A rare occurrence of QB agreeing with the ideas of James Wood

I wanted to love Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan. Really, I did. I’ve got a mess of thoughts in my head about how literary critics unfairly promote tragedy over comedy, and how the comedies that critics even to deign to appreciate are the high-toned, dryly witty, meticulously constructed things by midcentury British novelists that tend to put me to sleep. Part of the reason Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, Kathy Acker, David Markson, Angela Carter, and the rest of the postmodern gang aren’t taken as seriously as, say, Evelyn Waugh and Anita Brookner, is because their senses of humor are more ostentatious, rambunctious, more given to slapstick and whirlwind delights and whimsy than the brittle, drawing-room-comedy heirs of (the admittedly very funny) Jane Austen. (Okay, okay–Carter’s prose style is exquisite and luxurious, sometimes to the point of preciousness, but that’s to better conceal her grotesque, perverse, steamy content.)

Say what you will about Shteyngart, he doesn’t give a damn about taste, and his characters are endearingly sloppy and juicy. So, I expected a Rabelaisian delight, and it seemed from reviews that Shteyngart had the goods. Certainly, he’s influenced by a writer–Mordecai Richler–who had the goods in this regard. (Richler also, alas, has the unfocused narrative structures and unfinished feel that mars Shteyngart’s work as well.) I wanted to like The Russian Debutante’s Handbook more than I did–I quit it about 150 pages in–and I thought Absurdistan, from a more mature Shteyngart, would be right up my alley.

Alas, I finished Absurdistan with a sigh of relief rather than of exaltation. Gary Sernovitz gets at why Absurdistan is a failure:

When you have two girlfriends, John Madden once said, you have none. Madden, the football commentator, was talking about quarterbacks. If neither of a team’s quarterbacks is good enough to end the debate on which one should play, then the team doesn’t have a player fit for the job. So, too, if a man can’t decide between two women, neither is the right one for him. Misha Vainberg, the narrator of Gary Shteyngart’s second novel, Absurdistan, has two girlfriends: Rouenna in the Bronx and Nana in the fictional Central Asian country of Absurdsvani. This is not a problem for Misha, but it is a problem for Absurdistan. Misha’s frequent, fervent declarations of love for both women make him hard to believe about either one.

Absurdistan has bigger problems, though. Impressively imagined, it recreates the insidiousness, spectacle, and variety of contemporary American and global culture. Yet it suffers deeply from Shteyngart’s disregard for selection and consequence in his jokes, incidents, and characters, especially Misha himself. John Madden might also have said that when you have two voices, you have none, and Misha Vainberg has seven or eight. Innocent, sophisticated, American, Russian, skeptical, ironical, lyrical, satirical, postmodern, Dostoevskian, Rothian—his voice is many things, except convincing.

Shteyngart’s use of characterization was my major problem with Absurdistan. It’s not that I didn’t like Misha–sometimes I did, sometimes I found him repulsive and infantile–but that I believed in him only as a conceit, and not as a character. Since the novel is a first-person tale told by Misha to us, the read quickly became wearying–as with Shteyngart’s first novel, I sometimes set Absurdistan aside for weeks at a time out of sheer exhaustion. Sernovitz nails the writer’s character problem:

Shteyngart’s insatiable appetite also consumes the vitality of his characters. He can bring a character off the page, at least initially. And when he writes with genuine pathos—as in the case of Sakha the Democrat, an Absurdi, or Lyuba, Misha’s twenty-one-year-old stepmother—he saves them from caricature. Sakha and Lyuba are the most affecting characters in the book, but their time on the page is short. This is not a coincidence. The more Shteyngart writes about someone—whether it’s Rouenna, Nana, Nana’s father, Alyosha-Bob (Misha’s best friend)—the less particular that character becomes. Shteyngart seems to want to paint his characters with thick oil paint, adding impasto depth with each pass of the brush, but Absurdistan reads as if he painted with turpentine.

All of that is doubly true for Misha. The more time we spend with him (and, at over 330 pages, it feels like forever), the more of his clashing voices we hear, and the multiplicity means that we never quite know which one is the real Misha Vainberg. The more of the story he tells, the less we actually know about him. Every character–hell, every flesh-and-blood person–has inconsistencies, but Misha never felt like a coherent, defined character.

Go read the whole thing.

(Via Maud Newton.)

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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