Although I am not a wealthy 30 year-old overweight-Russia-Jew who is stuck in Russia and looks to get back to NYC, I am very drawn to the antics, body, and blindspots of Gary Shteyngart’s Misha character in his novel Absurdistan. His nomadic-translations of American culture into his own way of life are endearing: they bring me – strangely enough – close to a similar comic experience I have had as an American-Jew. My translations, though different, oddly enough find resonance in someone who is much different from me and where I am located: a Russian Jew who lives in the wake of a post-communist culture and during the upsurge of globalization and urban decay. What I like most is that this translation is fictional and it is done in jest. But this format works wonderfully to allow the reader to come into deep questions concerning the meaning of history and Jewish identity.
The novelty of the Misha character hit me when, in the first chapter entitled “The Night in Question,” he describes a party he was at the night his father was killed. His description of this evening and the party (in a comic Russian-American dialect) are witty and endearing. But unlike poor schlemiels – who are down on their luck and are low on cash – this schlemiel is affluent:
On the night of June 15 in the catastrophic year 2001, I was getting plenty of respect from my friends in a restaurant called the Home of the Russian Fisherman on Krestovsky Island, one of the verdant islands caught in the delta of the Neva River…we are standing around the Spawning Salmon pontoon, yelling at our servants, drinking down carafes of green California Riesling, our Nokia mobliniki ringing with social urgency that comes only when the White Nights strangle the nighttime, when the inhabitants of our ruined city are kept permanently awake by the pink afterglow of the northern sun. (4)
This affluence is situated in a decaying post-Communist culture (“our ruined city”). For this reason, it is meaningless. He becomes depressed when he realizes that he is the next generation. And, like many of the people his age, he cannot and doesn’t want to relive the past and the dreams of his communist parents and culture. His communist training, since youth, is now meaningless. And he counts himself, along with all his friends, as failures:
Let me tell you something: without good friends, you might as well drown yourself in Russia. After decades of listening to the familial agitprop of our parents (“We will die for you! they sing), after surviving the criminal closeness of the Russian family…after the crass socialization foisted jupon us by our teachers and factory directors….all that’s left is that toast between two failed friends in some stinking outdoor beer kiosk. (4)
He tells us that he is a “modest person” and doesn’t have many friends. Of his friends, he notes one who is very close to him (a fellow schlemiel). His other failed friend is named Alyosha- Bob. Like him, he is Jewish; and, like Misha, he is an odd Jew. But he is not a Russian-Jew; rather, he is an American Jew who he met at “Accidental College”:
My best buddy in Russia is a former American I like to call Alyosha-Bob. Born Robert Liptshitz in the northern reaches of New York State, this bald eagle (not a single hair on his dome by age twenty five) flew to St. Lenninsburg eight years ago and was transformed…into a successful Russian biznesman named Alyosha, the own of ExcessHollywood, a riotously profitable import-export business. (5)
Alyosha’s face is odd (“pinched” with a “reddish goatee”). Misha tells us that a “skinehead on the metro once described him as a gnussiy zhid, or a ‘vile looking Yid.” His choice of terms to describe Alyosha tells us that Misha’s Jewish identity – in part – is connected to how his body is seen by anti-Semites. This adds to what I noted yesterday regarding his own Jewish identity, which is connected to his body and even his weight. To be sure, he sees his body and Alyosha as sharing a similar kind of schlemiel-body.
But a schlemiel is not a schlemiel by virtue of his/her body; a schlemiel is a schlemiel also by virtue of what he or she does and how she does it. For these schlemiels, rap is part-and-parcel of their schlemiel character and when done in this Russian post-communist context it comes across in an odd way.
After describing Alyosha Bob in terms of his schlemiel-body, Misha turns toward their “interesting hobby,” which they first engaged in while in university:
We think of ourselves as the Gentlemen Who Like to Rap. Our oeuvre stretches from the old-school jams of Ice Cube, Ice-T, and Public Enemy to the sensuous rhythms of ghetto tech, a hybrid of Miami bass. (5).
(In this clip, notice how Jews are referred to and the odd confluence an anti-Semitic comment in this rap creates – vis-a-vis – this novel and Misha’s Jewish-identifications with African-American rap-music and culture.)
Using the rhetorical register of an American detective or a policeman (who would be interested in what happened the night his father was killed), Misha introduces the rap he and Alyosha made up. “On the night in question, I got the action started with a Detroit ditty I enjoy on summer days.” Misha begins:
Heah I come
Shut yo mouf
And bite yo tongue.
And Alyosha-Bob adds the rejoinder:
You think you bad?
Let me see you
Bounce dat ass.
At the end of this rap, Misha notes that “some idiot” interrupts them and asks them “why they are singing like African exchange students? You both look so cultured?” Misha’s translation of these questions to the reader is telling because it shows he identifies anti-Semitism – directed against the Jewish body – with racism:
In other words, like vile-looking Yids.
In Russia, the Jews are the blacks. And Misha retorts by saying that if the Russian author Pushkin were around he would be doing rap. The “idiot” calls Misha and Alyosha “children” and this quip hits Misha hard:
Children? Was he talking about us? What would an Ice Cube or an Ice T do in this situation? (7)
But instead of taking a stand – in real life (or even in rap) – like these African-American rappers, Misha calls his “Park Avenue analyst, Dr. Levine” for help:
To tell him once again that I had been insulted and injured, once again I had been undermined by a fellow Russian. (7)
In other words, let me translate: “I (Misha) am a schlemiel; I may tell you to “Shut yo mouf” but I have to “shut my mouf” because I’m too weak to stand up to you; however, I can (and will) speak to my analyst because I am wounded.” But he comes back to reality when, in comic fashion, he eats some food; namely, sturgeon. When he eats it, he tells us that he rocks back and forth “as if” he’s in prayer: “My body fell into a rocking motion like the religious people when they’re deep in the thrall of their god”(8). This eating, it seems, comes to his rescue when he fails. In fact, there are lots of ways he can avoid dealing with this negative accusation against him, his comic actions, and, apparently, his Jewish body.
True, Misha feels like he is a man-child and the comment that he is a “child” and not a man (or a real rapper) seems to wound this wealthy, overweight, schlemiel. And, ultimately, though he does manage to distract himself, he does, at the very least, come to the realization that he must leave his history and the Russian people:
I am not enamored of such people, I must say. How is it possible to live outside history? Who can claim immunity to it by dint of beauty and breeding?
He realizes that “you can’t ignore history altogether.” And this history includes Russian history and Jewish history. All of these meditations come to him in the wake of this insult directed at him by virtue of his rap with Alyosha-Bob.
But instead of attacking them with words or fists, he wants to understand who he is, who they are, and how he must deal with these different histories. What he doesn’t understand, however, is how his reading of his body relates to this. And this, it seems, is one of his main blindspots at the outset of the novel. Another blindspot in his identity is his relationship with his father who, that evening, he discovers was killed. He learns of this in them midst of this odd party where he is “wounded” and finds solace in his psychiatrist and food. With all his eating and talking, Misha, though wounded, can’t seem to shut his “mouf.”
And neither can the Jewish-rapper from Brooklyn otherwise known as Necro….
In the next blog, I will discuss how Misha’s Jewish khui (penis) – and his-late-in-life-circumcision – as well as his African-American girlfriend Rouenna – enters into this schlemiel-self-image.