three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
23-July-Aug-2006
user_rating: 
0

A-AbsurdistanMisha Vainberg, the obese, 30-year-old son of the 1,238th-richest man in Russia, describes himself as "an American impounded in a Russian body." After attending Accidental College and living in New York City, he returns to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. His father, a Russian Jewish dissident, has possibly murdered an Oklahoma businessman, which removes the possibility of a visa back to the U.S. and a reunion with his South Bronx Latina girlfriend. Stuck in Russia, Misha sojourns to Absurdistan, a new, oil-rich country. Greased by corruption and torn by ethnic strife (yet always on the brink of market democracy), Absurdistan wages a fake civil war in an effort to solicit U.S. aid. And Misha can’t seem to steer clear of the mayhem.
Random House. 333 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 1400061962

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Throughout, Shteyngart deflects the constant, hovering presence of anti-Semitism with an earthy Jewish humor redolent of Mordecai Richler or Philip Roth; it feels deeply earned rather than appropriated and, without giving away too much, drives the evolution of Misha’s self-awareness, which in turn drives this book." Jon Fasman

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"It’s a testament to Shteyngart that he is able to make sympathetic a narrator as superficially unappealing as Misha. … And it’s this undercurrent of humanity paired with the hilarity of Shteyngart’s writing that tempts us to look away when the plot falls apart in the last third of the book." Laura DeMarco

Wall Street Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"It is a style of satire that allies Jewish humor to a keen understanding of how history condemns certain people, declares others the victors, and compels the rest to make their way in a semi-chaotic, semi-corrupt, darkly humorous world. … Oddly, the realm of the absurd may require more discipline from a novelist, not less." Stephen Barbara

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 3 of 5 Stars
"Absurdistan is a Monster Truck Rally of a satire, sort of Jonathan Swift does South Park with help from Rabelais, Gogol, Kafka, the Marx Brothers, Evelyn Waugh, and Joseph Heller. … It’s not a novel for everyone—except that it has something in it to offend everyone—but as a display of raw talent and unfettered imagination it’s undeniably fascinating." Charles Matthews

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"[Shteyngart’s] Absurdistan, to Americans, may seem amusingly far away at first, but the longer one spends there, hunkered down with Misha in a hotel room high above the rocket fire, the closer and more recognizable it gets." Walter Kirn

Boston Globe 1.5 of 5 Stars
"The problem, for Shteyngart, is that all these pieces—Latina girls from the Bronx, melancholy Russian billionaires, rapacious Texas oilmen, and the rest of the enormous cast of characters—while clever on their own merits, add up to a tasteless stew, a gumbo composed of ingredients taken from The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, the international section of the newspaper, and Shteyngart’s own fervid memory, but lacking the base that would hold all its disparate flavors together." Saul Austerlitz

Critical Summary

In his rambunctious follow-up to The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (2002), Shteyngart explores the disillusionment surrounding the creation of sudden democracy. Despite its historical bent, Absurdistan is more a cultural and political satire than a work of geopolitical fiction. Critics agree that Shteyngart is an inventive, witty writer, whose self-defeating hero and dark humor tempered with pessimistic social realism rarely fail to entertain. Shteyngart’s humor may have been more effective in smaller doses; the plot falls apart in the last third of the novel; and the sheer number of names and references can overwhelm. If Absurdistan sometimes goes too far over the top, it masks its painful global issues not far beneath its surface.