Absurdistan, satire, Nabokov, The Sopranos, and other wide-ranging thoughts following a Shteyngart event

Gary Shteyngart wrote his first satire — of the Torah — at eleven. “‘Exodus’ became ‘Sexodus,'” he told Katherine Lanpher in a live interview at the Union Square Barnes & Noble last month. “Being a nerd, I typed it up on a giant scroll.”

Shteyngart was enrolled in Hebrew school at the time; his instructors, from the sound of it, were even less impressed by his revisionist effort than Mark Twain’s Sunday School teacher was with his proposed biography of Satan.

Lanpher started off the talk by observing that the protagonist of Shteyngart’s Absurdistan, Misha Vainberg, insults just about everyone imaginable in the course of the novel.

Shteyngart smiled. “Satire flourishes very well when evil meets stupidity,” he said. (Oddly, Dick Cheney’s name came up in the very next sentence.)

Absurdistan is a multilayered novel. Since its author was born in Leningrad and drilled on the Russian classics even after moving to the States as a boy, many of those layers may be invisible to the American reader (read: me) who’s unacquainted with, for instance, Goncharov’s Oblomov. I’m sympathetic to Western reviewers who’ve trotted out references to the usual Russian greats. And I’d join the legions pointing to the influence of Nabokov.

As much as Nabokov, though, I thought of The Sopranos as I read. Shteyngart has called the HBO series “the best novel I’ve read in a long time.” “It’s amazing,” he told Dave Weich of Powell’s. “It’s like Flaubert or something.”

You’re introduced to the character of the pig-maker and the this and the that and the mayor…. You get an entire society. It’s like a nineteenth century novel, except it’s obviously a television series.

Nobody writes with that kind of scope anymore. You could say Eugenides and Franzen do something like that, but to me The Sopranos has been the most important cultural monument of the last decade.

Shteyngart’s Misha is a gangster’s son. Like The Sopranos’ Anthony Jr., he’s greedy, amoral and self-pitying. He’s girl-crazy, yet emasculated. We’re not talking your garden-variety, vomiting-in-the-parking-lot- after-failing-to-whack-your-uncle kind of emasculation, either. To please his dad, Misha, on his way to college, submits to a very tardy circumcision at the hands of some fervent Hassidim. The operation does not go well.

Like all good American consumers, Misha is concerned almost exclusively with his own comfort. In many ways he’s loathsome. But he’s still sympathetic.

The scope of Absurdistan is, of course, much broader than that of the HBO series. The book is also more overtly political, and far more, well, absurd. When Misha tries to honor his father, he doesn’t just get hauled off to some police station in New Jersey; he becomes partly responsible for the demise of a small, oil-rich nation mired in a civil war.

For me, it’s this breadth and full-tilt lampoonery, more than anything else, that conjures up the Russian masters.

In his talk with Lanpher, though, Shteyngart emphasized that parts of the book are based on actual experiences.

On a trip to Azerbaijan, all the hookers really did love Halliburton employees. One enterprising soul followed Shteyngart around all day, begging to be allowed to kidnap him and extort the ransom from his publisher. Another guy initiated a very slow mugging by telling Shteyngart, “You look like a big Jew.”

“Yes,” Shteyngart assured him. “I am a big Jew.”

“While you are here,” the fellow said, “my mother will be your mother, and my sister will be your sister…. And our mother is in the hospital and needs money for an operation.” (Well, something like that. I didn’t take very good notes, but you can and should listen to Shteyngart’s entertaining performance here. He raps, and says his publisher pays him in kebabs.) Then the actual taking of money by force occurred.

Shteyngart’s interest in politically inspired fiction extends way back to his childhood, when his grandmother commissioned his first book. It centered on “a huge political disagreement between Lenin and a goose.” Everything turned out fine in the end, though. “Lenin ate the goose.”

Back then Lenin was Shteyngart’s “favorite guy”; later, Reagan was.

Nowadays, Shteyngart says, he’s scared for the U.S. “I grew up in one failed empire,” he told Lanpher, “And now I’m living in….” He trailed off. “Well, there are steps we could take, but….” He trailed off again. You can read more of his thoughts about the current state of things in that Powell’s interview I mentioned above.


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