Shteyngart Tells of Real-Life Absurdity

“Absurdistan” author speaks to Brattle audience about the Wild Wild East

When the acclaimed novelist Gary Shteyngart appeared at the Brattle Theatre for a freewheeling discussion on Monday, the topics ranged from being paid in cheese for his first writing assignment to avoiding the sophomore slump to emigrating from the Soviet Union. He also read from his second novel, “Absurdistan,” which he called “the story of a very large man who destroys a very small country.”

In “Absurdistan,” which was named one of the ten best books of the year by The New York Times, Misha Vainberg, the 325-pound son of the 1,238th-richest man in Russia, travels from his hometown of St. Leninsburg to New York and then to the titular country in search of his father’s love, a U.S. visa, excessive amounts of exotic food, and eventually, his own identity.

After reading aloud an excerpt about Misha’s first trip to New York and circumcision, at age 18, in a seedy Brooklyn home surrounded by Hasidic strangers, Shteyngart shared stories of the trauma of his own immigration.

“I came here in the early 80s, or I guess late 70s-early 80s, which was a terrible time to be a Russian immigrant,” he said. “Being a kid, there were all those movies out—‘Red Dawn,’ ‘Red Hampster,’ ‘Red German.’ Kids hated all things Russian. At my Hebrew School in Queens, I pretty ironically introduced myself as being from Berlin.”

Like Shteyngart, Misha wishes for detachment from Russia, so when his visa to return to America is denied because of his father’s illegal activities, he travels to Absurdistan, a place Shteyngart describes as “an oil-rich former Soviet republic on the shores of the Caspian Sea which is at this point governed by Halliburton.”

Shteyngart drew inspiration from his travels throughout the former Soviet Union, and in particular, by a place he visited in his childhood.

“When I was growing up in Leningrad, we would go down to Georgia and to this town called Sukhumi, which felt like a Soviet Disneyland,” he said in a phone interview with The Crimson. Georgia and many other parts of the former Soviet Union collapsed into civil war after its dissolution, which prevented Shteyngart from returning until just recently.

“I was hanging out in a hotel in an oil-rich capital near the Caspian Sea, and all of the local prostitutes would circle around the men asking, ‘Halliburton?’” he said of one recent and particularly inspirational trip. “All of them wanted to find Halliburton workers. And when one asked me if I was from Halliburton and I told her that no, I was just a Russian writer, she spit on the floor in front of me, and said, ‘I hate writers like you.’ That was one of the starting points, then, for the novel, and of course a scene that went into the novel.”

“Absurdistan,” a story about consumption and a criticism of the gluttonous culture America exports, does get a little political, but according to Shteyngart, he didn’t intend the novel to be a satire.

“It’s as much an act of journalism as it is of fiction writing,” he said. “Just hanging out in these small post-Soviet countries, I’ve never seen such corruption in my life. One man in Azerbaijan wanted to kidnap me and ransom Random House. People just don’t realize how crazy it is over there.”

But as much as it is an exploration of culture, Shteyngart’s novel is also deeply reflective of his own life.

“I write primarily from the point of view of one person,” he said. “Everything I write about is deeply personal. It’s a story of a man and his father, a man and his many girlfriends, a man dealing with his obsession with food, a man dealing with his religion or lack of religion.”

Still, Misha’s foremost problem is one of gluttony, and his constant consumption becomes emblematic of the consumer culture that surrounds him in every country he travels to—including our own.

“There was a weird synchronicity between what I was writing and what was happening around me,” Shteyngart said. “When I was writing I was thinking about Absurdistan as being purely those countries, but the more we live here, the more it sort of becomes our country.”