When you have two girlfriends, John Madden once said, you have none. Madden, the football commentator, was talking about quarterbacks. If neither of a team’s quarterbacks is good enough to end the debate on which one should play, then the team doesn’t have a player fit for the job. So, too, if a man can’t decide between two women, neither is the right one for him. Misha Vainberg, the narrator of Gary Shteyngart’s second novel, Absurdistan, has two girlfriends: Rouenna in the Bronx and Nana in the fictional Central Asian country of Absurdsvanï. This is not a problem for Misha, but it is a problem for Absurdistan. Misha’s frequent, fervent declarations of love for both women make him hard to believe about either one.
Absurdistan has bigger problems, though. Impressively imagined, it recreates the insidiousness, spectacle, and variety of contemporary American and global culture. Yet it suffers deeply from Shteyngart’s disregard for selection and consequence in his jokes, incidents, and characters, especially Misha himself. John Madden might also have said that when you have two voices, you have none, and Misha Vainberg has seven or eight. Innocent, sophisticated, American, Russian, skeptical, ironical, lyrical, satirical, postmodern, Dostoevskian, Rothian—his voice is many things, except convincing.
Misha is an “incorrigible fatso,” the orphaned son of a Russian-Jewish gangster-businessman, the product of a Leningrad childhood, and a veteran of adult pleasures in New York. Barred from the United States after his father murdered an Oklahoma businessman, Misha attempts to return to New York—and to Rouenna—from St. Petersburg by buying a black-market Belgian passport in Absurdsvanï. Once in Absurdsvanï (otherwise known as Absurdistan and in outline resembling Kazakhstan), Misha finds himself stuck among corrupt moronic locals, venal moronic foreigners, and lots of plot.
In a 1937 letter from Thomas Wolfe to F. Scott Fitzgerald, collected in The Crack-Up, Wolfe hotly responded to some (unreproduced) criticism of Fitzgerald’s:
Just remember that although Madame Bovary in your opinion may be a great book, Tristram Shandy is indubitably a great book, and that it is great for quite different reasons. It is great because it boils and pours—for the unselected quality of its selection. You say that the great writer like Flaubert has consciously left out the stuff that Bill or Joe will come along presently and put in. Well, don’t forget, Scott, that a great writer is not only a leaver-outer but also a putter-inner, and that Shakespeare and Cervantes and Dostoevsky were great putter-inners—greater putter-inners, in fact, than taker-outers and will be remembered for what they put in—remembered, I venture to say, as long as Monsieur Flaubert will be remembered for what he left out.
Wolfe’s boiling and pouring captures the greatness that is in Absurdistan, in its writing and its scope. Shteyngart writes with precision and verve, from and for all the senses, especially about tastes and smells: “I let the wedges chill against my inflamed gums, then breathed in the cantaloupe, which coated my throat with orange lather.” Sex, earthiness, obscenity, the streets—all that is conventionally vulgar—bring out the best in Shteyngart, as when Misha imagines returning to the Bronx:
I pass like a fat beam of light through dollar stores selling T-shirts from the eighties and fake Rocawear sweatpants, through the brown hulks of housing projects warning operation clean halls and trespassers subject to arrest, over the heads of boys in gang bandanas and hairnets jousting with one another astride their monster bikes, over the 3-year-old Dominican girls in tank tops and fake diamond earnings, over the tidy front yard where the weeping brown Virgin is perpetually stroking the rosary round her blushing neck.
Absurdistan is a comic novel, but it is also ambitiously serious. (In this, as in other things, it marks an advance over Shteyngart’s first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, which by the end seemed little more than a machine to keep its plot running.) Fearless of giving offense, declining to write what he knows, Shteyngart takes on seemingly everything: US cultural and economic power, post-Soviet social and personal devastation, the narcissism of small ethnic differences, hip-hop, political correctness, the State Department, the oil business—the list could go on. Philip Roth famously called American complexity “a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination,” but Shteyngart’s imagination is never embarrassed, even in the face of global complexity. And it is not only topics that boil and pour from Absurdistan. The novel puts in all of life: sexual desire and sexual joy, parental warmth and parental expectations, racial discomfort, political impotence, death, happiness, longing, isolation.
In every age, there will be putter-inners and taker-outers, but Absurdistan raises the possibility that putting in may be the appropriate style in today’s world of satellite-linked, ubiquitously visible cultures, and in today’s America of overabundant consumer choice and universally eclectic tastes. Every American under forty has probably been asked, usually by someone over seventy, “What kind of music do you like?” and has experienced, I’m sure, a similar short circuit in response. We live in a culture where everyone is more or less open to everything. And we live in a world where this eclecticism is spreading. This is the world Absurdistan satirizes, and celebrates. We’re supposed to giggle about a Tuscan theme restaurant in Central Asia or a Russian gangster fretting over U.S. law schools for his son, but we also recognize that, however exaggerated, this is life now.
Celebratory reviewers have fixed on Shteyngart’s imagination and praised it in comparison to what they deem, rather unoriginally, to be the typical novel of his peers. Christian Caryl in the New York Review of Books declared that Absurdistan is “immune to the various sorts of parochial self-absorption that pass for seriousness in contemporary American letters.” Walter Kirn in the Times Book Review proclaimed, “Compared with most young novelists his age, who tend towards cutesy involution, Shteyngart is a giant mounted on horseback.” To me, the central achievement of Absurdistan is to have made me temporarily believe this nonsense. For a moment or two, reading the book, I believed that all other young American novelists really do write exclusively about high school crushes and Park Slope.
As eloquent as was Wolfe’s response to Fitzgerald, a novel with an “unselected quality of its selection” is more likely to be miserable than great. Absurdistan is highly unselected. A gambler, Shteyngart is willing to risk jokes, and his record, with me at least, was five cringes for every laugh. His satirical rap lyrics, his references to his own novel as The Russian Arriviste’s Hand Job and to Tolstoy’s as War and the Other Thing are as painful as they are broad. An original in the scope of his imagination, Shteyngart is often surprisingly content with less than original material. Absurdistan includes many of the conventions of the hysterical realist novel. Two-thirds into it, my heart sank with an (accurate) foreboding of what was to come: the acceleration of its comic violence and the unraveling of an involved, wearingly improbable conspiracy. The conventions are in the small things, too. When will the epidemic of asinine acronyms (SCROD, in Absurdistan) and mock academic papers (“It’s My Periogi: Transgenerational Conflict in Post-Soviet Families”) end?
Novels that boil and pour almost invariably pour forth much junk. Success comes to those that, because of other strengths, get away with it. In Absurdistan, Shteyngart’s narrative gluttony, for all the energy it provides him, robs the book of consequences and thus of consequence. Absurdistan is partly a love letter to New York, almost always through its cries of love to Rouenna. Yet the two-girlfriend problem is real. It’s hard to be moved to anything but a yawn by the novel’s final calls to Rouenna—“Rouenna. With each step I am getting closer to you. With each step I am racing toward your love and away from this irredeemable land”—after she disappears from Misha’s consciousness for pages on end, and after Misha noted about his other girlfriend, thirty pages earlier, “Every time I saw her, I fell in love again.”
Similarly, Absurdistan is meant to make the reader feel the joint assaults on the citizens of Absurdistan and places like it by criminal local leaders and merciless global capitalism. The satires about Absurdistan’s political tragedy—focus groups by the Mossad, prostitution contracts by Halliburton, CNN-addiction by the Sevo partisans—rain down unrelentingly, but they never touch the ground. There are no ramifications for other incidents, characters, or Misha himself. And so they are worse than unreal: they are boring. The best fiction feels consequential because, as readers, we feel the consequences of the characters’ actions. Our moral life becomes involved. In Absurdistan, little mattered to me as a reader because little seemed to matter in the book.
Shteyngart’s insatiable appetite also consumes the vitality of his characters. He can bring a character off the page, at least initially. And when he writes with genuine pathos—as in the case of Sakha the Democrat, an Absurdi, or Lyuba, Misha’s 21-year-old stepmother—he saves them from caricature. Sakha and Lyuba are the most affecting characters in the book, but their time on the page is short. This is not a coincidence. The more Shteyngart writes about someone—whether it’s Rouenna, Nana, Nana’s father, Alyosha-Bob (Misha’s best friend)—the less particular that character becomes. Shteyngart seems to want to paint his characters with thick oil paint, adding impasto depth with each pass of the brush, but Absurdistan reads as if he painted with turpentine.
This is most evident, and most undermining, in Misha himself. No novel is perfect, of course, and if Shteyngart had made Misha’s consciousness palpable, Absurdistan would have been powerfully satisfying, despite all. But Misha, for all his fleshiness, never acquires blood. He has too many voices to do so. His voice is sometimes a lyrical realist’s: “The trickle of Papa’s deep vodka breath against my neck, the hairy obstinate arms pressing me into his carpet-thick chest, the animal smells of survival and decay—this is my womb.” It is also a satirist’s twice over, as a drive-by hyperbolist and a snickering ironist. Misha narrates a four-page satire on the Holocaust in American life, which is biting, insightful, over-the-top, and almost worthy of Roth, but it comes from the same character whose voice is a naive innocent’s, a Russian who calls his father Beloved Papa, who stiffly refers to “famed Latin American guitarist Carlos Santana,” who intermittently uses quotation marks for idiomatic English (“Today the ‘body shot’ is an integral part of American courtship”), and whose ostensible naïvete is a dramatic engine of the novel.
Innocent Misha also has the voice of a postmodern prankster, from his direct addresses to the reader, to his nod to Russian literature with each mention of his “manservant” Timofey, to a subplot involving a Shteyngart double (“Jerry Shteynfarb”) and Vladimir Girshkin, the protagonist of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. And Misha’s voice, sometimes so Russian, is also a New York sophisticate’s, one familiar with high art and American popular culture, one that needs no quotation marks around The Little Mermaid, “a blue Crips bandanna,” or a Manhattan neighborhood that is “one part Melville, two parts Céline.”
Shteyngart clearly means some of this as a joke, as when in a single conversation Misha shifts from the knowing “Those sculptures? Oh, I guess they’re all part of a Brancusian motif” to the clunky “Here are stairs that go up to my bed.” And comedy is one of the primary defenses of Shteyngart’s decision to make Misha a stuff-sack of voices. The other is the thematic appropriateness of 325-pound Misha’s multiple personalities: his swollenness is Shteyngart’s point of view. Both defenses are on some level valid. Absurdistan‘s exaggerated, twisting, boiling fun provides its pleasures. We can’t expect it to be tidy. And Misha’s voices are parts of Shteyngart: Russian, American, New Yorker, realist, satirist, postmodernist. Isn’t Shteyngart being sincere by imparting to his protagonist the variety and incoherence that is his world?
The first problem is that because Misha never quite comes alive, Absurdistan, after a sugar high of a hundred pages or so, is not very entertaining. The second problem is that while an author, whatever his contradictions, indisputably exists, a fictional character does not. His author must make him exist. E. M. Forster wrote that characters are real not because they are like us “but because they are convincing.” Misha is not convincing because of standard implausibility. He is not convincing because his voices clash distractingly against each other. And he is not convincing because his voices are too often his author’s. Misha’s jokes, his parodies, his postmodern flights are almost all Shteyngart’s, which might be interesting if Shteyngart’s interruptions felt urgent. But Jerry Shteynfarb, for instance, is not, as in better novels that include authorial doubles, a thoughtful exploration of the impulses warring within his author. He is a stunt, and with him, Shteyngart once again pushes Misha off the stage.
I wondered as I read the novel if it would have been more successful had Shteyngart separated the strands of his personality into separate characters, as Dostoevsky incomparably did. (It is not only immigrants who contain multitudes.) For the failure of Misha as a character is not only a technical failure but something larger. Because of the multiplicity of his voices, I read Absurdistan as a literary experience, not a human one. And I read it as it demanded to be read: lazily. In The Rhetoric of Fiction, Wayne Booth argued against the idea that the only way a person works while reading is by deciphering esoteric prose. There is harder and more important work to be done: raising oneself “to the height required to experience the imaginative and emotional complexities” of a piece. The height required in Absurdistan is low. This is not a necessary evil of a comic novel. Notes from Underground, Something Happened, Herzog demand and earn work even as the comedy pours. One can’t fault Shteyngart for not producing a masterpiece, but one can question why a writer of his intelligence and feel for American and Russian literature, a writer so ambitious in wanting to swallow the world and match its anarchic energy with delight, would not contain Misha’s voices in order to let him live. Absurdistan wants our laughs, yes, but also our compassion, anger, and hope. In one passage, Misha, echoing Ivan Karamazov, despairs for a group of Russian children. But Misha’s pity fails to move because it comes as a too inconsequential intermission between comic scenes and from a voice that does not convince.
The disintegration of unitary character has been an artistic theme for a long time. It is probably the artistic theme of high modernism. And a hero eclectic in tastes, without an identity and with too many identities, morally and physically flabby, politically passive, globally intermingled, and generally confused may be a fitting hero at the start of the 21st century. Yet Shteyngart never shows that his type of putting-in—his contradictory and multifarious point of view—is a necessary or even particularly apt style to grapple with what it means to be alive now. Reviewers like Kirn and Caryl presume that because modern life is global, chaotic, and absurd, a novel that is praiseworthily global, chaotic, and absurd could only be supremely successful. Yet a novel can’t succeed as cultural description or even as good writing. A novel must succeed as a novel. For Absurdistan to have succeeded, Shteyngart would have had to select: the good jokes, the most original material, the scenes with consequences. One girlfriend and one voice. The novel then would have been both entertaining and serious, a book that would have gripped me until the end, a book that would have lastingly expanded my sense of the world, a book that would have brought my emotions and intellect inside it as I struggled with Misha, as Misha. That is a lot to ask of a novel, I know. But Gary Shteyngart writes as if he can do anything.