January's Book: Absurdistan, by Gary Shteyngart

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Our first book club pick of 2012 is Gary Shteyngart’s novel, Absurdistan. It tells the story of Misha Vainberg, a young Russian immigrant whose hopes of a U.S. visa are dashed by his father. Forced to leave New York, Misha moves to Absurdistan, a tiny, oil-rich nation where he finds, among other things, civil war, corruption, and love. Get your copy today and start reading this slapstick satire, which the New York Times named one of the 10 best books of 2006!


Gary Shteyngart

Comments [16]

Ed from Larchmont

And Misha - I assume Michael - the name of the archangel, and Vainberg - mountain of vanities - 'Vanity, vanity, and all is vanity except the service of Jesus Christ..' from the start of 'The imitation of Christ' by Thomas a Kempis - indicates the Misha is like us a mixture of saint and sinner, but he is bigger in both directions.

What are we to make of Mr. Shteyngart's many Christian sources?

Jan. 11 2012 08:14 AM
Ed from Larchmont

It seemed accepted that the US is in decline. Why is it in decline? Not enough young people: after 40 years, the effects of abortion are being seen, and there's not much that can be done now. All these people had talents to contribute to the country.

Jan. 10 2012 01:56 PM
Ed from Larchmont

They're trying to get Russians to have more children, with little success.

Jan. 10 2012 12:55 PM
maiz from Brooklyn

It seems to me that, ironically enough, Jewish Russians are very bigoted against Muslims. Just look at how Israel has changed with Russian immigration. Is that a legacy of their experiences in the Soviet Union or something else?

Jan. 10 2012 12:55 PM

With oligarcy on the rise in the US, does Mr. Shteyngart think we'll see some native humor of his kind here? Is it already here? There's a great history of American Jewish humor, but it doesn't seem as dark. Why does dark humor go over like a lead balloon in the US? (Any kind, for example, Britain's "Spitting Image" was a bust in the US until it went from American politicians to pop culture figures.)

Jan. 10 2012 12:49 PM
Amy from Manhattan

I notice that the character Misha kept his Russian first name after coming to the US, but Mr. Shteyngart's 1st name doesn't sound Russian. Was this something he deliberately made different from his own experience (unlike some of the other things mentioned), & if so, what's the significance of it?

Jan. 10 2012 12:48 PM

First of all, I have to say that I really, really love "Super Sad True Love Story". Unfortunately, as a Russian-speaker, I find "Absurdistan" impossible to read for its heavy MIS-use of Russian language.

For starters, the combination of "Misha" (diminutive) and "Borisovich" (patronymic) just doesn't make sense. It should have been "Mihail Borisovich". The name "Dimitry" is very old-fashioned and nowadays is used only for clergy – it should be "Dmitry", like "Dmitry Medvedev".

But these are peanuts – my beef is with author's use of the word "khui". It is just pathetic from its very beginning to its end.

This is a great word in Russian language. It's written frequently in public places and a significant part of Russian folklore is based on it. It also has a great history - it came into the language during Russia's occupation by Mongols and Tatars. Together with the word for a female counterpart and the word for the interaction between the two, it serves as a foundation for a slang, which for many has replaced the Great Russian language in their daily interactions.

It is a three-letter word - "ХУЙ" - and it starts with a letter "H". The only explanation I can find why a letter "K" was added to the beginning of this word is that there must be a conspiracy to change the simple Russian "H" into Hebrew-sounding "KH". Needless to say, many conflicts started for less....

The word ends with a short "Й", yet the author uses long "И". This is wrong. You don't say "Tolstoi", you say "Tolstoy". Also, the use of "i" at the end of the word makes it plural. This turns the main hero with his continuous use of the word and obsession with that part of his anatomy into some sort of a medical curiosity.

Thus, it should have been "huy" or, just to make it phonetically correct, "hooy". Now, repeat after me (if FCC rules allow) - huy, huy, huy...

Jan. 10 2012 06:30 AM
Ed from Larchmont

Having finished the book, I see that it's not primarily about religion, but about the state of the world in general before 9/11. But there is a similarity between Misha and St. Paul - Misha stands at the killing of Sakha the Democrat as St. Paul stood at the stoning of Stephen; Misha's manservant is Timofey, could be a joining of Timothy the companion of Paul on his journeys and fe (faith); and it ends like the Acts of the Apostles with St. Paul in house arrest in Rome with no mention of whether he will be killed or not and Misha is headed to New York. Misha spreads the very different message of multiculturalism and democracy (and sex). Perhaps the life is Paul is used even more extensively. (He could pay royalties to the Catholic Church.)

Alyosha-Bob - Alyosha the spiritual son in the Brothers Karamozov and Bob the friendly Protestant religion of the south with the two names. Simon-Peter?

Kind of a mixing of Joseph Heller and Tom Wolfe, very enjoyable. The grant section really shows the author's writing skill.

Jan. 10 2012 06:11 AM
Carol from Washington Heights, NYC

I read Absurdistan several months ago and the images are staying with me. The strongest image for me, and one that I have tried to describe to friends in both educational and international fields, is close to the end of the book. The Mossad set up a focus group in Maryland to gauge American knowledge of and sympathy for other countries. They asked Americans to locate Congo on the globe, and to get any level of recognition, they counted as CORRECT anyone who pointed to a place in an inverted triangular continent or subcontinent (Africa, South America, India). Hilarious, and it also captures American ignorance and a willingness to make wild allowances for it.

Jan. 09 2012 07:28 PM
Ed from Larchmont

A wonderful weaving of the last 10-20 years' major events around the world translated into the events of one narrative (for example the shooting down of the plane and many others). Also shows the globalization of the world, and most if not every country of the world is mentioned. Shows a sense of the complexity of a post-Soviet Republic.

Humorous - especially the SCROD group. (Debil - Dweezil?)

He skewers religion - probably to reflect a current attitude toward religion, sadly. Judaism (the rabbi, the Mountain Jews - Haimosaurus Rex); the Muslims (Svani/Sevo reflect Shiia/Sunni); the Orthodox (Sevo); even Catholics (the Sevo Vatican, St. Sevo).

Misha is at times a Christ figure, but believes nothing. 'Forget the religious crap,' says Nana p.193.

Misha says of Jesus 'I'm not interested in this man' (not really speaking of the Russian). This was not a response given when Jesus, the God-Man, asked 'Who do they say that I am?', a very modern response.

When Nietszche criticizes Christianity viciously you can hear his longing and loss, disappointment and resignation. When Joyce criticizes Catholicism you can hear his willful refusal to accept something that is good, even happiness.

But the people in the story, as many people today, have no knowledge of religion ('the ever-mercurial Judeo-Christian God' p.193 shows no knowledge of the Bible or of God, who is faithful).

And they have no sense of what they lack or might be missing. They seem to be oddly content with goods of this world, or completely unaware of any other goods. Very scary.

'When the Son of God returns, will he find faith on the earth?' Not in this group.

Jan. 08 2012 08:00 PM
linda from greenwich

Happy 80th birthday Umberto Eco.

Jan. 05 2012 05:24 PM
Juliette from New York

What do you make of the political unrest in Russia currently and the reactions to the most recent elections? Do you think that Misha (Or Lenny {Super Sad True Love Story} or Vladimir [Russian Debutante's Handbook] would be protesting in Moscow or profiting from it? I'm very interested to hear your thoughts on the current political climate there, especially since the parallels between Absurdistan and certain elements of the power structure of
Russia are incredibly striking at the moment, at least in spirit. Thanks for your wonderful work, I'm a huge fan.

Jan. 04 2012 10:13 PM
Siobhan from New York, NY

I heard you speak at a New Yorker event recently and you mentioned your next book is a memoir. Will you kindly tell us a bit about it? When are you expecting to publish it? What made you decide to embark on a work of non fiction instead of sharing your life experiences to whatever extent in the guise of fiction?

Jan. 04 2012 01:35 PM
Arseny from New York, NY

I've read Absurdistan and found it to be highly overrated and destructive - a variation on 'Blackface' against Russian Jews. The problem isn't that the descriptions of St.Petersburg and Russia are satirical - but that the satire is inaccurate, as if written by a clueless foreigner.
St.P is a city of contrasts, where absolute beauty is surrounded by filth and decay. Shteyngart fails to accurately represent even the latter.
If you want a satire from which you can actually gleam the intricacies of the mentality, tragedy, and the absurd in Russia - pick up "Homo Zapiens / Babylon" by Victor Pelevin.

Dec. 13 2011 03:08 PM
Myrna Greenfield from Brooklyn NY

This book could not have come at a better time! In our time of absurdity (think of Baumann & Perry), we have Absurdistan, a rollicking, scornful wide angle view of the world. He misses nothing, this Shteyngart, even a sneak peek at himself ( funnier than other parts of the work). I am at the end, and hate to leave this pathetic, empathic Vainberg, who is anything but vain. I love this book, the opposite end of the arc of the rainbow to Orwell.

Dec. 12 2011 01:02 PM
SALLY MORROW from Ottawa Canada

I look forward to January 10th. I have read Absurdistan - one of the strangest books ever but haunting.

Dec. 09 2011 02:11 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.