Saturday, July 24, 2010

"Absurdistan" isn't Afghanistan, Much Funnier

Is that a point? Yes, maybe. Especially when you consider, in a satirical sense, Absurdistan is a kind of Afghanistan-Iraq composite, with something of an antithetical NeverNeverLand to it, as well. But, not to needlessly obfuscate my thoughts on the subject further, I think even that notion is somewhat beside the point in Gary Shteyngart's 2006 novel, "Absurdistan."

Absurdistan isn't a Middle Eastern country necessarily, even if geographically-speaking that's its definitively expressed location. It's the antithetical USofA, a place dependent on an American monetary infusion of some sort, no matter what cynical form that might take (e.g. Halliburton or "Golly Burton" as garbled by Absurdi denizens). Seeming to say: American capital justifies the means in any country left behind by its ostensible inutility, its lack of things to sell. Concomitant or at least tangential to that, then, is: what is the relevance of being a part of a discrete cultural subgroup in the expanding globalized world of commerce and so forth? This relates to the novel's protagonist, Misha Vainberg, with respect to his decidedly secular take on Judaism, a distinction that nevertheless follows him throughout the story. So, to what extent, if any, does his Judaism matter, or anyone's whatever?

And for semi-immediate disclosure's sake, I was very amused by this novel and particularly the happenstance occurrences that near-ceaselessly thwart Misha Vainberg, a fat intellectual both cloddish and refined, in the tradition of an Ignatius J. Reilly of "A Confederacy of Dunces." I'm an unabashed fan of the slobs of literature. I can say that beyond any doubt.

Andrew Seal, as coincidence would have it, wrote that he's in contrast to me not very impressed with Shteyngart's work. In a recent post on his blog, Blographia Literaria, Seal expresses some of his frustration with Shteygart's authorial stylistic tendencies, among other things (in particular an essay of Shteygart's discoursing on the technological shift some fear threatens book reading). And I have to admit, much as I enjoyed "Absurdistan" and look forward to Shteyngart's new novel, "Super Sad True Love Story," there's a great deal of merit to what Seal finds irksome about him.

It has become trendy in contemporary fiction to insert quasi-malapropisms (a trend probably started by George Saunders, who succeeds with them where others do not largely because of how clever/on the mark his tend to be, e.g. from Saunders' short story "Sea Oak" -- "None of us ever kisses anyone or shows his penis except Sonny Vance, who does both, because he's saving up to buy a FaxIt franchise." Curiously, that almost seems funnier out of context.) "FaxIt" very likely is a spin on FedEx, which also gets mentioned by name in the story , along with numerous other fictional franchise-type restaurants and so forth, ostensibly meant to satirize the "quik-speak" -- um, my term? -- of contemporary global franchise-based consumerism.

Notwithstanding, similar expressions of Shteyngart's invention, Seal cites his use of "iKindle" and, yes, I myself would cite "Accidental College," "Golly Burton" and "St. Leninsburg" of "Absurdistan" (possibly "Absurdistan," too, though that's one I especially like) note, can be -- well -- a little bit much? Can feel, as Seal wrote in response to a question I asked him, "like a comedian who's constantly asking his audience if they'd like to hear a joke." And then, to piggyback that analogy, repeating the joke ad nauseam just to be certain that the audience hears it despite their silence, or maybe with a few coughs here and there.

But for all his writing's flaws, legitimate though they may be, I'd say Shteyngart proves himself to be a superior sort of writer. Because despite all of his flaws, I came away feeling like my reading of "Absurdistan" wasn't forced and I was legitimately interested throughout / desirous of reading more. And for all his misses at humor, there seemed to be countless corresponding hits.

I submit: Vainberg's ludicrous wealth by inheritance, love of excess, and his penchant for rap, which he unselfconsciously engages in with his friend, Alyosha-Bob, whenever the mood strikes him. Vainberg's relationship with his "manservant," Timofey, whom he treats in a hilariously uncivil fashion but still seems to care for genuinely. The long suffering Larry Zartarian, manager of the Park Hyatt Svani City, who is constantly at the mercy of his mother's chiding and physical abuse. The general comedic repetition of the phrase, "The Jewish people have a long and peaceful history in our land. They are our brothers, and whoever is their enemy is our enemy also. When you are in Absurdsvani, my mother will be your mother, my wife your sister, and you will always find water in my well to drink," by most every new Absurdi Vainberg encounters.

The question I'll end on is, what does any of cultural background matter to Misha Vainberg? I found this line of thought and philosophizing to be Shteyngart's strongest. If Vainberg's final decision is any indication, Jewishness or any -ness cannot come before an individual's own liberty and happiness. Certainly it's up for the individual to decide what responsibility is owed to the community in which he or she has been raised, but not if that means trapping said individual by force and holding him or her to that standard without any of their own say so. Any discrete subgroup that would do that deserves not to last beyond the next generation. And maybe that's true.

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