Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart

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Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: An attempt at a globe-trotting parody of Russian, American and lost-in-eastern-European ways, which does have flashes of good humour but on the whole is too overblown and misses more marks than it hits.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 352 Date: February 2008
Publisher: Granta Books
ISBN: 978-1847080066

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Misha is a joke. A symptom of the recent Russian world, he is an attempt to become as transatlantic and western-oriented as possible. Seeming to hate Russia and Russians (although perfectly able to refer to and quote Russian literature), he has a fine collection of Puma tracksuits, can quote the worst American hip hop, and has his eyes firmly fixed towards the US.

Were we unkind we would laugh just for looking at him – not at all amenable, being something like 320 lbs in weight – although here he would have the last laugh, as a spell in New York has gifted him the delicious Rouenna, whose last job was being a human lime ‘n' salt lick at a raunchy tequila bar. Not bad for someone who appears to be ageing beyond his teen years, and has had a bodged bris only recently.

However while back in St Petersburg (which he hardly ever dignifies with its proper name, so appealing does he find it) his father gets killed, and he loses his love to a Russian writer in America, Jerry Shteynfarb (see what he did there?). Suddenly the owner of a huge donation as compensation, he is trapped in Russia – his late father's business not allowing him transit out. Unless he goes jaggedly across Europe to Absurdsvani (which even more seldomly gets its proper name), and finagles Belgian citizenship for him (and his man-servant) while there.

If only things were that easy or were going to proceed as expected…

Now I don't think I'm alone in realising that 320pp of satire is going to be hard work unless it is a success throughout. This is not a success throughout. While some scenes would have worked well if told better (the killers turning up at his father's funeral), and some details were humorous, there was too much that failed. Lines regarding his learning to love laundrettes fall flat as you can take them sincerely so easily, and the sharpness of the comedy is just not there.

Instead, the novel, with its moderate page count and tiny print, while reading quite fluidly and rapidly, is too close to the middle ground. Halliburton, the US conglomerate, is the butt of many jokes, but when the Russian side of things is disliked so much by the protagonist, and the Euro-pudding state of Absurdistan, all Caspian shore and oil wealth and ethnic bickering, is just unappealing and rightly looked down upon, there does not seem to be much point of the book. Misha ends up our hero almost by default – we join him in sexual shenanigans, if never exactly with full empathy.

There was just enough comedy to keep me going, although a fair proportion had me rewriting it in my head to make it fresher, brighter, more obvious and a lot more comedic. The whole plotting of the book needed a redrawing as well – the great delay in even mentioning Absurdistan, the failure of the plot similarly to flag up what the point of the whole book was designed to be. At the same time, I was aided in knowing the veracity of the St Petersburg scenes (and the particular Nordic department stores that don't come across quite as well as they would appreciate), and the imaginary details of the eastern European sojourn were quite representative.

So, if you are without that knowledge common with the book, then it's another mark lost. Take away a shared interest in ex-Soviet Russia, and what the influence of bad Americanisms and Americanisation has had on it, you certainly don't have a fulfilling read.

I am sure Rates of Exchange: AND Why Come to Slaka? has not dated that much since I last read Malcolm Bradbury, who remains the eminent satirist of eastern Europe. This adds the strong American tinge to things, but goes nowhere near replacing him. Absurdistan gets a hesitant recommendation, for those in the know, and for those willing to experiment with modern satire, but on the whole just is not a funny enough work.

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Buy Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart at Amazon.com.


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