are moved as well as delighted.

In the space of two novels, “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook” (2002), and now “Absurdistan,” the St. Petersburg-born American author Gary Shteyngart has established himself as a formidable comic novelist.

Shteyngart abandons his characters to the machinery of modern life and invites us to laugh as they negotiate, Chaplin-style, with the gears. “Absurdistan” introduces 30-year-old Russian ÎmigrÎ Misha Vainberg, a gangster’s son educated at a liberal arts college in the American Midwest (Shteyngart himself is an Oberlin grad). For the first third of the novel, Misha is stranded in St. Petersburg, which he dubs St. Leninsburg. His oligarch father is flush, so Misha lives the high life, riding around the city in a Land Rover, with a manservant at his side and Vegas folds of cash in his pocket. But when his father murders an Oklahoma businessman, and is, in turn, assassinated on Palace Bridge, the United States refuses to readmit the son. To escape Russia, Misha schemes to obtain a Belgian passport, which requires him to fly to Absurdistan, “the Norway of the Caspian,” a former Central Asian Soviet republic richly endowed with oil.

Weighing more than 300 pounds and with a warrior’s appetite, Misha Vainberg has an adolescent fascination with his body, from his “big squishy hands” to the folds of his neck to a purple penis scarred by an adult circumcision. His flesh is the embodiment of American abundance, as well as of the country’s simplistic joie de vivre. If the Russian famously cultivates soul, his American counterpart here attends to the belly. Misha’s college nickname was Snack Daddy; he announces a meal as “feeding time;” four dozen Buffalo wings in the penthouse of a Hyatt make for a nice afternoon snack; taxi drivers in New York, witnessing his table exploits, “[broadcast] news of my gluttony to their relatives in Lahore.” Misha’s obesity is not a problem but a kind of monument to the good life. The heroes in both “Russian Debutante’s Handbook” and “Absurdistan” have the immigrant’s blend of cynicism and idealism, but these are privileged innocents, lucking into cash, sex, and cinematic adventures abroad.

Shteyngart describes fleshiness with the gusto of Saul Bellow, whose own parents emigrated from St. Petersburg shortly before he was born. Misha recalls leaning against the “worsted bristles” of his father’s mustache, for example, and his “swollen Aramaic face.”

Even more Bellovian is a quick portrait in “Russian Debutante’s Handbook” of a man lying in swimming trunks: “His body was loosely organized like a booming Sunbelt city, suburban rivulets of fat spilling out in all directions.” Flesh in “Absurdistan” is not a substitute for intellect — Misha is plenty smart — but a kind of compensation for the absent soul, the arena of our worldly bliss.

Indeed, Misha’s utopia is uncomplicated by older questions of transcendence. Give him New York City, a lover with a strong appetite for sex (preferably in a Chelsea loft), some East Coast rap, and a good restaurant meal (also preferably in New York), and he insists he will be happy. At the end of the novel, he summarizes these “essential desires” as “a girl, a city, a libertine but tender way of life.” Philip Roth meets F. Scott Fitzgerald. Raised in St. Petersburg, Shteyngart’s hero presents a baldly Americanized vision of the world: “We must all strive to be as Western as possible,” Misha observes. And “that old argument between the Westernizers and the Slavophiles,” the old tension between tradition and European-style progress? “It’s not much of an argument at all, is it?”

And so, while Ladas go on rusting, children in the Caucasus divide their first McDonald’s hamburger, and hookers fawn on employees of Halliburton, or “Golly Burton,” as they chant over and over, like Pentecostals on the brink of reverie. Part of what makes Shteyngart interesting is that he is ambivalent toward both his Russian heritage and his American inheritance. “I am an American,” Misha declares, echoing Bellow’s Augie March, but he is an American “impounded in a Russian’s body.” The ambivalence, Shteyngart asserts, is not resolvable: “when a Russian moves between two universes, this feeling of finality persists, the logical impossibility of a place like Russia existing alongside the civilized world, of Ann Arbor, Michigan, sharing the same atmosphere with, say, Vladivostok. It was like those mathematical concepts I could never understand in high school: if, then. If Russia exists, then the West is a mirage; conversely, if Russia does not exist, then and only then is the West real and tangible.”

When Misha flees to Absurdistan, the personal comedy of an overweight ÎmigrÎ becomes the global farce of oil-mad Americans and the political chaos they create. The country collapses into civil war, American diplomats and oil executives flee in Chinook helicopters from an updated Saigon embassy, but Misha stays behind. Meanwhile, Absurdistani leaders hope for coverage of their conflict on CNN. The attention of the West, of course, means the prospect of U.S. aid.

The abruptness of the narrative shift is jolting. We are following Misha’s quest to get a passport, and suddenly democracy advocates are lined up in a parking lot and executed at close range. The novel staggers a little between political/cultural commentary and farce. It works better as farce. Shteyngart’s satire too often collapses into contempt. Of an American diplomat whom he views as a sell-out, Misha muses, “The look I gave him indicated that he was not worthy of sharing the planet with me.” Observing a family in McDonald’s splitting a single hamburger into six pieces “so that each family member savored a little taste,” of this American dream, Misha’s comment is dismissive: “Poor souls.” Isn’t there at least a trace of pathos in this scene? On the phone with his psychiatrist, who is kind of a cartoon whenever he appears in the novel, Misha notes, “I could hear him slurping on his beloved citrus shake with vitamin boost, the modern equivalent of the analyst’s cigar.”

The farce is so much more effective. In that same McDonald’s, when gunfire breaks out in the streets, customers crouch behind cardboard cutouts of the food chain’s mascots, “commandeering them as ‘human shields.” Or when a companion hyperventilates in the attack, Misha breaks into a song about child abuse: “Breathe, Mr. Sakha, breathe. Would you like me to sing a calming Western song? ‘My name is Luka,’ I sang. ‘I live on the second floor.’” Both moments play on the globalization of Western culture, but they avoid the heavy-handedness of a line like, “I was trying to stay positive, as they do in the States all the time.” It’s not that Shteyngart is straining to make the novel weighty or serious with political commentary, but that these moments of bitterness seem untuned. We need novelists to have discernment and to expose hypocrisy and shallowness, but we also need them to be more generous than we are. Gratuitous empathy is one of the things we learn from art. Contempt usually seems too obvious. Misha styles himself a “depressed and immobile…twenty-first century Oblomov.” But the hero of Ivan Goncharov’s nineteenth-century novel is more generous: “Depict a thief, a fallen woman, a stuck-up fool, but don’t forget they are human beings,” Oblomov says. “Yes, thought is made fruitful by love. Stretch a helping hand to the fallen man or weep over him, but don’t jeer! Love him, try to see yourself in him, and heal him as you would yourself — then I will read you and bow down before you.” Misha Vainberg is much funnier than Oblomov, but his humanity is less expansive.

The other humorous trope that will test the reader’s patience is the character Jerry Shteynfarb, an undisguised version of the author, who, in “Absurdistan,” is credited with writing a novel called “The Russian Arriviste’s Hand Job,” a “sad little dirge about his immigrant life,” which the Americans, “naturally,” lapped up. Naturally. Put Russia in your title and make a million bucks. Shteynfarb steals Misha’s girlfriend Rouenna, and Misha’s quest for her and desire for her shape the novel to its end. But the Shteyngart-Shteynfarb sub-drama, while briefly funny, never gains momentum. Still, it gives the real author the chance to show he doesn’t take his success too seriously. Even Jerry Shteynfarb could do it, and look at what a schmuck he is. Gary Shteyngart’s prose is bold and rollicking, but it has the modesty of effective comedy. The fiction writer, he knows, is not running for office.

And yet… “Absurdistan” is high comedy, but beneath the fleshy fun of the novel, beneath the global satire, is a skeleton of somber grief. The prologue warned us that the story would hurl forward toward cataclysm: “Grief for Russia, the distant land of my birth, and for Absurdistan, where the calendar will never pass the second week of September 2001.” Misha flees war-torn Absurdistan on a luxury train and finds refuge among a group of Mountain Jews on Sept. 10, 2001. The novel ends here, with his plan of returning to New York to find bliss with Rouenna. He will arrive, one assumes, on 9/11. Shteyngart takes an obvious risk ending his novel on the brink of the hijacked flights, but Misha’s convincing love for New York, the immigrant’s love, lets this conclusion work. Shteyngart’s lyricism describing the city is so charged it almost runs away from him. We are in Gatsby’s world before the disillusionment sets in: “the carpeted grid of Manhattan sinking into the flat horizon, the garlands of yellow light — sharp, overreaching — that form the facades of skyscrapers, the garlands of yellow light — diffuse, flickering — that form the sprawl of tenements, the garlands of yellow light — swerving, opportunistic — that form the headlights of taxi caravans: the garlands of yellow light, aye, in their horizontal and vertical arrangements that form a final resting place for the collected hopes of our civilization.”

The shadow of 9/11 draws a kind of curtain on the novel’s “hard-won ascent brokered by the possibility of a sharp fall into nothingness.” Early in “Absurdistan,” the Twin Towers had had a kind of religious effect on Misha, who had imagined he could rent an apartment inside. Glowing “white in the afternoon sun,” the World Trade Center, he notes, “looked to me like the promise of socialist realism fulfilled.” The hijackers saw them as emblems of western capitalism. This novel suggests that both visions are absurd.

Shteyngart’s comic sensibility traces the weighty concerns of literature with a deft touch. He skims rather than analyzes the cultural issues American novelists often fret over. His characters are not sure enough of themselves to be sure about global problems. But because they remain on the move, they don’t seem introspective and romantic. They are comic figures who work hard to maintain some kind of dignity. Another American novelist, David Foster Wallace, bemoaning the narcissism of post-war fiction, has called for a recovery of earnestness, for writing that is about “the stuff that’s really important.” Shteyngart shows that this can be done with both lightness and tenderness.

What elevates Shteyngart’s comedy in the end is that it both indulges in cynicism and transcends it. “For I wanted, more than anything, to be saved,” Misha says. “To shed my weight and to be born anew.” To fly “the way I do everything else—in fits and starts.” But still to fly. He does.

Todd Shy, a writer based in Raleigh, North Carolina, attended the 2005 Summer Literary Seminar in St. Petersburg.

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