Absurdistan: Love and Geopolitics

Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan is a geopolitical romp that ends on September 10, 2001. But the book was published in 2006 – so make no mistake – 9/11 hangs over the narrative like an ominous cloud. Don’t make this mistake either – though 9/11 was a tragedy and geopolitical catastrophe, the novel is a raunchy and satirical examination of life when you’re a geopolitical pawn. And we’re all geopolitical pawns.

As the narrator, Misha Borisovich Vainberg, tells us in the prologue, this is a “book about love. But it’s also a book about geography.” The story opens on June 15, 2001. Misha is 30 years old and the son of the 1238th richest man in Russia. That’s because his father is a kleptocrat.

During the 1990s Misha attended Accidental College in the mid-west. As a result he adores America and rap music. His rapper name is Snack Daddy, because he loves all the snacks that have turned him into a self-described “fatso”. Unfortunately, his father called him back to Russia, and he is stuck there because dad killed a politically connected Oklahoman in St. Petersburg. Now the U.S. won’t let Misha back.

Misha hates Russia and its corrupt transition from the Soviet Union – even though he has benefitted tremendously from that corruption. “These miscreants were our country’s rulers. To survive in their world, one has to wear many hats – perpetrator, victim, silent bystander.” He’s desperate to get back to his girlfriend in the Bronx – so desperate he travels to Absurdistan, where he has been promised a Belgian passport that will enable him to finally return to the U.S.

Absurdistan does not exist in the real world. I googled it. However, in the novel it is one of the Stans in the former Soviet Union. It consists of several ethnic groups, and they all hate each other. As soon as Misha shows up, civil war breaks out and the borders are closed. Each ethnic group wants to use Misha for its own political purposes, and Misha wants to use them to escape to the Bronx and his girlfriend. Sex, humor, and violence ensue.

Similar to Candide, Misha is a “holy fool” who is wrong about pretty much everything. Near the novel’s end he confesses, “I thought I was Different and had a Special Story to tell but I guess I’m not and I don’t.” Fortunately, he’s wrong about that as well.

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor

Something Funny Happened During the Apocalypse

While stumbling through the covid pandemic for nearly 2 years, I have relied upon friends, family, health care providers, politicians, strangers who have done their own research, angry people with their own agendas, and Uncle Brad (who is all of the above and thinks I’m an idiot).

This has produced mixed results, so I decided to give Gary Shteyngart’s Our Country Friends a try. After reading Lake Success (and loving it), I thought he might have the answers. He doesn’t but he is funny. And Our Country Friends is a clear lens through which we can see all the absurd, violent, selfish, selfless, and loving ways we have responded to the pandemic.

The book opens at the pandemic’s beginning, when no one knew how long it would last or the toll it would take. Sasha Senderovsky, a “writer and a landowner”, brings together 4 friends and an Actor (Senderovsky is trying to produce a TV show and he needs the Actor’s help) to ride out the pandemic at his country estate with his psychiatrist wife and his 8 year old daughter (who pre-covid attended a “very expensive city school for sensitive and complicated children”).

The estate (a house on a hill with several nearby bungalows) is in the gorgeous Hudson River Valley. “A pebbled path ran between the bungalows, in a way that Senderovsky [a Russian Jew] had hoped would create the feel of a tidy European village, the kind that would have never welcomed his ancestors.” The House on the Hill, which later becomes the Dacha of Doom, evokes the Shining City on a Hill – initially. However, dead trees litter the property with their “dead white rot”, evoking living White rot. There is also a metaphorical valley separating the ordinary and the privileged.

Before long, this “country menagerie” breaks apart, as friends and acquaintances become lovers – or partners in strange (but hygienic) sex acts. The Actor pairs off with a young writer (one of Senderovsky’s former students), and social media names them the “First Couple of the Quarantine”. But this brings more scrutiny to essays she wrote years before when her style was intentionally provocative. “She had been found out, exposed. But for what? All of this had been allowed just weeks before. Everything she had written came with just the right amount of nuance. It had been lab tested and publicist approved.” So what. Now the internet does not approve, and she is condemned.

The outside world intervenes in more violent ways too. George Floyd is killed. From their hilltop commune, which is disintegrating, they watch as society seemingly collapses. “They were watching a double disaster through glasses pressed to binoculars pressed in turn to a telescope.”

Mr. Shteyngart perfectly captures the Zeitgeist (whatever that means) of covid. The paranoia and panic are here. People are afraid that computer chips will be lodged in their naval cavities. They are struggling and lost. But they are also genuinely concerned about the health and welfare of the people they love and the people they grow to love. The story is funny at times but never mean-spirited.

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor