11 August 2007

Absurdistan, by Gary Shteyngart

The genius of Gary Shteyngart is the way he manages to perfectly embody a particular worldview. He's the poster child for the cosmopolitan postmodern subject, cheerfully irreverent in his blending of cultures, relentlessly hip* and up-to-date on the latest technological developments and cultural trends, blending crude jokes and pop culture references with highbrow theoretical banter, ironic in that delightful way that manages to both adore and poke fun at his object simultaneously, yet with a kind of touching naivete at the same time. Probably I love it so much because it's so close to my own worldview, but there you have it. A novel that refers to DJ Assault's "Ass-N-Titties" as a seminal work in the genre of ghettotech is bound to win me over. The juxtaposition of a series of cultural groups that many would consider distant from each other is delightful. To illustrate: "Children? Was he talking about us? What would an Ice Cube or an Ice-T do in this situation? I reached for my mobilnik, ready to dial my Park Avenue analyst, Dr Levine, to tell him that once again I had been insulted and injured, that once again I had been undermined by a fellow Russian."

Shteyngart indulges in a loving, but cynical adoration of America and all that it represents. Another marvelous quote: "This is what happens when you don't learn English, by the way. You're always at a loss for words." What I particularly appreciate about this is the way that he positions himself as the outsider who insists that he is a native. He has the exile's perspective, the doubled vision that allows him to truly appreciate what it means to be American, an awareness of things that Americans take for granted. Yet he proudly embraces this American identity, while nonetheless being well aware that to do so is to indulge in a kind of immorality, to partake in an arrogance that is normally sustained by ignorance. At the same time, he points out that ignorance at every turn, poking fun at it while marvelling at its effects.

So this is the genius of Shteyngart, but sad to say, it works far better in his previous work, A Russian Debutante's Handbook, than in Absurdistan. Because while the prose is delightful, Absurdistan just isn't a very good book. It's sort of like Confederacy of Dunces imagined as political satire. Problem one - the usual issue of whether or not one has any sympathy for the main character. It's hard to have your main protagonist be grotesque and not particularly likeable. But Shteyngart is trying to have it both ways; it tries to force the reader into that position of doubled irony, and it just doesn't work. I can't bring myself to genuinely care about Misha, because at the end of the day, I don't really like him. This means that much of the book's action is robbed of its emotional force, and therefore its momentum. Problem 2 - the political satire bit is sort of limp and uninteresting. It's not really doing or saying anything new, so the potential political critique is pretty blah. Problem 3 - the metameta irony can be a bit tired at times. Making himself the villain in the book, for instance, is amusing at first, but then gets kind of irritating.

So at the end of the day, reading this book is sort of like hanging out with someone really cool while doing something really boring. If you're trying to decide whether or not to read it, think of it this way - if a friend of yours called you and asked if you wanted to go spend 6 hours standing in line at the DMV, would you go?

* Ever since I saw a movie advertised as "relentlessly original", I've fallen in love with this preposterous use of the word. Try it, it's fun.

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