sernovitz v. Shteyngart

3QD friend Gary Sernovitz reviews Absurdistan at n+1.

When you have two girlfriends, John Madden once said, you have none. Madden, the football commentator, was talking about quarterbacks. If neither of a team’s quarterbacks is good enough to end the debate on which one should play, then the team doesn’t have a player fit for the job. So, too, if a man can’t decide between two women, neither is the right one for him. Misha Vainberg, the narrator of Gary Shteyngart’s second novel, Absurdistan, has two girlfriends: Rouenna in the Bronx and Nana in the fictional Central Asian country of Absurdsvanï. This is not a problem for Misha, but it is a problem for Absurdistan. Misha’s frequent, fervent declarations of love for both women make him hard to believe about either one.

Absurdistan has bigger problems, though. Impressively imagined, it recreates the insidiousness, spectacle, and variety of contemporary American and global culture. Yet it suffers deeply from Shteyngart’s disregard for selection and consequence in his jokes, incidents, and characters, especially Misha himself. John Madden might also have said that when you have two voices, you have none, and Misha Vainberg has seven or eight.

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