Absurdistan is the sort of novel that, if mishandled, could make for a truly fabulous mess. As in Gary Shteyngart’s debut, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, we find ourselves immersed in a fictitious post-Soviet nation, this one bearing a striking resemblance to war-torn Afghanistan. What makes Absurdistan different from his debut is that Mr. Shteyngart has managed to craft the first truly effective satire of the 21st century—one that hits the right cultural and political chords without coming off as sanctimonious or pedantic. It’s a testament to his light touch that he does this while also orchestrating a plausible subplot about the whale-sized Russian narrator’s passion for a foul-mouthed New York girl and his conflicting remembrances of a murdered father who may or may not have molested him as a child. Jarring and disjointed? Perhaps. But it just might be that this strange hybrid of comedy and violence is the only appropriate response to the global shitstorm it’s meant to mirror.
The novel’s anti-hero is Misha Vainberg, an obscenely fat and rich Russian who is, by his own reckoning, a “holy fool” out of Dostoyevsky. After earning a degree in multicultural studies in the United States, Vainberg moves to Manhattan and falls madly in love with the ghetto-chic Rouenna, hailing from the South Bronx, with a background that is “half Puerto Rican and half German. And half Mexican and Irish.” The only problem is that he can’t seem to score an American visa, owing to the sticky fact that his Russian father killed an American businessman some years back. And so our portly protagonist finds himself back in the wasteland of Putin, beseeching the I.N.S. to allow him re-entry. The promise of a forged Belgian passport brings him to the imaginary nation of Absurdistan, a country swiftly descending into a civil war. The conflict—between two rival Christian tribes, the Sevo and the Svanï—is being helped along by a healthy smattering of U.S. contractors of the Halliburton/K.B.R. variety.
Unable to leave the country and holed up in the temporary safety of the Hyatt Hotel, Misha struggles gallantly to make sense of the mess—whether the Sevo are evil, why the local hookers offer 30 percent discounts to employees of “Golly Burton,” and the slippery meaning of Ukrainian mercenaries on the hotel roof shelling the outskirts of the city. Meanwhile, Rouenna e-mails to say that she’s leaving him for Russian expat author Jerry Shteynfarb, author of The Russian Arriviste’s Hand Job. Heartbroken, Misha falls in love with Nana Nanabragovna, the daughter of the man at the helm of a radical Sevo political party. Drawn in by the rhetorical lure of his prospective father-in-law, Misha takes a job as Minister of Multicultural Affairs, accepting a mandate to appeal to the Jewish population of Israel to aid Absurdistan’s oppressed minorities.
There’s a heart hidden beneath the over-the-top satire. Misha Vainberg could be merely ridiculous—he’s a 325-pound post-Communist atheistic Russian Jew with a penchant for quoting American gangsta rap—but we end up actually sympathizing with the poor schmuck. Absurdistan is really two books—a love story mashed up with a thinly veiled attack on Dubya, Halliburton and war for oil—and Mr. Shteyngart juggles them adeptly without veering off into cartoon high jinks. Eager to make money and protect his own hide, Misha isn’t a saint or a moralist, and it’s this basic humanity that saves Absurdistan from being a comedic farce strung together from the table scraps of Chomsky and Vidal. The novel spotlights the logical extremes of the 21st century without issuing any tiresome call to arms. It’s up to you whether you’d like to change the world—or just chuckle guiltily at its prolific idiocy.
In the imaginary nation of Absurdistan, populated with a cast of very plausible politicos and insiders, Mr. Shteyngart sets in motion a plot that makes the wildest accusations of Michael Moore seem like pussyfooting understatements. Absurdistan might not exist, but something like it certainly resides in the idle fantasies of America’s neocons and foreign-policy cowboys. It’s part nation-state and part stage set for the unveiling of late capitalism’s gushing wet dreams—a country where the dollar’s primacy crushes any petty concern for conscience and the sanctity of human life. “The Americans have really been helping us out,” says one local democrat. “Free use of the fax machines after nine p.m., discounted Hellmann’s mayonnaise from the commissary, five thousand free copies of An American Life by Ronald Reagan.” It’s what the world would look like if no one were watching and global affairs were managed with all the discretion and tact of Lindsay Lohan. When Absurdistan’s vaunted oil reserves turn out to be a sham, the savvy American politicos don’t pack their bags and head back to Texas—they incite a bit of internecine bloodshed in the hope of scoring fat, no-bid peacekeeping contracts from the Department of Defense.
The political satire is vicious, but it’s the author’s digressions on Judaism that will end up ruffling the most feathers. Misha Vainberg’s disdain for the Orthodox community, and his own embrace of an atheistic Jewish identity, seem designed to incite rabbinical frowns in Mr. Shteyngart’s own Brooklyn and beyond. Likewise Misha’s outline for the Institute for Caspian Holocaust Studies, a snarky satire-within-a-satire about the impulse to market and promote Holocaust suffering as if it were a cheeseburger or a can of soda:
“The Holocaust, when harnessed properly as a source of guilt, shame, and victimhood, can serve as a remarkable tool for Jewish community. The problem is the oversaturation of the Holocaust brand in media and academe, creating the need for a fresh, vibrant, and sexy (yes, sexy—let’s keep our eyes on the prize) approach to the mother of all genocides.”
It’s good to know that a well-wrought joke can still elicit shock and awe.
The boiling-over lunacy of Absurdistan isn’t far removed from what even a cursory peek at a newspaper reveals. “‘Think Bosnia’ became everyone’s motto,” explains one of the book’s insiders, a Mossad agent masquerading as a good ol’ boy from Texas. “‘How can we make this place more like Bosnia?’ I mean, you’ve got to hand it to Halliburton. If Joseph Heller were still alive, they’d probably ask him to be on their board.”
The novel asks, in the baldest terms, whether American rapacity is so great that ethnic turmoil and bloodshed are little more than ideological smokescreens meant to cover an underlying thirst for petroleum, wealth and government contracts. After Absurdistan’s deft barrage of serious laughter, you won’t have to be a card-carrying leftist to answer with a resounding maybe.
Scott Indrisek is the New York editor of Anthem.