Misha Vainberg is a fantastically obese, grossly self-absorbed, and entirely moist-hearted specimen of Russian birth and American education. He has a vast and uniformly repulsive body that demands constant perusal: a dead “toxic hump” that vibrates in distress; mutilated genitalia resembling “an abused iguana”; and thick, squishy fingers that fondle every morsel of sturgeon and human flesh. He has substantial cash reserves from his abusive thug father, which permit him to travel profusely and retain friends, girlfriends, a manservant, and a Park Avenue shrink. He has a degree in multicultural studies, which allows him to ponder The Little Mermaid, genocide, and the difference between poor African Americans and Russians (nothing). Misha, in short, is the ideal soft corpus for Shteyngart to use to extract premium quantities of jokes and pathos. This sometimes works but it’s not very nice and, like the house of a friend who talks behind your back, Absurdistan‘s a lousy place to stay.
Shteyngart, the author of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, made his name the following way: with an outsized, decadent, ethnic caricature of a voice, lodged within a scrawny protagonist’s frame that replicated the author’s own apparatus. The Russian émigré Vladimir Girshkin whined, longed, and schemed, and still he could do no wrong. The creaky plot, with its rotating cast of gross-out gangsters and girlfriends, was gently overlooked in light of Shteyngart’s thick, if not singular, charms. Now, though, it seems worth recalling that book’s odd preoccupation with fat. Vladimir’s most loyal friend carries “a heavier-than-average load at the bottom,” while the most beautiful girl in the book develops a “red swelling . . . from which sprout dark little hairs as thick and straight as dry grass.” It’s enough to send any reader running back to Vladimir’s thin, treacherous arms. But in Absurdistan, there’s no relief and no sympathy. Misha’s fat is the principle character but all it does is groan and jiggle. The hump heaves, sex reeks like carbon, and Misha smells and tastes like a hamburger. Shteyngart says he’s written a “book about love,” but it’s hard to believe him. His fragrant prose attempts communion with Misha’s equally fragrant “heroic gut,” his “two-scoop breasts,” but how could anyone fall in love a voice that sounds like it’s about to gag?
So Shteyngart rephrases: This is a book about “that cloying Russian affection that passes for real warmth. . . . This is also a book about too much love. It’s a book about being had,” he says. And Shteyngart’s got Misha’s number. As if to make up for his failure to fill out his hero’s soft flesh, the author generates whole gangs of ethnic toughs, all with more sympathetic bone structures, to whip the story into shape. They circumcise Misha, screw him up, and screw him over. They deny him political asylum and then steal his American girlfriend. They beat him hard, “in the stomach and tits,” hoping he’ll “crumple like a cheap pastry.” He never does, and this is what stands in for character development, in Shteyngart’s abusive self-love letter. “Whenever fist met fat,” Misha explains, “I merely stumbled to the side . . . I used each brief occasion to tell them a little about my life.” “My mama named me Misha,” he cries. “When I move back to New York, I think I’ll live in trendy Williamsburg.” Finally, from the ground, he demands, “What good is being alive, anyway, when it’s always at somebody’s mercy?”
In one of his most egregious blusters, Shteyngart revives not only old Vladimir, but a writer named “Jerry Shteynfarb,” as Girshkin’s keeper and the thief of Misha’s trash-talking Bronx girlfriend. Shteynfarb, Misha says, is “a perfectly Americanized Russian emigre” who “made good on his threat to write a novel, a sad little dirge about his immigrant life, which seems to me the luckiest kind of life imaginable.” Funny, maybe, but it’s hard to see why Jerry couldn’t have been a plumber, or Wilmer Valderrama. This piece of cut-rate Coetzee only underlines what we already understand: Shteyngart’s shameful lack of regard for these people, in favor of a self-defeating preoccupation with his own hit-and-run, hit-and-miss charms.
But who cares when Misha is happy, sometimes, and there are so many things that he wants? “America I want,” he proclaims. “New York. Rouenna. Take her from behind. Empire State Building. Korean grocery. Salad bar. Laundromat,” he says. “I managed to stand up.” He falls right back down, of course. But in the meantime, Shteyngart’s snuck in some good bits that stretch the limits of even Misha’s flabby persona. There’s a modest proposal for the Institute for Caspian Holocaust Studies and some analysis of what happens at Brooklyn parties. And where’s Misha all this time, while he’s being ventriloquized? Either unconscious or stuffing his face with caviar.