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5 July 2009 / April


I have a confession to make.  Reading fiction is getting harder for me.

Blame it on the internet or on sheer youthfulness, but I lack the patience to plumb the depths of meaning of a novel, a potentially and discouragingly endless task.  As I read, all I can see are the words, sentences, paragraphs– the way language is used in a very localized sense.  If the writing is not astonishingly beautiful or breath-takingly funny, I lose interest.

Gary Shteyngart achieves both beautiful and humorous language use in Absurdistan, but somehow, it’s not quite enough.

What he does achieve sufficiently well, in my admittedly rather uninformed opinion, is political commentary.  Very disturbing political commentary, which is equivalent to very good political commentary, about a region of the world that you can probably infer from the title.  This is interspersed with a lot of very graphically described sex, which is either some sort of social commentary or porn.  Hard to tell, sometimes.

Although what nearly made me gag was not the sex but the clichés, specifically the chapter entitled “Birds of Prey” that featured that well-worn tool of the novelist’s toolbox: the character who, in a big long speech interspersed with occasional “I don’t understand”s from the protagonist, explains all the stuff that’s seemed not quite right to you throughout the entire book.

I really should get over my aversion to clichés, because they’re ubiquitous– and ubiquitous for a reason.  They work.  Or, depending on the sort of clichés you’re talking about: they’re true.

My only other major gripe with Absurdistan is not with the book itself, but with the dust jacket summary, which sucks majorly.  Most of these summaries overview maybe the first quarter or first third of the book, and then encapsulate the rest with sweeping generalities and praise.  Absurdistan‘s seemed to follow this formula pretty religiously.

But it was deceptive.  Oh so deceptive.  The stupid summary should’ve come with spoiler tags, because it actually describes events that take place during the first three-quarters of the book, which is, you know, most of it.  Yet it describes them as though they took place during the first quarter of the book, as if they were mere prologue to the real meat of the novel, which resulted in the weird sensation of reading and expecting all the stuff that was described on the dust jacket, stuff that stubbornly refused to happen.  It was weird.  And slightly unpleasant.

At any rate, this is not really a legit review of Absurdistan, because it’s actually a pretty good book despite my lowering tolerance level for fiction.  (And of course the quality of the dust jacket summary has absolutely nothing to do with the book itself…)  For a taste of the sort of black humor you’ll get, I shall close with an excerpt from the narrator’s grant proposal to build “The Institute for Caspian Holocaust Studies, aka the Museum of Sevo-Jewish Friendship.”

The “Think It Can’t Happen Again?” Annex
Yeah, you think so?  Well, think again, friend.  This daring conceptual space will feature dozens of French Arab youths throwing rocks at passing museumgoers, threatening, “Six million more,” while passive French intellectuals stand by in the shadows, smoking and drinking, smoking and drinking.  For safety reasons, the “rocks” will be made of 100 percent paper, and the French Arab youths will be caged.

Yeah.  Now run off and enjoy your summer day.

(By the way, if you’re wondering about currentness– which you probably should be– this book was published in 2006, and the action takes place during a couple months of 2001.  It ends, predictably, on September 10.)


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