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.
Monday, August 14th, 2006
This morning I started Look at Me by Jennifer Egan, author of The Keep. I'm happy to say it is living up to my expectations so far -- beautiful prose and character development with occasional surprising insights.
Thursday, August 31st, 2006
I started Gary Shteyngart's The Russian Debutante's Handbook this morning and am digging it. The voice is very similar to Shteyngart's voice in Absurdistan, and I am reacting to it in the same familiar way.
The Russian Debutante's Handbook: not at all subtle, occasionally obnoxious. But there are moments that just sing. I think Absurdistan was the same way; but maybe Shteyngart is getting better at the subtlety, since I don't remember being as annoyed by his roughness when I was reading that.
Friday, September first, 2006
I'm feeling a lot of kinship with Vladimir Girshkin in The Russian Debutante's Handbook. The story is reading kind of like a fantasy of mine from my younger days, combined with reflections I've been thinking about lately to do with creative effort and getting by -- sorry about the extreme incoherence, it's all sort of impressionistic at this point.
I'm wondering about the correct pronunciation of Volodya -- I think it must be "Vo-LOD-ya" but frequently when my eye lights on it, I hear "Vo-lo-DYE-a". A similar question applies to Stolovaya -- whether the accent is on LO or on VAY.
Shteyngart has the best-ever jacket photo on this book.
Sunday, September third, 2006
So in Chapter 25 of The Russian Debutante's Handbook, Vladimir is looking at Morgan's wall. He sees a poster of The Boot, which is the only remaining bit of a gargantuan statue of Stalin which was destroyed after the republic of Stolovaya broke away from the USSR. "Beneath it, a Stolovan slogan: 'Graždanku! Otporim vsyechi Stalinski çudoviši!' Vladimir could never be sure of the funny Stolovan language, but translated into normal Russian this could be an exhortation along the lines of 'Citizens! Let us take the ax to all of Stalin's monstrosities!'" -- the meaning of this is not exactly clear to me. Stolovan is a Slavic language which Shteyngart has invented. Is the quoted phrase correct Russian which translates as given, and Volodya is speculating that the words may have different idiomatic meanings in Stolovan? Or is the grammar not-quite-Russian and the speculation is V. trying to figure out how to run the words together? It's a little hard for me to figure out how V. would be able to come up with that translation but not to be sure it was an accurate one.
Update: My esteemed colleague LanguageHat (of LanguageHat.com) comes bearing enlightenment:
It's certainly not Russian [he says], and I doubt it's some obscure Slavic language; it's presumably Shteyngart's invention. (For one thing, "grazhdanku" would be the accusative singular of the feminine form of 'citizen' in Russian, and it wouldn't be a plural nominative in any Slavic I've ever heard of.) "Stalinskie chudovishchi" would be 'Stalin's monsters' in Russian, so that's where that comes from; in Russian, otpor is 'repulse, rebuff,' and otporot' is either 'to rip off' or 'to flog, thrash' (though it also means 'to fuck' in slang), but there is no verb otporit'.
Also he confirms that I was right in my hunches about pronunciation.
Monday, September 4th, 2006
The ending of The Russian Debutante's Handbook does not disappoint -- the last hundred pages are masterful -- I could not tear myself away. And look at this epigram from the final pages of the novel:
Somehow, Cleveland has survived, with her gray banner unfurled -- the banner of Archangelsk and Detroit, of Kharkov and Liverpool -- the banner of men and women who would settle the most ignominious parts of the earth, and there, with the hubris born neither of faith nor ideology but biology and longing, bring into the world their whimpering replacements.
Tuesday, July 27th, 2010
Wow, it seems like all of my favorite young novelists are releasing new books all of a sudden! Today I come to find out (via NPR's The Takeaway) that Gary Shteyngart has a new book coming out, set in a near-future dystopia in NYC. Here is his interview from this morning:
On Friday, Shteyngart's release party is happening at Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene. I am trying to figure out if I can make it over there...
Saturday, July 31st, 2010
I went to Brooklyn yesterday evening to hear Gary Shteyngart reading from Super Sad True Love Story (about which more later -- it looks from the first pages and from the portion he read like it is going to be a magnificent book) at Greenlight Books, which turns out to be a lovely independent book shop in Fort Greene... I got there early enough to take the train to Grand Army Plaza and walk through Prospect Heights, and by serendipity discovered a second bookshop that I'm adding to my list of destinations, which is Unnameable Books.
The reading was packed -- easily 75 people were there, filling up the seating area, spilling onto the floor and into the aisles of the shop. One of the most fun readings I can remember. I met up with Dave and Greg, and went out for dinner with them afterwards. Got my book inscribed. (And by a funny coincidence, I bought an inscribed book at Unnameable Books, a little booklet of poetry by José Pubén -- it is signed "with brotherly amity" to Adela Muñoz.)
I'm eating up Super Sad True Love Story.... A couple of reactions to it, but first a brief passage that I think illustrates what a great rush reading this book is. (i.e. if you don't like this, don't bother with the book, and vice versa.)
My äppärät pinged.
CrisisNet: DOLLAR LOSES OVER 3% IN LONDON TRADING TO FINISH AT HISTORIC LOW OF 1€ = $8.64 IN ADVANCE OF CHINESE CENTRAL BANKER ARRIVAL U.S.; LIBOR RATE FALLS 57 BASIS POINTS; DOLLAR LOWER BY 2.3% AGAINST YUAN AT 1¥* = $4.90
I really needed to figure out what this LIBOR thing was and why it was falling by fifty-seven basis points. But, honestly, how little I cared about all these difficult economic details! How desperately I wanted to forsake these facts, to open a smelly book or to go down on a pretty young girl instead. Why couldn't I have been born to a better world?
I can honestly see how I could go either way about this -- it could seem self-indulgent and silly; but instead I'm feeling for Lenny, caring about his histrionic soliloquies. Rayyan Al-Shawaf at The Millions complains that Shteyngart's broad satire produces one-dimensional, artificial characters -- but to be honest that's sort of what I'm expecting from Shteyngart based on Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante's Handbook -- it's a feature, not a bug.
Possibly of interest in this connection, I'm seeing some points of connection between this book and A Visit From the Goon Squad -- a hugely different book, and one comparatively much more concerned with drawing characters than with biting social satire. It's possible I'm making this up -- but there seems to be a common theme between the two of them. In both books authentic communication is dying, its place being taken over by superficial, thoughtlessly immediate texting.
* (No explanation at this point in the text, why ¥ is being used as a symbol for Yuan instead of 元. Perhaps just sloppy copy-editing...)
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