Saturday, January 13, 2007

Absurdistan is a raucous, vulgar, comic novel

4. Absurdistan, Gary Shteyngart. Fiction, 1-13, p. 333

I’ve managed to maintain my goal of a minimum of 100 pages a day, despite not reading anything at all on Thursday.

I’ve completed four books so far in 2007, as well as The New Yorker’s winter fiction issue. The New Yorker contained short stories by Louise Erdrich and Ian McEwan, two of my favorite writers. By far the best story in that issue, however, was by Paul Theroux. I’ve also read a couple of comic books, Justice League Society #2, Martian Manhunter #2, and Avengers Disassembled, a hard-cover collection of a story that originally appeared over the course of three issues of the Avengers.

I’m also reading, on the average of a poem every two or three days, Saving Daylight, a collection of poetry by Jim Harrison.

Next up: Freud Inventor of the Modern Mind by Peter D. Kramer, another recent Eminent Lives release by HarperCollins, and Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.

Absurdistan is a raucous, vulgar, comic novel, whose hero is 325-pound Misha Vainberg, son of the 1,238th richest man in Russia. Misha, who attended college in America, where he earned the nickname, Snack Daddy, desperately wants to return to America, but can’t because his father, a Russia criminal, has slain an Oklahoma man.

Misha languishes in “St. Leninsburg,” until he conjures a scheme to escape to America by first fleeing to the oil-rich nation of Absurdistan where he plans to obtain a Belgian passport. He secures the passport but finds himself in the middle of an Absurdi civil war. There are two religious sects in Absurdistan, the Sevo and the Svani. One sect believes the footrest on Christ’s cross slants to the right. The other believes it slants to the left.

After bedding the daughter of a prominent Sevo man, Misha finds himself with a position in the Sevo government:

“You’re in the land of the young and the fashionable,” Mr. Nanabragov said. “Now, listen to what our Misha’s going to be. He’s going to be the Commissar for the Nationalities Question.”

“Minister of Multicultural Affairs,” I lightly corrected him.

“Mul-ti-cul-tu-ral. What a nice word, Parka, you should add that to your new Sevo dictionary.”

I add only real words,” Parka said, rubbing his nose.

The war, as wars tend to do, spirals out of control. Yet, no one outside Absurdi is paying much attention, which comes as no surprise to the Israeli Mossad, as a result of its focus groups into how genocides are perceived by the American electorate. “See, the way ‘Absurdsvani’ is pronounced and spelled, it’s utterly impossible for an American to feel anything for it,” the Mossad agent tells Misha. “You have to be able to use a country as a child’s first name to get anywhere. Rwanda Jones. Somalia Cohen. Timor Jackson. Bosnia Lewis-Wright . . .”

Dick Cheney and his minions from Halliburton are among the villains in this novel, a sort of Catch 22 for our times. After all, war may be hell, but it’s good for business and for the bottom line.

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