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WEDNESDAY AND THURSDAY
Gary Shteyngart has built a career out of exposing the psyche of the self-hating Russian émigré. His debut novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, introduced Vladimir Girshkin, a pleasant enough Russian-American equally repulsed by American materialism and the Russian variety, which would be even worse if Russia had more material. He deals with his disgust by moving to a loosely veiled Prague and setting out to fleece Russians and Americans alike. Misha Vainberg, the hero of Shteyngart’s latest novel, Absurdistan, is Girshkin’s opposite, but he’s caught between worlds all the same: The tremendously obese son of a mobster, Vainberg was educated in the States but is stuck in St. Petersburg. He’ll do just about anything to get back to New York, because, yes, Russia doesn’t have enough material for him. Equal parts Oblomov, Prince Myshkin, Ignatius J. Reilly, and any number of minor Gogolian heros, Vainberg leaves Russia only to blunder his way into a civil war in the title nation as well as into true love and personal salvation. Needless to say, things don’t work out. Shteyngart writes his satire frustratingly broad—just about everything’s barely camouflaged, or not at all, such as when Vainberg runs into a crew of Halliburton employees in Absurdistan—but his characters’ internal deliberations alone are worthy of Gogol-dropping. Just take Misha’s complicated relationship with his mangled, purple, “crushed insect”–resembling penis. Ask Shteyngart about his own khui when he speaks at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 31, at Border’s, 1801 K St. NW, free, (202) 466-4999, and at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 1, at Olsson’s Books & Records, 2111 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. Free. (703) 525-4227. (Mike DeBonis)