Gary Shteyngart's second novel, Absurdistan, has all the ingredients to outdo his hilarious 2002 debut, The Russian Debutante's Handbook. First and foremost, there is a slightly askew man, both first-generation Russian immigrant and "deeply secular" Jew. Then there is the bitingly grandiose and perversely true voice that has become Shteyngart's trademark.
For a comedy, the protagonist couldn't have more possibilities. Misha Vainberg—the 325-pound son of the 1,238th richest man in Russia—is stranded in St. Petersburg, unable to renew his U.S. visa after his father kills a prominent Oklahoman. In his spare time, Misha "Snack Daddy" Vainberg raps, beats his manservant and longs to do laundry again with his ghetto-fabulous Bronx sweetie Rouenna.
But fascinating character sketch aside, Absurdistan has a flimsy plot that follows Misha through the anecdotes of his past, through the ridiculous luxury of his St. Petersburg lifestyle and finally to Absurdsvanï, a tiny, oil-rich country on the edge of the Caspian Sea, where he is promised a Belgian passport and a way back into the U.S.
Wit is not missing from Shteyngart's novel; Absurdistan still has that in overabundance. What is missing is the maniacally delighted, un-self-conscious writing that gave Shteyngart's first book its comic force. The Russian Debutante's narrator, Vladimir Girshkin, had that rare combination of delusion and oblivious naïveté that guided him unscathed through his most dangerous and ridiculous moments. Girshkin single-handedly upended Prague as A Confederacy of Dunces' Ignatius P. Reilly did his New Orleans.
Sentimental and irredeemably passive, Misha Vainberg is a different creature than Girshkin. He is stuck in a cesspool of the old Russia and the new, terrified of staying in his native land, where perhaps [End Page 187] he would acquire a young Russian wife and, with her, "two rich, unhappy children: a five-year-old boy in a Dolce & Gabbana gangster suit, his younger sister beneath an alligator's worth of leather accessories. Everywhere around us snickering servants, collapsed infrastructure, sniveling grandmothers . . . Russia, Russia, Russia . . ."
Certain he must return to New York City to be happy, Misha, in one of his most daring acts, books a first-class flight to Absurdistan. There, while comfortably living at the Hyatt, Misha obtains his Belgian passport but is once again stranded when civil war breaks out and exiting the country becomes impossible.
With the oil-driven political farce that is Absurdistan's "civil war," Shteyngart satirizes current events in the Middle East—even going so far as to name the primary oil company Golly Burton. But Misha's droll descriptions—some drug-induced—of the havoc wreaked on Absurdistan's people have the acerbity of a joke carried too far.
Undeniably, the sharp, capering wit that won Shteyngart so many admirers still runs rampant through his second novel. But his characters lack depth and sympathy. Distance is necessary for laughter, but a great book must also give us reason to care.