Tuesday, March 9, 2010


by Gary Shteyngart

I know there is a profound message embedded in this critically acclaimed satire, but I found it hard to locate in the midst of all the bizarre plot twists and over the top lunacy of the characters. In a way, Absurdistan reminded me of John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces, but not as well done. Both books have protagonists who are bumbling to the point of pathetic. Both have large casts of supporting characters that zip into and out of the narrative, sometimes at a dizzying rate of speed. Both story lines have plot twists that are, well, absurd, but in Absurdistan they veer too often into the unbelievable. ("Oh come on. That would never happen.") I know with this style of book, believability may not be the primary goal. However, when it gets too weird, it is distracting.

All this sniping is not to say that Absurdistan does not have something to offer. One cannot read it and not reconsider how the United States is viewed by other nations, especially ones that were once part of the Soviet Union. As we watch Misha struggle to return to the United States, even as he acknowledges the injustices present in our society, we see that (with all our flaws) we are still a beacon of hope for oppressed people on the other side of the world. This is still a place where many people want to be, and for good reason. Our freedoms should never be taken for granted. However, Absurdistan also makes the point that the US tends to put on the "champion of the oppressed" hat when it is convenient for us or shores up our own ideology, and we turn our heads when it is not convenient to fight for the underdog. Sad, but all too often, true.

This was one of those books that I really wanted to like. Shteyngart is making a sincere effort to get us to think about US policy and how that policy affects real people on the ground, without being preachy and "in your face." I'm all for using humor to make a point in a non-threatening way. He is to be commended for the effort. However, I just found the slapstick zaniness wearing - it got in the way of what was really going on with the characters.

Reverent Reader


At 3/9/10, 10:35 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

This one has been on my list for a while. Based on your comments, I'm in no hurry.



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