Gary Shteyn­gart
  • Review
By – October 26, 2011
Shteyngart’s Absur­dis­tan is a manys­trand­ed nov­el: broad in scope, rich in Jew­ish con­cerns. Born in St. Peters­burg (for­mer­ly Leningrad) in 1972, Shteyn­gart arrived in the U.S. in 1979 and became attached to New York City, like his hero Misha. Misha’s beloved Papa had sent his only child to the U.S. to become edu­cat­ed, pros­per­ous, and cir­cum­cised. The cir­cum­ci­sion made Misha hate Ortho­doxy. Shteyn­gart uncov­ers the dark under­side of the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence in Rus­sia, Papa was mere­ly dab­bling in crim­i­nal oli­garchy then,” only to go big time lat­er. Dur­ing Misha’s return vis­it to see Papa, Papa killed an Okla­homa busi­ness­man, and soon was mur­dered him­self. Eager to return to his Amer­i­can amour, Misha was for­bid­den to leave Rus­sia, although some of his father’s ill-got­ten wealth was avail­able to him.

After unsuc­cess­ful attempts to escape from Rus­sia, Misha’s last ploy worked, but result­ed in his strangest adven­ture. He trav­eled to a sup­pos­ed­ly oil-rich coun­try on the Caspi­an Sea — Absur­dis­tan, inhab­it­ed by war­ring Chris­t­ian fac­tions, Sevos and Sva­nis — to buy a Bel­gian pass­port from a dis­hon­est con­sular offi­cial. This led to Misha’s indi­rect involve­ment with the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary-indus­tri­al com­plex and the issue of access to poten­tial for­eign oil. The Sovi­ets were big play­ers in this game, as were the huge all-pur­pose Hal­libur­ton indus­try and its KBR sub­sidiary. (Mr. Cheney is referred to here.) The Sovi­ets ear­ly on were part of the big pic­ture. There was much bomb­ing of Absur­dis­tan, and the attrac­tive pos­si­bil­i­ty of U.S. aid (for rebuild­ing) became an issue for cer­tain mil­i­tary lead­ers. Shteyn­gart is sat­i­riz­ing the Iraqi war, the rival Mus­lim fac­tions — Shi­ites and Sun­nis, the Hal­libur­ton group, and Amer­i­can inter­ests in all of the above. Absur­dis­tan is a major lit­er­ary event.
Samuel I. Bell­man is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Cal­i­for­nia State Poly­tech­nic Uni­ver­si­ty of Pomona. He has been writ­ing on Jew­ish Amer­i­can writ­ers since 1959.

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