“THE most advanced and penultimate stage of civilization”, Joseph Heller once observed, “is attained when chaos masquerades as order”.
Heller’s 1970s satire Good as Gold seemed to suggest that society had already reached this point. But somehow the world did not fall into the final stage of complete destruction: it merely edged closer to the brink. Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan is a Joseph Heller novel for a modern age, a witty if troubling riff on chaos masquerading as the New World Order.
The Absurdistan of the title is an ex-Soviet backwater state imagined by a present-day Jonathan Swift. The Absurdi people are divided into two ethnic groups: the Svani and Sevo. Although indistinguishable to outsiders, they bristle with hatred for one other. From what historians can make out, the hostility stems from an ancient dispute over which way Christ’s footrest tilted when he was on the cross.
Into this comes the book’s narrator, the corpulent Misha Vainberg. Misha’s father, “the 1,238th richest man in all of Russia”, has just been murdered. And the legacy he’s left is grim. Like the sons of many oligarchs, Misha was educated in America, and he now longs to live there with his Bronx- based girlfriend. The main obstacle is that his late father recently killed a businessman from Ohio, putting the Vainbergs squarely on a State Depart-ment blacklist.
Misha arrives in Absurdistan in search of a corrupt EU official known for handing out fake passports, but finds himself instead caught up in a Svani-Sevo civil war. The protagonist is an ideal narrator for what could be the first great comedy of globalization: familiar with Russia, America and Absurdistan, Misha sees a world moving towards a homogeneous but bizarre banality. Music companies shape global tastes by flooding countries with generic rap music; internet service providers have become so vital that even Russian hitmen have their own websites; the Hyatt hotel in Absurdistan is indistinguishable from every other in the world; and once the shooting starts, the troops Misha leans on for protection aren’t UN blue-hats but mercenaries sent in by American Express.
The unofficial AmEx army cuts to the heart of the book’s main concern: the eclipse of (admittedly inept) government bodies by equally inept but far more sinister private agencies. Shteyngart’s overall thesis is not that the world is one giant Absurdistan, but rather that it is one giant Russia. Oligarchs of one form or another are taking power everywhere, and subverting the accountability of democratic governments.
Even before the civil war breaks out, the Absurdis have little regard for the US State Department. About the best it can provide is free Xeroxing and “five thousand free copies of An American Life by Ronald Reagan”, and none of the staffers actually speak any local languages. “There’s one guy who sort of speaks Russian”, a top diplomat explains, “but he’s still trying to learn the future tense”.
The power vacuum this creates is quickly filled. The main mover-shakers are contractors from Halliburton, who have all sorts of amoral plans for the region, and the civil war itself ultimately turns out to be the result of a conspiracy between Halliburton and Absurdi leaders. The planners want Absurdistan to stage-manage a “heart-wrenching genocide” that will stir up recollections of Bosnia, believing that Americans will soon clamor for a humanitarian intervention. Once that happens, the Absurdis will receive an influx of US aid, the Pentagon can build a strategically convenient base, and Halliburton can stuff its pockets by building that base on a financially loopy contract. “You’ve got to hand it to Halliburton”, one character admiringly says. “If Joseph Heller were still alive, they’d probably ask him to be on their board”.
But as Joseph Heller would know, chaos doesn’t settle down just because it’s masked as order. Even a pretend civil war has a momentum of its own and a death toll that is all too real. Crucially, the American military never arrives because US focus groups show no interest in the country. One pollster explains that for the electorate to accept an intervention, “you have to be able to use a country as a child’s first name to get anywhere. Rwanda Jones. Somalia Cohen. Timor Jackson. Bosnia Lewis-Wright”. The four horsemen of the apocalypse are preceded by the four outriders of Idiocy, Ignorance, Hypocrisy and Greed.
Despite this underlying despair, Absurdistan is laugh-out-loud funny throughout. If civilization is indeed in its penultimate stage, then Shteyngart is the perfect jester to satirize our final days.