The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Monday, October 23, 2006


A wistful farewell to pleasure reading came with my completion of Gary Shteyngart's novel ABSURDISTAN, which I finished this weekend. Things are crazy busy around our house (we are negotiating for "free time" to complete the ironing or fix the drain plug!) with the two children and four jobs between us, and I'll be leading my graduate students in a reading of ULYSSES over the next month, so I realized that there's no more leisure novels until after finals. Sigh. There's always the NEW YORKER.

Where the last novel I read (Claire Messud's THE EMPEROR'S CHILDREN) was relentlessly realist and earnest, ABSURDISTAN is neither. It's the story of Misha Vainberg, the morbidly obese son of an assassinated Russian oligarch, educated at "Accidental College" (a funny version of Oberlin, Shteyngart's own school) and in love with a Bronx homegirl named Rouenna. The plot is a shaggy-dog story: after his father kills an Oklahoma businessman, Misha's US visa is revoked and he's forced to remain in Russia. He travels to "Absurdistan," a version of one of those war-torn ex-Soviet republics like Chechnya or Azerbaijan, where he buys a Belgian passport and tries to use that to get to the US, but turmoil in Absurdistan keeps him there.

The plot is messy and increasingly pointless and tedious near the end, but I'm not sure that Shteyngart cares all that much. The novel rests on Vainberg, a hapless hero (his actions are "in vain") who falls a bit into the freaks-of-literature category with Ignatius J. Reilly and Oskar Matzerath. He's an innocent, buffeted about by circumstances beyond his control. Shteyngart also draws upon Russian literature--Gogol and others--in the creation of Vainberg, but he's not melancholic like a standard Russian hero. There's also a lot of Philip Roth in there. A strange combination. It's an exuberant book, full of puns and crude jokes and a running attack on Halliburton/KBR; it just didn't hold together for me.


  • At 3:40 PM, Blogger zp said…

    I like The Russian Debutante Handbook; yet another exception to my belief that I don't like contemporary fiction. It was too long too, but in a good way.

    Speaking of short pithy reading one might have the time for - do you read Fish in the NYT? I've been getting it personally emailed to me (no Times Select) and I find it invigorating.

    As for the ironing, I swear, I love the Laundry Factory in Shadyside (where we do not live). Laundry pick up, delivery, dry cleaning, folding and ironing. My husband says its run by a nice team of lesbian businesswomen, so that's a good thing too, although I have no idea if it's true.


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