Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan is the hilarious tale of Misha Vainberg, the obese son of one of Russia’s wealthiest men, and his exploits in a decrepit post-Soviet republic. Before being blown up by a landmine himself, Misha’s Beloved Papa, a passionate Zionist and decidedly non-traditional entrepreneur, murdered an American businessman, and so the American government is refusing to readmit Misha, even though he is a proud alumnus of Accidental College, a Midwestern temple of the liberal arts. Stranded in St. Petersburg and pining for his Bronx-raised girlfriend, Rouenna, and his Upper West Side analyst, Dr. Levine, Misha zips down to Absurdistan in the hopes of finagling a passport that will get him back to Manhattan. A comedy of errors ensues, of course, and the book is not only laugh-out-loud funny on nearly every page, but also a poignant exploration of our increasingly globalized, and increasingly absurd, world.
A couple of days after his punim graced the cover of the New York Times Book Review, and just before he set off on a coast-to-coast publicity tour, I sat down with the author to discuss the new book, his imaginary friends, and—what else?—the future of the Jews. Appropriately enough, we met for a drink in Shteyngart’s neighborhood, Manhattan’s Lower East Side, in a dim hipster bar surrounded by Asian grocery and hardware stores, and catercorner from the grand old Forward Building, now being transformed into high-rent condos but still bearing the busts of Marx and Engels on its façade. Recent immigrants, a healthy dollop of Jewish history, Communist icons, more than a whiff of the East in the air: this is the territory Shteyngart has staked out as his own, and it is as much the homeland of his globe-trotting fiction as Newark is for Philip Roth’s. The following are some excerpts from our conversation. (more…)