“Absurdistan is not just a hilarious novel, but a record of a particular peak in the history of human folly. No one is more capable of dealing with the transition from the hell of socialism to the hell of capitalism in Eastern Europe than Shteyngart, the great-great grandson of one Nikolai Gogol and the funniest foreigner alive.”
From the critically acclaimed, bestselling author of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook comes the uproarious and poignant story of one very fat man and one very small country
Meet Misha Vainberg, aka Snack Daddy, a 325-pound disaster of a human being, son of the 1,238th-richest man in Russia, proud holder of a degree in multicultural studies from Accidental College, USA (don’t even ask), and patriot of no country save the great City of New York. Poor Misha just wants to live in the South Bronx with his hot Latina girlfriend, but after his gangster father murders an Oklahoma businessman in Russia, all hopes of a U.S. visa are lost.
Salvation lies in the tiny, oil-rich nation of Absurdistan, where a crooked consular officer will sell Misha a Belgian passport. But after a civil war breaks out between two competing ethnic groups and a local warlord installs hapless Misha as minister of multicultural affairs, our hero soon finds himself covered in oil, fighting for his life, falling in love, and trying to figure out if a normal life is still possible in the twenty-first century.
With the enormous success of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Gary Shteyngart established himself as a central figure in today’s literary world—“one of the most talented and entertaining writers of his generation,” according to The New York Observer. In Absurdistan, he delivers an even funnier and wiser literary performance. Misha Vainberg is a hero for the new century, a glimmer of humanity in a world of dashed hopes.
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Gary Shteyngart was born in Leningrad in 1972 and came to the United States seven years later. His debut novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, won the Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction and the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction. It was also named a New York Times Notable Book, a best book of the year by The Washington Post and Entertainment Weekly, and one of the best debuts of the year by The Guardian. His fiction and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, GQ, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, and many other publications. He lives in New York.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The Night in Question
June 15, 2001
I am Misha Borisovich Vainberg, age thirty, a grossly overweight man with small, deeply set blue eyes, a pretty Jewish beak that brings to mind the most distinguished breed of parrot, and lips so delicate you would want to wipe them with the naked back of your hand.
For many of my last years, I have lived in St. Petersburg, Russia, neither by choice nor by desire. The City of the Czars, the Venice of the North, Russia’s cultural capital . . . forget all that. By the year 2001, our St. Leninsburg has taken on the appearance of a phantasmagoric third-world city, our neoclassical buildings sinking into the crap-choked canals, bizarre peasant huts fashioned out of corrugated metal and plywood colonizing the broad avenues with their capitalist iconography (cigarette ads featuring an American football player catching a hamburger with a baseball mitt), and what is worst of all, our intelligent, depressive citizenry has been replaced by a new race of mutants dressed in studied imitation of the West, young women in tight Lycra, their scooped-up little breasts pointing at once to New York and Shanghai, with men in fake black Calvin Klein jeans hanging limply around their caved-in asses.
The good news is that when you’re an incorrigible fatso like me—325 pounds at last count—and the son of the 1,238th richest man in Russia, all of St. Leninsburg rushes out to service you: the drawbridges lower themselves as you advance, and the pretty palaces line up alongside the canal banks, thrusting their busty friezes in your face. You are blessed with the rarest treasure to be found in this mineral-rich land. You are blessed with respect.
On the night of June 15 in the catastrophic year 2001, I was getting plenty of respect from my friends at a restaurant called the Home of the Russian Fisherman on Krestovskiy Island, one of the verdant islands caught in the delta of the Neva River. Krestovskiy is where we rich people pretend to be living in a kind of post-Soviet Switzerland, trudging along the manicured bike paths built ’round our kottedzhes and town khauses, and filling our lungs with parcels of atmosphere seemingly imported from the Alps.
The Fisherman’s gimmick is that you catch your own fish out of a man-made lake, and then for about US$50 per kilo, the kitchen staff will smoke it for you or bake it on coals. On what the police would later call “the night in question,” we were standing around the Spawning Salmon pontoon, yelling at our servants, drinking down carafes of green California Riesling, our Nokia mobilniki ringing with the social urgency that comes only when the White Nights strangle the nighttime, when the inhabitants of our ruined city are kept permanently awake by the pink afterglow of the northern sun, when the best you can do is drink your friends into the morning.
Let me tell you something: without good friends, you might as well drown yourself in Russia. After decades of listening to the familial agitprop of our parents (“We will die for you!” they sing), after surviving the criminal closeness of the Russian family (“Don’t leave us!” they plead), after the crass socialization foisted upon us by our teachers and factory directors (“We will staple your circumcised khui to the wall!” they threaten), all that’s left is that toast between two failed friends in some stinking outdoor beer kiosk.
“To your health, Misha Borisovich.”
“To your success, Dimitry Ivanovich.”
“To the army, the air force, and the whole Soviet fleet . . . Drink to the bottom!”
I’m a modest person bent on privacy and lonely sadness, so I have very few friends. My best buddy in Russia is a former American I like to call Alyosha-Bob. Born Robert Lipshitz in the northern reaches of New York State, this little bald eagle (not a single hair on his dome by age twenty-five) flew to St. Leninsburg eight years ago and was transformed, by dint of alcoholism and inertia, into a successful Rus- sian biznesman renamed Alyosha, the owner of ExcessHollywood, a riotously profitable DVD import-export business, and the swain of Svetlana, a young Petersburg hottie. In addition to being bald, Alyosha-Bob has a pinched face ending in a reddish goatee, wet blue eyes that fool you with their near-tears, and enormous flounder lips cleansed hourly by vodka. A skinhead on the metro once described him as a gnussniy zhid, or a “vile-looking Yid,” and I think most of the populace sees him that way. I certainly did when I first met him as a fellow undergraduate at Accidental College in the American Midwest a decade ago.
Alyosha-Bob and I have an interesting hobby that we indulge whenever possible. We think of ourselves as the Gentlemen Who Like to Rap. Our oeuvre stretches from the old-school jams of Ice Cube, Ice-T, and Public Enemy to the sensuous contemporary rhythms of ghetto tech, a hybrid of Miami bass, Chicago ghetto tracks, and Detroit electronica. The modern reader may be familiar with “Ass-N-Titties” by DJ Assault, perhaps the seminal work of the genre.
On the night in question, I got the action started with a Detroit ditty I enjoy on summer days:
Heah I come
Shut yo mouf
And bite yo tongue.
Alyosha-Bob, in his torn Helmut Lang slacks and Accidental College sweatshirt, picked up the tune:
You think you bad?
Let me see you
Bounce dat ass.
Our melodies rang out over the Russian Fisherman’s four pontoons (Spawning Salmon, Imperial Sturgeon, Capricious Trout, and Sweet Little Butterfish), over this whole tiny man-made lake, whatever the hell it’s called (Dollar Lake? Euro Pond?), over the complimentary-valet-parking-lot where one of the oafish employees just dented my new Land Rover.
Heah come dat bitch
From round de way
Box my putz
Like Cassius Clay.
“Sing it, Snack Daddy!” Alyosha-Bob cheered me on, using my Accidental College nickname.
My name is Vainberg
I like ho’s
Sniff ’em out
Wid my Hebrew nose
Pump that shit
From ’round the back
Ack ack ack
This being Russia, a nation of busybody peasants thrust into an awkward modernity, some idiot will always endeavor to spoil your good fun. And so the neighboring biznesman, a sunburned midlevel killer standing next to his pasty girlfriend from some cow-filled province, starts in with “Now, fellows, why do you have to sing like African exchange students? You both look so cultured”—in other words, like vile-looking Yids—“why don’t you declaim some Pushkin instead? Didn’t he have some nice verses about the White Nights? That would be very seasonal.”
“Hey, if Pushkin were alive today, he’d be a rapper,” I said.
“That’s right,” Alyosha-Bob said. “He’d be M.C. Push.”
“Fight the power!” I said in English.
Our Pushkin-loving friend stared at us. This is what happens when you don’t learn English, by the way. You’re always at a loss for words. “God help you children,” he finally said, taking his lady friend by one diminutive arm and guiding her over to the other side of the pontoon.
Children? Was he talking about us? What would an Ice Cube or an Ice-T do in this situation? I reached for my mobilnik, ready to dial my Park Avenue analyst, Dr. Levine, to tell him that once again I had been insulted and injured, that once again I had been undermined by a fellow Russian.
And then I heard my manservant, Timofey, ringing his special hand bell. The mobilnik fell out of my hand, the Pushkin lover and his girlfriend disappeared from the pontoon, the pontoon itself floated off into another dimension, even Dr. Levine and his soft American ministrations were reduced to a distant hum.
It was feeding time.
With a low bow, manservant Timofey presented me with a tray of blackened sturgeon kebabs and a carafe of Black Label. I fell down on a hard plastic chair that twisted and torqued beneath my weight like a piece of modern sculpture. I bent over the sturgeon, sniffing it with closed eyes as if offering a silent prayer. My feet were locked together, my ankles grinding into each other with expectant anxiety. I prepared for my meal in the usual fashion: fork in my left hand; my dominant right clenched into a fist on my lap, ready to punch anyone who dared take away my food.
I bit into the sturgeon kebab, filling my mouth with both the crisp burnt edges and the smooth mealy interior. My body trembled in- side my leviathan Puma tracksuit, my heroic gut spinning counter- clockwise, my two-scoop breasts slapping against each other. The usual food-inspired images presented themselves. Myself, my Beloved Papa, and my young mother in a hollowed-out boat built to resemble a white swan floating past a grotto, triumphant Stalin-era music echoing around us (“Here’s my passport! What a passport! It’s my great red Soviet passport!”), Beloved Papa’s wet hands rubbing my tummy and skirting the waistband of my shorts, and Mommy’s smooth, dry ones brushing against the nape of my neck, a chorus of their hoarse, tired voices saying, “We love you, Misha. We love you, bear cub.”
My body fell into a rocking motion like the religious people rock when they’re deep in the thrall of their god. I finished off the first kebab and the one after that, my chin oily with sturgeon juices, my breasts shivering as if they’d been smothered with packets of ice. Another chunk of fish fell into my mouth, this one well dusted with parsley and olive oil. I breathed in the smells of the sea, my right fist still clenched, fingers digging into palm, my nose touching the plate, sturgeon extract coating my nostrils, my little circumcised khui burning with the joy of release.
And then it was over. And then the kebabs were gone. I was left with an empty plate. I was left with nothing before me. Ah, dear me. Where was I now? An abandoned bear cub without his li’l fishy. I splashed a glass of water on my face and dabbed myself off with a napkin Timofey had tucked into my tracksuit. I picked up the carafe of Black Label, pressed it to my cold lips, and, with a single tilt of the wrist, emptied it into my gullet.
The world was golden around me, the evening sun setting light to a row of swaying alders; the alders abuzz with the warble of siskin birds, those striped yellow fellows from our nursery rhymes. I turned pastoral for a moment, my thoughts running to Beloved Papa, who was born in a village and for whom village life should be prescribed, as only there—half asleep in a cowshed, naked and ugly, but sober all the same—do the soft tremors of what could be happiness cross his swollen Aramaic face. I would have to bring him here one day, to the Home of the Russian Fisherman. I would buy him a few chilled bottles of his favorite Flagman vodka, take him out to the farthest pontoon, put my arm around his dandruff-dusted shoulders, press his tiny lemur head into one of my side hams, and make him understand that despite all the disappointments I have handed him over the past twenty years, the two of us are meant to be together forever.
Emerging from the food’s thrall, I noticed that the demographics of the Spawning Salmon pontoon were changing. A group of young coworkers in blue blazers had shown up, led by a buffoon in a bow tie who played the role of a “fun person,” breaking the coworkers up into teams, thrusting fishing rods into their weak hands, and leading them in a chorus of “Fi-ish! Fi-ish! Fi-ish!” What the hell was going on here? Was this the first sign of an emerging Russian middle class? Did all these idiots work for a German bank? Perhaps they were holders of American MBAs.
Meanwhile, all eyes fell on a striking older woman in a full-length white gown and black Mikimoto pearls, casting her line into the man-made lake. She was one of those mysteriously elegant women who appeared to have walked in from the year 1913, as if all those red pioneer scarves and peasant blouses from our jackass Soviet days had never alighted on her delicate shoulders.
I am not enamored of such people, I must say. How is it possi- ble to live outside of history? Who can claim immunity to it by dint of beauty and breeding? My only consolation was that neither this charming creature nor the young Deutsche Bank workers now shouting in unison “Sal-mon! Sal-mon!” would catch any tasty fish today. Beloved Papa and I have an agreement with the management of the Home of the Russian Fisherman restaurant—whenever a Vainberg takes up a rod, the owner’s nephew puts on his Aqua-Lung, swims under the pontoons, and hooks the best fish on our lines. So all Czarina with the Black Pearls would get for her troubles would be a tasteless, defective salmon.
You can’t ignore history altogether.
On the night in question, Alyosha-Bob and I were joined by three lovely females: Rouenna, the love of my life, visiting for two weeks from the Bronx, New York; Svetlana, Alyosha-Bob’s dark-eyed Tatar beauty, a junior public-relations executive for a local chain of perfume shops; and Beloved Papa’s twenty-one-year-old provincial wife, Lyuba.
I must say, I was anxious about bringing these women together (also, I have a generalized fear of women). Svetlana and Rouenna have aggressive personalities; Lyuba and Rouenna were once lower-class and lack refinement; and Svetlana and Lyuba, being Russian, present with symptoms of mild depression rooted in early childhood trauma (cf. Papadapolis, Spiro, “It’s My Pierogi: Transgenerational Conflict in Post-Soviet Families,” Annals of Post-Lacanian Psychiatry, Boulder/Paris, Vol. 23, No. 8, 1997). A part of me expected discord among the women, or what the Americans call “fireworks.” Another part of me just wanted to see that snobby bitch Svetlana get her ass kicked.
While Alyosha-Bob and I were rapping, Lyuba’s servant girl had been making the girls pretty with lipstick and pomade in one of the Fisherman’s changing huts, and when they joined us on the pontoon, they reeked of fake citrus (and a touch of real sweat), their dainty lips aglow in the summer twilight, their teeny voices abuzz with interesting conversation about Stockmann, the celebrated Finnish emporium on St. Leninsburg’s main thoroughfare, Nevsky Prospekt. They were discussing a summer special—two hand-fluffed Finnish towels for US$20—both towels distinguished by their highly un-Russian, shockingly Western color: orange.
Listening to the tale of the orange towel, I got a little engorged down in the circumcised purple half-khui department. These women of ours were so cute! Well, not my stepmother, Lyuba, obviously, who is eleven years younger than me and happens to spend her nights moaning unconvincingly under the coniferous trunk of Beloved Papa, with his impressive turtlelike khui (blessed memories of it swinging about in the bathtub, my curious toddler hands trying to snatch it).
And I wasn’t hot for Svetlana, either; despite her fashionable Mongol cheekbones, her clingy Italian sweater, and that profoundly calculated aloofness, the supposedly sexy posturing of the educated Russian woman, despite all that, let me tell you, I absolutely refuse to sleep with one of my co-nationals. God only knows where they’ve been.
So that leaves me with my Rouenna Sales (pronounced Sah-lez, in the Spanish manner), my South Bronx girlie-girl, my big-boned precious, my giant multicultural swallow, with her crinkly hair violently pulled back into a red handkerchief, with her glossy pear-shaped brown nose always in need of kisses and lotion.
“I think,” said my stepmom, Lyuba, in English for Rouenna’s benefit, “I thought,” she added. She was having trouble with her tenses. “I think, I thought . . . I think, I thou...
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