Thursday, March 29, 2012

Aburdly Arrhythmic Absurdistan Accounting

I'm returning Gary Shteyngart's "Absurdistan" to the library soon and I never did post anything about it, so here is a parting thought or two, though much of it was covered in our Russian-themed meeting last month.

Once again, I tended to like it more than the group's average likefulness distribution, and I didn't have problems with some of the dislikes. I thought his insertion of himself into the story worked well and was more than just obligatory, crass self-deprecation of the kind we've almost come to demand nowadays - it was a great foil for the main character as well as a quick portrait of complexity - someone who seems not to have the privilege of Misha but who also is revealed ultimately to have the same cynically viewed shortcomings as everyone else in this sprawling narrative.

What I liked most about this book is how well it talks about ethics, enlightenment and the universal human condition without ever really talking about them directly. Shteyngart packs so much skepticism and ironic humor into nearly every sentence of every paragraph while playing off of the reader's [hopefully] jaundiced eye that he sweeps you along with such moment by moment head-nodding, cringing, and guffawing that the character development and insight happens right underneath your feet before you even realize that's what happening.

I yearned for development once he witnessed a group execution which includes someone he'd just gotten to know but I didn't really feel it happening, only to realize later (once he gets hit on the head with a rock and finally experiences a moment of obvious paradigm shift) that the earlier incident (and others) were indeed steps along the path, each incrementally cracking the facade, slipping feet in the doors for change.

One favorite scene was the attempt to barge into the American consulate in St. Petersburg after way too much vodka consumption (is there such a thing in Russia as over-consumption of vodka?) only to be turned back by two young Russian soldiers in American-provided uniforms who ineffectively beat on him as he offered helpful hints such as "choking or kidney-punching are probably your only hope". They end up collapsed on the sidewalk together slugging vodka and experiencing a camaraderie and connectedness that is a reversal of and in interesting contrast to the later story arc where two other young (non-Russian) soldiers ferry him around in Absurdistan humoring his imperatives until order breaks down and they turn on him like feral animals.

I also like the immediacy and intimacy (for better or worse) of the spaces these people inhabit - when someone is in your face to talk to you or kiss you, you feel pinpricks of spittle landing on your cheeks, or you can tell that they had garlic lamb for lunch earlier in the day!

On a conceptual and cultural level, it is rife with inline humor and observation and let me just say that since I didn't win the recent Mega-Millions I should at least get a chance at a Golly Burton goodie bag or a sampling of the latest scents from the prestigious 718 perfume store, like its premier Ghettoman aftershave ... For that matter, I'm also glad not to have a toxic lump that needs massage, though I guess the point of that is that we all have one of those on some level or the other and yes, they need massaging from time to time.

Finally, a personal note: A long-time friend of mine, Maud Humphrey, passed away unexpectedly and early from this life while I was reading this book. I was about halfway through it when I discovered that in fact Maud has recently read it and liked it quite a lot, and was further surprised to talk to her son who had the book and was getting ready to read it, as Maud had given it to him after finishing it (or bought it for him and then read it herself first, knowing Maud!). So I don't know, maybe that unfortunate setting helped me put other issues aside and really allow the book to enter and inhabit my world for a bit so I could really get to know and like it. I don't know.

Perhaps I'm just not critical enough because for the most part I've found PBR Bookclub selections to be wonderful experiences, through and through ("Ready Player One" was the closest I came to criticism and I mostly side-stepped it then by lowering expectations for the book as being more or less a playful low-brow homage to video games). So I blame the clubbers - pick a crappy work now and then and perhaps I'll find something to truly disparage!

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