Written by Gary Shteyngart.
Well, I’ve finally made the plunge and put up a book review, but take this however you want — I didn’t even finish reading the book I’m reviewing. Now, I’m sure that’s some violation of some book critic code, but luckily, I’m not a real critic, and it’s my blog, so I’m going to do what I want. That is one difference between books and other media — if a movie sucks, it’s only two hours of your life — it’s a TV show sucks, an hour or less. A book, though, is a larger commitment, and if I don’t like what I’ve read and I can’t see it getting better, I’m not gonna have the motivation to finish it.
I got through about 150 pages of Absurdistan, a critical darling from 2006, before I gave up. As a fan of satire, I had been excited to read it for some time — and the reviews I read combined with the plot (the adventures of a fat, rich Russian heir in former Soviet countries) made it seem like it would be right up my alley. Well, it wasn’t. It’s not that the book is poorly written — on the contrary, you can see that author Gary Shteyngart has talent, and that makes it all the more disappointing.
Absurdistan is the story of Misha Vainberg, the rich, fat, Jewish son of the 1,238th-richest man in Russia. Right there, you can get an idea of what the book is like. 1238th — isn’t that cute? Isn’t that precious and clever and wonderful? Misha’s father killed a man in the U.S. and now he cannot re-enter the States to get back to his love, an overweight, mixed-race stripper from the Bronx named Rouenna who has pretty much the only amusing lines in the book. Misha was the victim of a botched circumcision as a teenager and so as a result, his penis receives the most character development of anything.
You can see promise in the book — the sentence structure is interesting, the prose is clean, there is a large amount of creativity present — but what I read was all style and very little substance. His characters are all quirks and no heart — yes, it’s amusing that a fat Russian would fall in love with a fat stripper from the Bronx. But that’s it — that’s the whole joke. For a supposed satire, it’s really not satirizing anything — I mean, fat people? Materialism? There’s not a deeper meaning that I could see here, and slogging through the pages with a fairly unlikable character who doesn’t really do anything isn’t worthwhile otherwise.
The last straw for me was Shteyngart inserting a facsimile of himself as a character, a rival for Rouenna’s love — I mean, really, making yourself a character? On top of that, his character has become notable for writing a book called “The Russian Arriviste’s Handjob” — Shteyngart’s first real-life book was called “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.” You see what he did there? He changed Handbook to Handjob!! Handjob!!! That’s hilarious!!
I guess I can understand why some people loved Absurdistan — it’s just not a book for everyone. If Shteyngart’s humor and style work on you, you’ll like it, but it was a total loss for me. I didn’t find it clever or amusing, and I have absolutely no need to finish the rest of the book.