Same Planet, Different Worlds

Gary Shteyngart, author of the novel Absurdistan, discusses American rappers, Azerbaijani kidnappers, and what makes satire serious fiction

book cover

Absurdistan [Click the title
to buy this book]

by Gary Shteyngart
Random House
352 pages

In 1999, Gary Shteyngart flew into his native city of St. Petersburg, Russia, for the first time since childhood. His family had emigrated when the city was still called Leningrad, and he remembered imposing Soviet statues towering above its squares and Metro stations. That superpower grandeur was gone now: in its place were deserted fields, decaying factories, and defeated faces at passport control. “Let us be certain,” Shteyngart later wrote, summing up the wreckage. “The Cold War was won by one side and lost by another.”

These words appear in Shteyngart’s new novel Absurdistan, a post-Soviet farce inspired by what the author saw that day in 1999. In a flashback scene, Shteyngart recreates his own descent into St. Petersburg. This time, though, the man gazing out the airplane window is Misha Borisovich Vainberg, a 325-pound colossus who is the story’s narrator and protagonist.

After spending the past decade stateside, Misha is returning home to visit his “Beloved Papa,” a Jewish dissident who proudly served prison time for urinating on a neighbor’s anti-Semitic dog. Misha hopes his visit with Beloved Papa will be brief. Since his graduation from Accidental College (an American liberal arts school that is a thinly veiled parody of Shteyngart’s alma mater, Oberlin), Misha has been living in New York, and he is anxious to return to Zagat-rated restaurants and a Bronx ghetto queen named Rouenna. But his father is now a wealthy Russian oligarch, and when he commits a high-profile crime against an Oklahoma businessman, he ensures that his Misha will never again be allowed to set foot on U.S. soil.

Absurdistan opens two years later on June 15, 2001. Misha, now a prisoner in his native land, is living out a lavish yet sullen existence. He spends his days throwing shoes at his manservant and his nights gorging himself on the city’s finest cuisine. He keeps company with a cast of elite Petersburg characters, each of whom seems to have floated off the pages of a classic Russian novel: his 21-year-old mother-in-law resembles the well-married peasant girl from Fathers and Sons, while an impoverished artist who dines with him at a czarist palace brings to mind the hero of Crime and Punishment. Despite all of this high culture, Misha longs for nothing more than an evening with Rouenna folding socks at a Bronx Laundromat.

About a third of the way through the novel, Misha discovers an elaborate escape route that takes him across the Caucasus Mountains and into a country called Absurdistan. At this point, the story abruptly shifts focus: no longer concerned with the Russian ruling class, it becomes a biting satire about U.S. oil interests in former Soviet republics. Absurdistan’s two major ethnic groups, the Sevo and the Svanï, are at war, and the Americans have found a way to make a fortune from their misfortune. Shteyngart, so gifted at inventing names for colleges and countries, does not bother to hide the identity of his corporate targets: Halliburton, Exxon, and BP all appear as themselves, and even Dick Cheney is granted a small cameo role.

It’s easy to draw any number of morals from Shteyngart's novel: America is addicted to power, not oil. Russia is trapped between a glorious past and a bleak future. The Caucasian republics are headed for all-out anarchy. But if Absurdistan offers one overarching lesson, it is that despite the fall of the Iron Curtain, the barrier between the Western world and the former Soviet Union remains opaque and inscrutable. That a single planet could bring forth gangsta rap and Pushkin's poetry, New York Laundromats and remote outposts on the Caspian Sea, is an endless source of mystery for Misha, who reflects in one of the book’s quieter moments:

The Soviet Union is gone, and the borders are as free and passable as they’ve ever been. And yet, when a Russian moves between the two universes, this feeling of finality persists, the logical impossibility of a place like Russia existing alongside the civilized world…. It was like those mathematical concepts I could never understand in high school: if, then. If Russia exists, then the West is a mirage; conversely, if Russia does not exist, then and only then is the West real and tangible.

I interviewed Gary Shteyngart on June 1, during the Washington leg of his current book tour. Seated at the wine bar of the International Spy Museum, in a room decorated with Cyrillic writings, we talked about why Russia lost the Cold War and whether American fiction can survive.

Jennie Rothenberg

Caitlin Flanagan
Gary Shteyngart
(Photo by Marion Ettlinger)

The New York Times Book Review just ran a huge picture of your face. Have people started to recognize you when you walk down the street?

Sometimes they do, when I’m in New York. But I was actually much more recognizable before I shaved my goatee.

On the jacket of your first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, there was a memorable picture of you sitting on a curb, holding a bear cub on a leash.

I’d like to pose with another animal for my next book. I love the South American animal the capybara, the biggest rodent in the world. They had one in the Brooklyn Zoo, but he died, probably from loneliness.

I wanted to ask you about the passage you read at last night’s signing for Absurdistan. It was a particularly grisly chapter in which the main character, Misha Vainberg, arrives in New York and is forcibly circumcised by a group of Hasidic Jews. What made you choose that scene?

I read that section because I’ve memorized it almost by heart. Also, later on in the book, things get really complicated. I hate going to readings where the author starts out by saying, “Okay, let me give you the lowdown,” and then talks for ten minutes. Then he starts to read and you think, “What the hell is going on here?” But this is very simple. Fat man gets circumcised.

You told the audience members that their questions were tame. What kinds of responses were you expecting?

Yeah, it was a very mild question and answer session! Here, of all places, I expected a lot of State Department people to hate me, a lot of Azerbaijani people to hate me, a lot of Washington society people to hate me. I wanted all of them to come out for a public lynching, but it didn’t happen.

I know you left St. Petersburg at the age of seven, and now you go back for a visit every year. But there must have been a long gap between your arrival in New York in the 1970s and your first trip back to Russia.

The gap was pretty long. It was 1999 when I returned for the first time. I’d always been interested in going back, and in 1993 I wanted to do my junior year abroad at Moscow State University. But by this time, violence was already breaking out, and my mother said, “You’re crazy! They’ll kill you.” So I ended up going to Prague with my girlfriend at the time, and that experience became my first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. If I had been allowed to go to Russia, I wonder whether Absurdistan would have been my first book.

I visited Russia just once, during the summer of 1990. I met a Russian girl who took me to Arbat Street, the bohemian district of Moscow. All the young people were singing about freedom and shouting, “Die, communism, die!” The Russians I met expected the fall of the Soviet Union to be a victory for the people, like the Velvet Revolution in Prague. But in Absurdistan, you describe it as a crushing defeat. What happened between my visit in 1990 and your visit in 1999?

The problem is that the mentality of the people didn’t change at all—the mentality that waits for the next great leader to come along and show the way. The people in the elite didn’t change at all, either. They’re the same people, except they changed stripes. The ruler of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, is a perfect example. He sucked up to Brezhnev for so long. He was a stalwart communist secretary. Then the Soviet Union collapsed: “All right—now we’re nationalists. We’re going to war with Armenia!”

So the leaders were able to turn on a dime, and the people still don’t understand how democracy functions. If you ask the average Russian, “Do you want a free press, or do you want sausages?” he’ll say, “Sausages.” And what’s so shocking about that is that this is a fairly educated population. They have so much knowledge but a complete lack of understanding of what is in their best interests.

In Absurdistan, Misha’s father is an oligarch named Boris Vainberg. Did you base that character on Boris Berezovsky, the real-life businessman who rose to power in Yeltsin’s government after he’d laundered millions of dollars under the guise of selling cars?

There are some similarities there. The difference is that Misha’s father was a dissident. These days, Berezovsky has become a “build your own dissident” kind of guy, but during the Soviet era he wasn’t at all. The weird thing about Berezovsky is that he converted from Judaism to Christianity, which was a very strange move on his part. I wonder what the political calculation was there. I doubt he discovered the Holy Trinity one night.

What about Misha himself? What inspired you to write a book about a 325-pound Russian man who dresses in Puma tracksuits?

Actually, I got the idea from this guy who went to college with me—a big, huge Russian guy who I thought was so full of life. We were all these meek little immigrant kids with one foot in one world and one foot in another. But this guy, he just rolled around, eating chips and smoking everything in sight. He was a real mensch.

I’ve also always been fascinated by overweight people, like Oblomov, one of the great characters from Russian literature, and Ignatius Reilly in John Kennedy Toole’s book A Confederacy of Dunces. I love the way a fat man is put together. And I thought it would be a perfect expression of what Misha is. In a way, Misha’s character is more a critique of America than a critique of Russia. He’s a consumerist bar none. Women and sturgeons and political ideas—everything goes down his maw. His Little Red Book is the Zagat survey of New York restaurants.

I recently came across an old essay of yours from The Threepenny Review, where you write about lying in your hotel room in Russia and repeating American phrases to yourself: “Was’ up? When do you get off work?” Misha does something similar in Absurdistan—he stands in the middle of a St. Petersburg bar mumbling words like, “Korean grocery. Salad bar. Laundromat.” Tell me more about this need to speak colloquial American English when you’re in Russia.

I just finished doing a Russian-language interview with Voice of America. Even after an hour of that, I’m craving a dose of English! It was a call-in show, and one of the people calling in from Russia asked, “Are you a first-rate writer, or are you more of a Negro kind of writer?” I said, “I believe the term is African-American.” It’s such a different world, so hysterically different. And trying to bridge these two worlds is very odd. The thing is, too, I’m never terribly happy wherever I am. I miss Russia terribly when I’m here, and I really can’t deal with Russia for more than two months when I’m there.

Do you ever write in Russian?

I don’t think my grammar is good enough. It would take some getting up to par. But why would I do it? My readership is here. And I love English. It’s very versatile, and it’s so global. It takes in a lot of jokes that no other language can capture.

Misha is baffled by the idea that Russia and America can even coexist on the same planet. Would you say that’s a major theme of the book?

It’s a major theme for sure. I travel a lot, and I’m always shocked by the bric-a-brac bazaar that so many countries have become, taking bits and pieces of things usually from the West but also from other places. The symbol of that in the book is the used remote control flea market run by the Svanïs. People are just buying remote controls and hoping they’ll connect to a television. I think that’s a metaphor for how people are in these places. They’re trying to connect to the West. They’re aiming their remotes but they’re not getting a signal.

There’s one character in Absurdistan, a fashion-conscious Petersburg girl, who keeps raving about her new bright orange towels. She thinks they’re trendy and American, but they’re actually just garish. The sense I got is that young Russians are trying to fill in a gray picture with colors that are too bright and somehow just wrong. Is that how it feels to you?

St. Petersburg certainly feels like that because it’s an incredibly northern city built on a swamp. But even in the nineteenth century, the colors were all pastel. It makes you feel like you’re in South Beach with neoclassical buildings. These days, the crooks do everything they can to be flashy—they wear Adidas tracksuits and Versace double-breasted jackets. I think now they’re like, “Okay. We’ve got to calm down. A little less ‘bling.’”

Speaking of bling, I understand you were a big hip-hop fan in college.

Oh my God! It was so liberating. I came from a very conservative, constricted society. I myself worked for the George Bush, Sr., campaign when I was fifteen. Then I went to Oberlin and my eyes opened, my lungs opened. And the music, the Ice Cube! I remember sitting there listening to it, smoking that pot. It was the first time in my life that I could relax.

There’s only one flashback to Misha’s college years—you show us his first conversation with Alyosha-Bob, an American who is so enamored of Russian “spirituality” that he shreds all his possessions and throws them out the window. Have you come across Americans who glorify Russia in that way?

Sure. I think that scene pretty much nails it. Misha says, “No, we’re not spiritual. We just want things.” Really, though, Russia is a spiritual country. Russian Orthodoxy is making a big comeback right now. Hari Krishnas are running around Moscow. The country does have a huge spiritual yearning along with its yearning for sausage.

The most pretentious line I ever overheard at a party was from a Berkeley graduate student with a cocktail in her hand who said, “I am so immune to the seductiveness of Russian literature!” People always seem so jaded and self-important when they’re studying Russian culture.

I know! But it’s like hip-hop. You’ve got to earn your stripes by actually living there and suffering. You can’t just pretend you’re from the ’hood.

I don’t know why people get that way. I think one thing is that Russia is such a vast, gigantic country, sometimes governable and sometimes not. It’s not a small, self-assured country like Denmark. The literature is filled with all these deep, brooding questions about God. Another big theme is slavery. Serfdom was a humiliating, terrifying experience for millions of Russians. Russia didn’t look for another race to enslave. They enslaved themselves.

The characters in Russian literature are also fantastic. For Absurdistan, you borrowed characters from books like Crime and Punishment and Fathers and Sons—the starving artist with delusions of grandeur, the idealized peasant girl who marries the old nobleman. Are these real-life Russian personality types that pop up even on the streets of modern St. Petersburg or Moscow?

Yes, and those writers nailed them! Nineteenth-century Russian literature has no equal anywhere in the world. It will never have an equal—in terms of character, in terms of plot, in terms of psychological depth. I write satire, which is not exactly known for its empathy and compassion. But when I look back at a book like Fathers and Sons, I really admire how much compassion there is for everyone involved.

You wrote your Oberlin thesis on the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Moldova, and Tajikistan. What angle did you take?

I think it was called “Back in the USSR.” It was about how those countries were, in many ways, starting to come together toward the center, toward Moscow. As I started writing it, I was already writing my first book. I’d thought I could be a political scientist or something like that, but the lure of fiction was impossible to resist.

You spent a lot of time in Azerbaijan a couple of years ago. Did that experience provide most of the material for the country you created in Absurdistan?

Azerbaijan was a big influence. Also Georgia, with the ethnic conflicts between Christian factions—in Azerbaijan, of course, they’re Muslims. But Absurdistan was mostly just whatever the hell I wanted it to be.

What about Svanï City, the capital of Absurdistan? You describe its layout in such a detailed way. Did you base it on a real city like Baku? Or did you sit down and sketch out a brand new city on paper?

Yeah, I actually sat down and sketched it all out. I wanted to be an urban planner before I became a writer, so I got to do it in this book. I love cities built on hilltops. I also love the idea of having different parts of the city cleaved into terraces.

You mentioned very briefly last night that while you were in Azerbaijan, someone tried to kidnap you.  What was that all about?

I was living in this remote, godforsaken town, and a guy drove along and said, “Hey, buddy! Need a lift to Baku?” I said, “Yeah, what the hell!” I got in the car and he said, “You know, I could have kidnapped you. In fact, I still can—if you’re into that.”

Was he serious?

Yeah! He wanted to get some money out of it.

How did you dissuade him?

I was very nonchalant. I said, “Let’s see. Maybe we can come up with something else.”

Were you afraid?

No, not with this guy. There aren’t many men I could outwrestle, but he would be one.

At certain points in Absurdistan, you seem to imply that Boris Vainberg sexually molested Misha when he was a child—holding him close and grabbing at his penis, or, as he calls it, his khui. A lot of reviewers have been trying to figure out what’s going on there.

I think something is going on there. I don’t want to take this to Oprah lengths, but let’s just say it speaks of what one reporter called “the cloying closeness of the Russian family,” the lack of boundaries. To me, the boundaries America puts up within the family are the best thing about this country. There may be a few too many boundaries, but we don’t all have to live together and base our lives upon the wishes of our elders. It’s beautiful.

In a way, your description of Misha and his father just seems like one more way of satirizing passionate, complex Russian relationships—like the scene with the Russian soldiers who first beat up Misha and then fall to the ground and embrace him.

I would say so. But I mean, look. If you drink 300 grams of vodka, you are going to be punching and kissing and all these different things. I’ve had so many raucous nights in Russia. I got drunk with some Mongols once. They were hugging me, by the end, saying, “There are Jews and there are Yids. And you’re a Jew.”

That sort of thing happens to Misha, too. When the Absurdistani characters find out that Misha is Jewish, they become incredibly enthusiastic: “We love Jews! Jews are our brothers!” Is that something you came across in countries like Georgia and Azerbaijan?

“The Jews are our brothers! Now give us some money!” Wherever I’d travel, people would become very excited when they discovered I was Jewish. They all had their pet theories they wanted to try out, too. “With 9/11, was it really the Jews who did that?” “Is it true that Stalin was a Jew?” They can’t hold back their curiosity. They know they would protect their own people no matter what, so they think, “If this is true, all of the Jews must know about it!”

There’s one scene where Misha is at a dinner table with a bunch of Absurdistani warlords. Everyone is making toast after toast to the Jewish people, but one Russian guy keeps muttering anti-Semitic remarks: “After all, everyone knows that six million Jews didn’t really die in the concentration camps.” 

There really was an occasion like that in Georgia. Everyone at the table with me was going on about how wonderful the Jews were, and there was one guy who kept saying, “Remember, they did kill Christ.”

Whenever people ask Misha, “Who are you—by nationality?” it turns out that the correct answer is not “Russian” but “Jewish.” Is Judaism still considered a nationality in Russia rather than a religion?

Sure. There are two different words for “Russian”: one means Russian nationality, and the other means an inhabitant of Russia. There’s a nationality line on the passport—it can say “Jewish” or it can say “Russian.” On my mother’s passport it said Russian. She’s half-Russian and half-Jewish. The idea was that maybe I could go Russian, too, based on her. But with a schnoz like this, it would have been a problem.

How did you come up with the idea for the “Mountain Jews” who appear at the beginning and the end of the book?

I actually went to visit them. They’ve been living there for hundreds of years—they won’t go. They’re pretty meshugah.

Have they really built a replica of Jerusalem’s Western Wall in the middle of their village?

No, no. Wait—yes, they have! I’m starting to forget already what’s fiction and what’s non-fiction. I’m like James Frey in reverse.

I wanted to ask you about some of your contemporaries, other Russian-Jewish writers like Lara Vapnyar and David Bezmozgis. At the reading last night, you mentioned that it took a while for all of you to get over your guilt about airing your family laundry in public.

Yeah, and my guilt wasn’t even as great as some of theirs. I mean, Lara Vapnyar—she still freaks the hell out when she gets angry letters from the Russian community. I really don’t get those kinds of letters anyhow, probably because they think, “Oh, he’s a satirist,” while she writes in a more realistic vein. Not that she’s ever written anything at all critical of the community. People just want to complain. And complaining about writers is a Russian trait and a Russian right.

Does David Bezmozgis also deal with a lot of criticism?

Who knows? He’s from Canada. I think people are more civil there.

One thing that makes the three of you so distinct is that you’re old enough to remember the Cold War but young enough to have a fresh take on everything that happened afterwards.

I think we came here at the right age. And we came from the right place to the right place—from one crumbling empire to another crumbling empire. There’s a kind of gigantamania about being force-fed all of this horseshit about Lenin and then coming here and being fed all of this stuff about Reagan. A novelist, in many ways, wants to expose the truth. When you’re lied to for so long in so many different forms, you’re much more interested in finding out what’s real.

As a child, you were really taken with the statues and Soviet paraphernalia in the Russian Metro stations.

They were impressive. And they’re impressive to this day. The historical monuments Russia builds now, especially in Moscow, are pathetic. There’s a Georgian architect who recently designed a statue of Peter the Great manning the rudder of his ship. It looks like a Baroque Godzilla. It’s the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen.

Hasn’t there been a pop-culture revival of Soviet kitsch? In one of your New Yorker articles, you wrote about standing in a nightclub with a bunch of Russian kids who were singing old communist songs at the top of their lungs.

I call it “Totalitarian Disney.” It happens because Russia is a nation that has no idea what it is or where it’s going. And after all, when it comes to communism, you have to consider what took place before it: there was czarism, which was really horrifying. It was a terrible autocratic system, and what you have now is reminiscent of that—a tiny, tiny, elite that runs everything, and people who don’t own the shirts on their backs. And you know, I think a lot of oligarchs are spending money like crazy because they know that tomorrow they’ll be sent to Siberia. Today they’ve got it, but one wrong step and everything slips out of control. They’re living for the moment.

You mentioned earlier that your next book is going to be set in the year 2040, in an evangelical community in upstate New York.

I’m still playing with that. It will be set sometime in the future.

The protagonist is going to be Jerry Shteynfarb, who was one of the minor characters in Absurdistan. Jerry came to America from St. Petersburg as a child, and he made a name for himself with a book called The Russian Arriviste’s Hand Job—in other words, he sounds a lot like you. But you also have a lot in common with Misha Vainberg from Absurdistan and Vladimir Girshkin from your earlier novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. Does each of these characters represent something particular about your nature?

I share some of Vladimir’s insecurities of being any nationality at all. I share Misha’s love of life, his need to sample everything possible. Living in the Soviet Union, being constrained, there’s a need to let it all out. As for Jerry Shteynfarb, it’s a little more complicated. I haven’t slept with any of my Hunter students the way he has. And I hope I’m not the kind of pompous shmuck who uses his immigrant credentials to climb up the ladder of success. Jerry Shteynfarb is just my way of deflating the ego a little bit.

In Absurdistan, he was an offstage character. But if you’re going to use him as a protagonist, I’m guessing you’ll have to flesh him out a bit.

Exactly. I couldn’t just use him as a little puppet.   

You’ve said that the characters in your next book will speak a strange hybrid of Korean, Tagalog, Spanish, and English.

I’m still fine-tuning this concept. It will be a tough one to pull off. We’ll see. The question I always ask in my career is, “Do I want to ramp up the satire, or do I want to ease up on the throttle?” There’s so much else I want to do. I’ve been thinking about writing a travelogue. I’m a contributing editor for Travel and Leisure, so I do a lot of travel writing. And I may write a different novel first.

Can you say anything more about that?

Well, it’s shaping up. I would say it’s a book set in New York in our time today, but people are gradually losing the ability to read or express complex sentences. Eventually, grunting and pictures take over. It’s a very quiet piece—sad, but funny, too. It’s a love story between two immigrants: a Russian and a Korean.

Don’t you have a Korean girlfriend?

Yeah. Hey, write what you know!

I read somewhere that you don’t think all that highly of short fiction these days. What do you think is lacking?

Well, this is the post-modern attack on post-modernity, but when you look at modern fiction, it’s like there’s been a long meal, and people are looking at the wreckage of the food, wondering, “What can we take home? Is there anything salvageable?” The problem is also that we as writers have a huge responsibility to be innovative, to take the reader somewhere she hasn’t gone before. You need a complete reinvention of the short story. George Saunders is one writer who knows that. He has such an eye for absurdity, corruption, the yearning for dignity that so often goes unanswered despite the excess of everything this country has.

But listen—will there be anyone around to read us, even? I’m not talking about global warming. I’m talking about the attrition of the book-buying public. The Internet is to blame, and there are all kinds of other factors, but the biggest problem is that we live in a country where everyone wants to write and no one wants to read. Eighty percent of Americans say they could write a book, but if eighty percent of Americans read a book every year—serious fiction and serious non-fiction—the country would be transformed.

You’re a satirist. How would you define a “serious” book?

A book that isn’t just a headline or a smart little anecdote. A book that stands the test of time. Not that I’m sure my fiction will survive. But that’s always the dream.