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Gary Shteyngart | Absurdistan

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Under siege are notions of race, religion, commercialism, philanthropy, American excess, and even psychiatry.


book_shteyRandom House; 352 pgs; $24.95

Following closely on the heels of his successful debut novel The Russian Debutante's Handbook, Gary Shteyngart has returned with Absurdistan, an equally witty romp through the innumerable absurdities our current world hands us on a routine basis. At the novel's center is Misha Vainberg, son of the 1,238th richest man in Russia, and self-described "incorrigible fatso" who has a proclivity for food in large portions, copious amounts of alcohol, rap music, and his beloved Rouenna, from whom he is separated by the Atlantic Ocean. Though Misha resided in America during his college years, the novel finds him confined to Russia because his father had murdered an Oklahoma businessman, barring Misha from ever again obtaining a visa to the United States. A corrupt consular officer, however, presents Misha with a loophole out of his situation: Misha can obtain a Belgian passport from the small, nearby nation of Absurdistan. What follows is a rollicking, rollercoaster of a read, as Misha's futile journey back to the United States is met with an endless barrage of colorful characters and ridiculous situations, all of which farcically mirror some of the biggest problems shadowing today's world events.

Under siege are notions of race, religion, commercialism, philanthropy, American excess, and even psychiatry, as Shteyngart utilizes Misha's point-of-view to sound out a witty satire steered along by sharp wordcraft and the book's boisterous narrative. With tongue-in-cheek humor, Shteyngart addresses globalization in the form of Absurdisvani citizens who consider Arby's fries to be the most delicious food in the world; politics and economics by way of an oil company (coincidentally named "Golly Burton"); engineering a civil war between Absurdisvani religious factions for the sole purpose of making money off of relief efforts; and the wealth/poverty gap via a party atop the Hyatt penthouse, at which Misha and his oil tycoon cohorts eat hamburgers and lounge by the poolside, ignoring the war-torn city crumbling below them.

While Absurdistan is nothing short of entertaining, the circus grows a little weary as Shteyngart rarely offers any moments of true insight or poignancy. Satirizing relevant issues is certainly a noble endeavor for a novelist, but in the absence of any anchoring purpose, as was fashioned in like-minded works such as Catch-22 and Confederacy of Dunces, the novel ultimately leaves the reader unsatisfied.

If raucous, blasphemous parody is all that the reader is craving, then Absurdistan is a perfect choice. The novel is great fun while it lasts, much like the amusement park rides its narrative emulates.

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