Sunday, February 10, 2008

Absurdistan: the Timely and the Dated (Annotation G3-7)

Adding Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan to a syllabus of a course on Russian literature is possibility the best use for his book. Although only an ethnic Russian Shteyngart is an American by training and culture. In the first third of his book Shteyngart either mentions or alludes to most of the writers of the Russian canon. While the first third is a treasure hunt for the next literary reference, the last two thirds are a different beast altogether. Absurdistan has summed up the late summer and fall of 2001, and will always be there. The timeliness of the novel is a joy to read in light of the political climate in the world today. Knowing the world of today, Shteyngart’s novel will make little or no sense a generation from now. Whereas the timeliness is impressive to privy readers today, the pitfalls are clear: Absurdistan has an expiration date.
The importance of adding this book to the Russian canon, an American novel, written in English is because it is a much more hip introduction to Russian literary heroes and it is more readable for a younger generation. The only warning here, his book will only be pertinent for a very short time. The hip hop references as well as the vernacular of Rouenna are assets to hook young readers should this book be the first on the course’s reading list. As the characters read like movie actors: Misha in a Puma track suit, and Rouenna looking very inner-city sheik, they will appeal to young readers. However, to an older more privy reader such details are nearly as impressive. For instance, this reader was left more puzzled by the track suit than the title of chapter nine as reference to Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
Absurdistan is horribly dated already, the mention of automobile model numbers, web addresses and price tags. “” the chapter ten title is modern speak in the form of an e-mail transmission between the two lovers Misha and Rouenna. Getting to know these characters by their electronic transmissions is nearly insulting. The characters certainly speak in their own voices, but the language of modern day text messaging and e-mail is a language all it’s own. Phonetically speaking there is nothing wrong with this chapter. As the modern world becomes more abbreviated and more illiterate Misha’s e-note of love may become a masterpiece. If details such as this portion of character development attracts young readers to the story, what will it do to older readers?
As for Misha’s time in the Absurdi capital, Shteyngart has captured all too well the CNN world of the late 20th century. Putting the story into context with real events helps here too. The book begins on July 15, 2001 “The night in question” and ends with the narrator’s exodus on the tenth of September 2001. If we are able to use Absurdistan today as a primer in Russian literature due to its hip hop genius then a generation from now it will be the primer of the world’s state of affairs in 2001. By 2025 Shtenyngart’s references to Tolstoy will be just as illusive as a reference to Golly Burton and Dick Chenney.

Shtyengart, Gary. Absurdistan. New York: Random House, 2006.  

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