Absurdistan Gary Shteyngart Russian Unorthodox

Russian Unorthodox

By Walter Kirn
Why praise it first? Just quote from it — at random. Just unbutton its shirt and let it bare its chest. Like a victorious wrestler, this novel is so immodestly vigorous, so bur-stingly sure of its barbaric excellence, that simply by breathing, sweating and standing upright it exalts itself.

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Gary Shteyngart
333 pp. Random House. $24.95.
Gary Shteyngart: An Interview and a Reading
Forum: Book News and Reviews
"I stood there listening to my father's killers. Oleg and Zhora were of Papa's generation. All three had been made fatherless by the Great Patriotic War. All three had been raised by the men who had managed to avoid battle, the violent, dour, second-tier men their mothers had brought home with them out of brutal loneliness. Standing before the menfolk of my father's generation, I could do nothing. Before their rough hands and stale cigarette-vodka smells, I could only shudder and feel, along with fright and disgust, appeasement and complicity. These miscreants were our country's rulers. To survive in their world, one has to wear many hats — perpetrator, victim, silent bystander. I could do a little of each."
The young writer supplying the lines is Gary Shteyngart, who moved to the United States from Russia when he was 7, while the young bereaved oligarch he's speaking through is Misha Vainberg, who attended college here but ended up marooned back in St. Petersburg. Misha is extraordinarily fat, ambivalently Jewish, unapologetically rich and — as his homeland's best comic heroes often are — infinitely thwarted. During his collegiate heyday, he gorged at the American buffet, slurping up rap music, psychotherapy and the sky's-the-limit compla-cent optimism that we take for granted as a birthright but that Misha sees for what it is: a glorious geo-historical accident.
All he needs to return to the party (and to Rouenna, his beloved trash-talking black girlfriend from the Bronx who asks him, while touring his native city, the grand imperial center of Czarist tradition, "Where the niggaz at?") is a visa from our consulate. Tough luck. As the heir to an ill-gotten bloody fortune in mobbed-up post-Soviet Russia, Misha can have anything he lusts for — top-shelf liquor, pharmaceutical sedatives, human pyramids of prostitutes and multiple alcoholic servants — but because of his murdered father's global misdeeds he can't have that stamp on his passport.
He sulks and schemes. And Russia, in its wretched boom, sulks with him. "Let us be certain: the cold war was won by one side and lost by another." This epic collapse is continuing, we sense, inside the circus tent of smutty new money that Misha has. Shteyngart is a master panoramist who paints in just three tones: exhausted grays, despairing browns and super-ficial golds. When he mixes them, he gets moments like this one, which deserves to be reproduced at its full scale:
"The windswept Fontanka River, its crooked 19th-century skyline interrupted by the postapocalyptic wedge of the Sovietskaya Hotel, the hotel surrounded by symmetrical rows of yellowing, waterlogged apartment houses; the apartment houses, in turn, surrounded by corrugated shacks featuring, in no particular order, a bootleg CD emporium, the ad hoc Mississippi Casino ('America Is Far, but Mississippi Is Near'), a kiosk selling industrial-sized containers of crab salad, and the usual Syrian shawarma hut smelling invariably of spilled vodka, spoiled cabbage and some kind of vague, free-floating inhumanity."
Shteyngart and Misha, exuberant depressives, don't stint on the syntax or the verbiage when objects huge and rotten hulk into view. Their thick, overloaded style is what happens, though, when socialist realism decays into black comedy. This is the prose of heroic disappointment, faintly labored at moments but fitted to the task of shoveling up mountains of cultural debris. Hemingway's clean sentences wouldn't do here. A man needs commas, semicolons, adjectives. He requires linguistic heavy machinery.
Which Shteyngart operates with a light touch as his story gains speed, leaving behind the rubble of the past for the about-to-be rubble of the near-future. After being foiled in dull St. Petersburg, Misha lights out for flashy Absurdsvanï, an oil-blessed former Soviet re-public where he hopes to finesse his visa problem. He flies there, accompanied by the only servant he hasn't pensioned off with petty cash and by an American college buddy who now runs a DVD business in Russia called Excess- Hollywood (a name that, in another novel, would indicate a playful author but which, in this one, suggests a playful author and a numb society).
Walter Kirn is a regular contributor to the Book Review. His most recent novel is "Mission to America."

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