What became of Generation X? Don't remember? You must be one of them. You grew up with Reaganomics and The Day After and MTV and AIDS. You're addicted to video games, pop culture and irony. Terrified of sex and relationships. Insulated from politics by a batting of cynicism.
Gary Shteyngart's Absurdistan was a staple of 2006 best-of lists, and put its author on another list: Best Young American Novelists, according to Granta, the vaunted literary journal. Absurdistan is both a wild satire and a State of the Generation stand-up routine. Its narrator is Misha Vainberg, an obscenely rich and obese American-educated Russian Jew, "a sophisticate and a melancholic" with a mangled khui (from a botched circumcision performed at age 18), a $350/hour Park Avenue shrink, and a vanity that hangs grotesquely on his 325-pound body.
Absurdistan satirizes wretched post-perestroika Russia, the sterility of western Europe, global oil mania (Halliburton takes direct hits), and the codes of race and class. But Shteyngart—who was born in 1972 in Russia, moved to the U.S. at age 7 and went to Oberlin College—points his biggest guns at his country and himself: "[M]y American story," Misha boasts, "is ... the ultimate compliment to a nation known more for its belly than for its brain." He also gives Misha a nemesis, a former classmate named "Jerry Shteynfarb" who is now a preening, hip writer and has designs on Misha's ex-stripper girlfriend, a "South Bronx girlie-girl" who looks around St. Petersburg and asks "Where the niggaz at?"
Gen-X self-loathing is shot through Absurdistan, which skewers Americanism, Jewry, its own protagonist and author and their whole feckless generation, which lost its spirit to the cold, anxious, technological gloom of the '80s. Absurdistan has the ebullience of youth and the sourness of its breeding—not that you read books, you lazy, cynical Generation Xer. Now get off your MTV-watching ass and go hear Shteyngart read.
Gary Shteyngart reads from Absurdistan at Regulator Bookshop in Durham Thursday, April 12, at 7 p.m.