From: Walter Miale <>
Subject: ARTICLE: NABOKOV AS A PRECURSOR - of Gary Shteyngart

In April, the editors of this forum kindly posted an off-topic query I submitted, and I received three responses, each mentioning Gary Shteyngart, the author of two novels, The Russian Debutante's Handbook, and Absurdistan, which I proceeded to read. The books, which are spellbinding, contain some Nabokovian resonances. For example, an enumeration of features of the strangely Soviet-like landscape of the south and central Bronx as seen from the el includes "the strange Tudor-style row houses that must have wandered in from some quaint English suburb." And in the same sentence the 325-pound narrator mentions "the 350-pound woman (my long-lost fellow traveler) who got on at 174th Street."

To give this a dose of Nabokov content, i.e. explicit relevance to this email discussion forum, I would try to make a case for the Borgesian idea of considering Nabokov as a precursor, specifically a precursor of Shteyngart, but this may not be necessary. Here is a miscellany, some of the je ne sais quoi, some of the "secret points," of Absurdistan.

    ...citizens, Sevo and Svanï, went about their lives, burrowing into the ready maw of the 718 Perfumery or gathering around taxis and failed minibuses to spontaneously drink Turkish coffee and spit sesame seeds at the sun.... Is this "Nabokovian"? Gogolian? Ilf and Petrovian? Hunter Thompsonian?

    And so for the next half hour, while I stroked her body up and down with my lurid male gaze, Nana told me many, many facts about the Cathedral of Saint Sevo the Liberator. I will try to relate to the reader some highlights (did I mention the orange highlights in Nana's soft brown hair?), but for a full appreciation of this weird octopuslike church, the reader should turn to the Internet.
The cathedral was built in either 1475 or 1575 or 1675; certainly there was a 75 in there somewhere....

    Beloved Papa had a very dim knowledge of flotation, a very faulty understanding of how physical objects are kept aloft by water, this despite the fact that, like every other Soviet Jew, he was a mechanical engineer by training.

    KBR was especially famous for its very generous 'goody bags,' and people were wondering what they would get at the rooftop luau (let me spoil the fun a little: it was a tin of Beluga caviar accompanied by a mother-of-pearl serving spoon engraved with the Halliburton logo; a selection of scents from the 718 perfume store, including their new Ghettomän aftershave; and gold earrings shaped like tiny offshore oil platforms, which made a nice gift for Timofey's new girlfriend, one of the older Hyatt maids).

   This was the only building of the Soviet era that did not look as if it had been continuously crapped upon by a flock of seagulls for the past five decades.

    Mr. Nanabragov pointed out the fact that I had twelve completely useless rotary phones lined up on my desk, more than anyone save himself, almost as many as Brezhnev had in his day (I assume his worked).

    "The Holocaust is a serious business," I said. "It requires very expert branding or we'll all look like a bunch of idiots." The grant proposal for a Holocaust Museum in Absurdistan beats all its competition for "most wicked" thing in the novel and probably in all American literature in the half century since Lolita.

    Almost all [of the members of some street gang] had ill-grown mustaches and sported pinkish sun-bleached sandals meant for some nonexistent third gender, along with buzz haircuts that spoke either of nationalism or retardation.

    I whipped out my laptop, jammed its little dickey into a wall socket, and powered up the World Wide Web.

    A bit from the aforementioned grant proposal: When asked to identify the following eight components central to Jewish identity--Torah, Mishnah, Talmud, Holocaust, Mikvah, Whitefish, Israel, Kabbalah--only Whitefish scored higher than Holocaust in a survey of thirty drunk Jews at a nightclub in suburban Maryland...

    ...the hundred-absurdi (US$.001) note....

    A dusty painting showed Lenin cheerfully disembarking at Finland Station, beneath which a banner warned in English: NO CREDIT CARDS. NO OUTSIDE PROSTITUTES, ONLY HOTEL PROSTITUTES. NO EXCEPTIONS.

    "Tell Papa my heart is breaking," Nana said [about to leave Absurdistan for her senior year at NYU]. "Tell him I'll come back as soon as the war is over, so maybe they should try to wrap it up by Christmas break."

    We were handed over to a relatively pleasant group of Nana's former American Express colleagues, who immediately told us that the soldiers were merely 'volunteers' and not affiliated at all wth the American Express company.

    I had nearly removed her bra and liberated one nipple when the conductor meekly came a-calling. "I'm paying for both of us," I told the old man trembling in his AmEx regalia and visored cap. "And for my manservant too."
    "Three persons, all told," the conductor said, showering us with his spittle. He was yet another aficionado of the local breakfast favorite, sheep's head and trotters dunked in garlic broth. "Er, all told, one hundred and fifty thousand dollars, please, sir."

    "Evelyn Whuh?" the Texan was shouting. "Get outta here, mister. That ain't a real name!"

    The death toll from the Absurdi conflict was approaching three thousand, the American electorate still couldn't find the Caspian sea on a map, while the Russian president Putin was promising both to bomb the warring parties and to mediate between them.

    He was clearly a Jew. And such a Jew! A prehistoric Jew, as I've said before, a Haimosaurus rex...

    "You'll love New York," I said. 'It's like having the whole world on one small island.'
    "I understand you can play basketball with blacks on the street," Yitzhak [the prehistoric Jew's son] said.

Shteyngart has the eyes, ears, nose, tastebuds, and sensitive skin of a novelist. Absurdistan, his second novel, is about, among other things, gluttony. "Valentin's tarts wept when they saw the menu. They couldn't even name the dishes, such was their excitement and money lust. They had to refer to them by their prices: 'Let's split the sixteen dollars for an appetizer and then I'll have the twenty-eight dollars and you can split the thirty-two . . . Is that all right Mikhail Borisovich?'" But the dishes give off a soupçon of green cheese and acid reflux: the smoked venison on a bed of kiwi mousse...the toxic sturgeon of the Caspian, and its fishy eggs...and the Chateau Lafite, probably emptied and the bottle refilled with a mix of Bulgarian varietals. The gluttany motif recurs throughout the book. For example, there's this, a couple hundred pages later: "I sat down in a snowdrift, opened a bag of corn chips, and swallowed them all in one go. Then I lit the remainder of a joint and realized that I should have smoked the marijuana first and eaten the corn chips second. When would I learn already?"

Like Borat and Andy Kaufman's dream childhood, Absurdistan is set in a former Soviet "republic" in the petroleum -stan belt, where Uncle Sam has in recent years quietly assumed so fateful a presence. In the midst of the turmoil that goes with the messy squabbles of the oligarchs there, and the ascendance, in Absurdistan and in the United States, of the military economy over the manufacturing and petroleum economy, the narrator attends an office party at Golly Burton (Georgian pronunciation?) to celebrate its new contracts with the US Army (it was originally an oil drilling services company), and he exchanges a few words with the company mascot, a parrot, who tells him why everyone at the party is so excited: "Cost-plus! Cost-plus!" (In the upsidedown world of military contracting, profits are proportional to costs, so there is an incentive to maximize costs. Do that in a civilian business and you're dead.)

A naive initial reading of Lolita may lead to some uncertainty and discomfort about the moral character of the book ("Hmm, this pervert is too well drawn and too amusing. Are we supposed to laugh with him at the expense of his victim?") before a re-reading leads to the conclusion that the book is very (to use what is possibly not the moh zhust) moral. Similarly, in The Russian Debutante's Handbook, Shteyngart's world of villains is drawn so convincingly in its otherness that the prim reader may find herself raising at least one horrified eyebrow. ("Hm, is this edifying, or merely a hell of a lot of fun?") With Shteyngart's second novel, I think the morality is quite clear.

In Nabokov, as in fiction generally, there is a mix of reality and fantasy. Reality in Nabokov's novels is imbued with fantasy, and is possibly as real and as fantastical as reality itself, and probably more interesting. Shteyngart's reality is still more real and no less fantastic.

More real? Shteyngart, like Dashiel Hammett, like Machiavelli, like Shakespeare, is attuned to the political dimension. It's not merely that he is politically savvy (about a thousand times --conservative estimate-- more so than Bellow); but reality IS political, that is, it has a dimension of power relations (with its algebra of injustice) that is incalculably complex and vastly more extensive than is to be found say in the world of Gogol's bureaucrats and burghers, or Godunov-Cherdynsev's Berlin or his Russia under Alexander II. (The Gift) (Of course  communists of both kinds (pro- and anti-) tend to get it all wrong. Hammett was somewhat of an exception.) In the preface to Bend Sinister, Nabokov indicates that he prides himself on being "supremely indifferent" to history and its outcomes, and elsewhere he ridicules the naive idea of trying to influence the course of history. Shteyngart also makes fun of the idea of changing the world, or rather he makes fun at least of criminal oligarchs who imagine themselves as altruistic men of destiny, but Shteyngart does not sleep through the collective nightmare of history. He takes it for his subject matter, immerses the reader in its bowels (pardon the metaphor) and provides a breathtaking overview.

Shteyngart's two novels deal with what is somewhat misleadingly called the Russian mafia, and both of the novels take a Google Earth-eye view of America and the Anti-America that is the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, in which criminal communism was replaced with criminal capitalism.

The Russian Debutante's Handbook focused on the doings of a local Russian mafiya band with its brain and muscle, its soldiers and fartsovchiki or whatever, and on how a New York social worker who was born in Russia and educated at Antioch or some place, finds himself in its milieu, a smooth operator.

Mark Danner speculated about why Osama bin Laden hadn't followed up his success of September, 2001 with another attack. Nine Eleven, Danner reasoned, was a hard act to follow, and he compared bin Laden's dilemma with "the second novel problem" of a young writer. Yes, one might have wondered how young Shteyngart would follow up the brilliancy of The Russian Debutante's Handbook. Answer: beyond all expectations.

Absurdistan zooms out, like the conclusions of an FBI superagent in an American movie, to reveal the place of its mafiyosi (?), its amusing and terrifying beeznissmen and hitmen and corrupt political bosses, in the grand matrix of transnational crime. It's on a grander scale than Hammett, who sticks to the municipal sphere, and the vision is no less penetrating. The controlling centers here are at the apeces of commerce and the power of the state. There's a cameo appearance by Dick Cheney during his Halliburton days in the 90's. It's common knowledge (yes?) that the oligarchs in Russia have allied themselves with contract killers, but that can't be true in the United States, can it?? This is how Major General Smedley Butler, USMC, winner of not one but two Congressional Medals of Honor, put it, "I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism....I was rewarded with honors, medals, and promotion. Looking back on it, I feel that I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate a racket in three city districts. The Marines operated on three continents."

I think even communist believers of all stripes will like this book. They can ignore the political revelation, or not take it seriously, and read Absurdistan for what it is, three hundred-plus pages of nonstop word artistry. The reality does not detract from the enchantment. On the contrary, it gives it power.

Of course, as William Butler Yeats <a href="" target="_blank">served notice</a> to Thomas Mann, politics isn't everything. There is a pivotal point in Absurdistan (omitted in the list of "points" above) when individual and collective nightmares merge. The protagonist, an hereditary Russian mobster-oligarch-tycoon named Vainberg (he's Jewish), has inhaled fumes of Absurdistan's traditional hallucinogen, the same one that its patron saint was under the influence of centuries ago when Jesus appeared to him and told him to stomp on his ethnic enemies. Zonked to his booties, Vainberg stumbles outdoors and finds himself somehow outside the perimeter of the Absurdistan capital's equivalent of Baghdad's Green Zone. He looks up and sees the skyscrapers dancing. "And then the Hyatt decided to cut loose. She --for there was a tender femininity about her-- lowered her hazel eyes, ignored the spaghetti strap that had fallen promiscuously off her pretty shoulder, and then, in a move of such dazzling brilliance that the enraptured sun turned rainbow every glittering piece of her broken heart, she jumped across the sea." What Misha Vainberg later realizes he actually saw on that summer day in the year 2001, when the atrocities in Chechnya were about at their height and a few weeks before the destruction of the World Trade Center in Manhattan, was the bombing of the high rise hotel where he had been living. In the weeks that followed he got a taste of how the other 99.999 percent live, and had a reverse-Salinger moment with a severely damaged child and her unforgiveable mother. Without spoiling what may be one of noveldom's great endings, it can be said that Vainberg resolved to return to his American girlfriend and to marry her and live out his days with her in the Bronx (in East Tremont, the non-white neighborhood where the girl grew up, where in summer "the air is stagnant and stinks alternately of sea, clotted cream, and rained-upon dog," and where there are "stores with no name but PLAY LOTTERY HERE.")

I can't wait for Gary Shteyngart's third novel. I hope it will be about Blackwater. Or better yet, how about a retelling of Seven Brave Tractor Drivers?

And how about a movie of Absurdistan? The best novels don't ALWAYS make lousy movies. I'd like to nominate Ben Stiller to direct. With a "Nutty Professor" getup, he could also play Vainberg.

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