Tuesday, May 16th, 2006
This weekend I finished Absurdistan, by Gary Shteyngart. This book is derivative -- I can hear bits of at least Pynchon, Vonnegut, and Heller in Shteyngart's style -- and its own spark of original genius as well. It is sort of a Catch-22 updated for the invasion of Iraq. What really struck me about it was, it was about the first book I've ever read that struck me as a generational anthem for my specific age group -- Shteyngart is two years younger than me as are his narrator and central characters -- I could see myself and the people I went to school with in the situations of the book, absurd though they were.
I bit into the sturgeon kebab, filling my mouth with both the crisp burnt edges and the smooth mealy interior. My body trembled inside my leviathan Puma tracksuit, my heroic gut spinning counter-clockwise, my two-scoop breasts slapping against each other.
Misha's descriptions of food and of his obesity work as metaphor on a number of levels -- the only one I can really express is the most obvious surface symbolism of greed and rapine, but trust me that there is a lot more than that going on under the surface. And a bonus quote for the Mineshaft crowd (to whom I very enthusiastically recommend this): when Dror is describing the focus group they held to see if they could get the American public interested in an invasion of Absurdisvanї, he says,
We showed pictures of Absurdis, Congolese, and Indonesians at play, picking fruits, frying goats, and so on. More problems. The Congolese are clearly black, so that strikes a chord with all respondents. Like them or not, you got plenty of blacks in America. The Indonesians have funny eyes, so they're Asian. Probably work hard and raise dutiful children. Good for them. Then you get the Absurdis. They're sort of dark, but not really black. They look a little Indonesian, but they've got round eyes. Are they Arabs? Italians? Persians? We finally settled on "taller Mexicans," which is another way of saying we're fucked.
Something notable: the book centers on "the second week of September 2001", but the famous events of that week are never mentioned.
On the ride home I read some of Cat's Cradle, and was quickly reminded of what an extraordinary book it is. I must have read it through 20 times between the ages of 14 and 19, I know much of it by heart. One of the central wampeters of my karass.
Update: Also look at this essay of Shteyngart's, on reading Philip Roth and particularly Portnoy's Complaint. A fine piece.