Gary Shteyngart, Absurdistan (Randon House, 2006). Ada meets Da Ali G Show. The wicked command of both English prose and American ways owes much to Nabakov, and the unforgiving rage at Soviet injustice and exasperated love for dumbed-down American pop culture are Nabakovian as well. Here hip-hop, or should I say the raunchier precincts of gangsta rap, stands in for everything that is swallowed whole, without regard for consequences, from the West by the East. Misha Vainberg is a modern version of Tolstoy's Pierre Bezukhov, so rich and cosmopolitan that he is the last man to understand that the war, and the country, have been lost. The ghost of Mikhail Bulgakov also haunts these pages, where not only chaos but also phantasmagoria constantly threaten to erupt. In the end the most damning indictment is of the rapine of the former Soviet Republics after the collapse of the USSR; this comic writer has written perhaps the ultimate Halliburton novel.
Friday, May 11, 2007
John McGahern, Amongst Women, 1990 (Penguin). A very well-written short novel that I read because it won the Irish Times Literary Award. Michael Moran is a former IRA soldier (a long-ago guerrilla, not a hard man of the North) who feels bitter and alienated in modern Ireland. He is a highly conceptualized, allegorical figure, standing in for a certain part of Ireland itself. He is emotionally austere and estranged from his oldest son, but far from a monster, capable of warmth and very loyal but committed to a minimalist lifestyle that reflects a history of poverty even as prosperity slowly blossoms around him. His Catholic faith is his staff and a matriline of women is his world. His sin is pride, that shuts him off from almost the entire world outside of his family. A deep theme in Irish literature is displacement, the presence of incongruous elements in the Irish character, vestiges of another world, another Irish reality, that is felt more than understood. This novel is a near-perfect crystallization of that theme. Compare this one to Aidan Higgins's Langrishe, Go Down (1966); Catholic and Protestant versions of the Irish eulogy.