The Moore Than This Bumper Summer Book Review – Comic Novels

The summer books roundup rolls on apace. In this section, the best comic novels I’ve read this summer. (In this context, comic novel basically means “something that made me laugh”. Hopefully it’ll mean the the same for you too.)

Absurdistan
by Gary Shteyngart (Granta, 2006, 338pp)

Although Martin Amis’ work has suffered a shocking decline in quality lately (his novel Yellow Dog really was, in the words of Tibor Fischer “not-knowing-where-to-look bad”), I will always retain a residual respect for him due to his terrific 1984 satire Money, a book as overblown, hedonistic and exuberant as the decade it brilliantly sent up. Now, in the form of Shteyngart’s second novel, the post-9/11 world has its own version of that novel. The protagonist, a overweight post-Communist Russian libertine named Misha Vainberg, has in his voracious appetites a similarity with Amis’s John Self, but differs from him in a charming naiveté which makes him an ideal innocent abroad in the chaos and corruption of today’s globalised world which Shteyngart conjures up.

Barred from the USA after his gangster father murders on Oklahoma businessman, Misha wants nothing more than to enjoy the pleasures of New York and his Puerto Rican girlfriend. An opportunity to be reunited with both arises when he journeys to the fictional post-Soviet republic of Absurdistan to buy a Belgian passport from a corrupt official. A young country with an age-old history, Absurdistan has temporarily put aside its ancient ethnic greivances and is on the make, with a cast of bizarre characters including Halliburton and KBR contractors, depressed hotel managers, and democracy activists clutching Century 21 bags from their State Depertmant-subsidised trips to New York. However, the fragile situation soon plunges into civil war, and Misha finds himself appointed Minister of Multicultural Affairs and involved in a complicated scheme to get the US to intervene and make the country rich through reconstruction contracts.

There are several inspired comic set pieces throughout the book, such as the party for KBR contractors on the roof of the Hyatt Hotel, or Misha’s pitch for a Holocaust Museum in Absurdistan to raise the country’s international profile. But as the fake war becomes more and more real, the book develops a darker tone, mixing a satire of Western intervention with a devastating sketch of those conflicts we prefer to ignore.

Absurdistan suffers the problem of many comic novels – it is unsure how to end, and once the big twist is unveiled, it runs out of steam in the closing chapters. But Misha’s voice – neurotic, hopelessly optimistic, in love with hip-hop and American culture – remains engaging to the final page. It is his voice that saves the novel from the sour note that would creep in with a more worldly narrator, and makes it the first great satire of the world of globaisation, Iraq, KBR and Halliburton, immigration anxiety, and military intervention, where there often seems little to laugh about.

Bush Falls
by Jonathan Tropper (Arrow, 2004, 345pp)

The “about the author” section of this book mentions that it is currently in development at Warner Bros. Studios, which I don’t really find surprising – the plot is pure Hollywood, though with a nice dusting of cynicism. It is, however, slightly ironic, as the book deals with a successful novel adapted into a Hollywood smash. The author, Joe Goffman, created such a devastating character assassination of his Connecticut home town (the eponymous Bush Falls) that the townspeople now all hate him. Joe doesn’t care – he’s living the life of a successful author in New York, although he feels strangely empty.

When a family emergency brings him back to Bush Falls, he’s brought face to face with the consequences of trashing the town’s reputation. His house is pelted with copies of the book, he gets beaten up and insulted in the street. (Everyone’s a critic.) More seriously, he realises that he may have burned his bridges with his family and his high-school sweetheart. Interspersed with the present-day storyline are flashbacks to Joe’s adolescence, when a tragic death drove him to cut all ties with the town.

Bush Falls treads a rather standard plotline – man comes back to his hometown, deals with his past, finds love and Learns Something along the way – but it’s well-written enough for the cliches to slide by easily. Joe’s voice is a strength, sarcastic and self-deprecating, and helps you warm to a slightly unsaymapthetic hero. Tropper portrays him as the archetypal nerd made good, who survived high school by developing his skills at insults and snappy retorts, and as amusing as these are, I enjoyed watching Joe’s friends and family gradually penetrate his armour. If there’s a criticism to be made, it’s that I often found Joe annoyingly wimpish. I wanted him to get angry, to attempt to fight back once in a while. He survives a couple of fairly serious attempts to kill him, which realistically would prompt a stronger response than yet another one-liner. That false note aside, it’s a fun, lightwieght and very readable book, perfect for the summer.  If nothing else, it’ll save you from having to see the film.

Digging to America
by Anne Tyler (Vintage, 2006, 330pp)

The immigrant experience, that perennial subject for American authors, is examined from a number of different perspectives in Baltimore author Anne Tyler’s latest novel. The Yazdans and the Donaldsons arrive at the airport to take delivery of two Korean babies at the same time, and through the growth of their adopted children and the gradual friendship between the two families, Tyler sketches how the melting pot ideal translates into reality, and how the universal experience of bringing up a child can both unite and divide.

Tyler does an excellent job of outlining the tensions within the respective families. Maryam, the matriarch of the Iranian-American Yazdans, wonders at her children’s growing distance from her, even as she strikes up a friendship with Dave, father of the Donaldson parents who recently lost his wife to cancer. The details on Iranian culture sprinkled throughout the narrative are fascinating, and underpin an intriguing subplot about the struggles between becoming “truly American” and retaining the identity of the home country, which is mirrored in the families’ respective upbringing of the two girls, Susan and Jin-Ho.

The narration skips from one character to another effortlessly, conjuring up their thoughts, hopes and fears. Tyler once again shows her skill at writing children’s inner monologue, which not many authors can do well. And after watching tons of Homicide: Life On The Street and The Wire, it’s good to see a portrayal of Baltimore that’s not full of drugs, crime and murders.

The review of my best books of the summer will conclude soon, with some volumes packed full of war, murder, violence and mayhem. That’s right – it’s the non-fiction books! Prepare to go back to reality.

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