Gary Shteyngart's satirical 2002 best seller, The Russian Debutante's Handbook, charted the travails of a transparently autobiographical hero named Vladimir Girshkin: he emigrates to the U.S. from Leningrad in 1978, just like Shteyngart did, and spends the balance of his life failing to assimilate. Shteyngart ups the ante in his new novel, Absurdistan (Random House). Girshkin returns in a cameo, but his alter ego status is challenged by two characters. The antihero, Misha Vainberg, fancies himself a bit of a holy fool. The son of a Russian oligarch/gangster, he's filthy rich and preposterously fat, and by the time he returns to Russia after an American education he's been practically emasculated by the collision of cultures: the book is full of references to his pendulous breasts and his poor scarred khui, mutilated in a botched Brooklyn bris. The plot is beside the point, involving Misha's attempts to escape first Russia and later the embattled Caspian Sea nation-state of Absurdistan and return to the U.S., where his ghetto-fabulous girlfriend has taken up with her creative-writing professor, a pretentious, opportunistic Russian novelist named, ahem, Jerry Shteynfarb. How you respond to the book will depend largely on your affection for the peculiar brand of narcissistic self-loathing that's becoming Shteyngart's stock-in-trade. Cacophonous, slapstick, a whirlwind of mostly pitch-perfect gibes at the capitalist lunacy of the post-Soviet, pre-9/11 world, Absurdistan isn't going to spark any epiphanies about the human condition. It's a three-fisted, polysyllabic, so-very-meta assault on the niceties of fictional discourse that left me frustrated and winded, but still eager to see where Shteyngart goes next. Tue 5/9, 7 PM, Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln, 773-293-2665. Wed 5/10, 7:30 PM, Barbara's Bookstore, 1100 Lake, Oak Park, 708-848-9140.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marion Ettlinger.