Thursday, March 28, 2013

Due Processes: Sergio De La Pava's "A Naked Singularity"




The story behind Sergio De La Pava's A Naked Singularity is one of the more uplifting examples of an unknown writer getting some moments in the spotlight. The novel, a massive, 600+ page comedic and dramatic look at law, bureaucracy, the immigrant experience, and family, was self-published in 2008. Based on the fairly little information available, De La Pava self-published the work and likely would have stopped there, but his wife sent out galleys to literary magazines and journals. A Naked Singularity started to pick up some attention, slowly but surely, before a glowing review in The Quarterly Conversation led to its official publication by the University of Chicago Press in a beautiful, dizzying paperback edition. As of today, De La Pava has a small website, no Twitter feed, an interview with The Believer, and reviews of his work in other publications. It's such a far cry from other self-published novels. It's an excellent, hilarious debut, one worthy of the author doing as much DIY publicity and promotion as possible. In a social media world in which anyone can publish anything and subsequently badger strangers about it, I'm still amazed at how little I know about De La Pava, save for his work. Perhaps he wants it that way, or he's in the process of readying more writings and novels.

A Naked Singularity tells the story of Casi, a Colombian-American public defender in New York City. He represents the most troubled people in society: petty shoplifters, addicts, the mentally unstable. The novel opens with a fascinating, edgy collage of voices, trials, and the introduction of Casi's work life. In a blurb on the paperback edition, William Gaddis scholar Steven Moore claims that De La Pava has "Gaddis's ear," and this is a rare example of a blurb being absolutely correct. De La Pava doesn't imitate Gaddis, but rather uses a similar style to evoke the late writer's penchant for voices and conversations bouncing off each other. After a few pages, the reader is quickly humming along, an eager spectator to the proceedings.

"All right continue, where did you live at this time?
I lived in the park that's why I was always playing chess there. Anyway I noticed that this man, Mr. David Sanders, would come and observe on quite a few occasions and so we got to conversating.
You became friends.
Now don't go jumping the gun that's the problem with you youngsters nowadays. We didn't become friends at all in fact we were in constant disputation.
About what?
Well the fact is I done come up with a new chess opening. And the truth is that this chess opening has confounded the grandmasters and dumbfounded the neophytes.
Great, so where's the problem?
Well the further fact is we had irreconcilable philosophical differences respecting just how good my opening was (De La Pava 23)."

These details may seem minor, but they add up into realistic conversations. De La Pava is interested in everything the characters have to say, and he also deploys some Gaddisian wordplay, e.g. "I do not stand for that kind of language either. This is a goddamn courtroom not some corner hangout (41)!" In addition to these exercises in dialogue, De La Pava is also skilled in writing "regular" detailed descriptions. Some of these contain puns or wordplay, but De La Pava never winks at the reader or engages in any needless showing off. He's a talented writer, and he lets the passages do the work. Often, one will stop to marvel at his sentences. There is much comedy in this novel, but also plenty of literary imagery.

"The snow had stopped and it wasn't quite as cold anymore so I decided I would avoid the subway and walk the mile or so over the Brooklyn Bridge. While walking towards the bridge I watched a man regaled in full Superman costume run past a woman and snatch her purse. The Man of Steal then ran faster than a speeding bullet into the subway station's yawning entrance, his billowing red cape squiggily trailing behind him as he disappeared. Everyone was kind of looking at each other not really sure of what had occurred and not wanting to besmirch the good name of a beloved superhero. I waited around for the requisite time when something bizarre happens, made the similarly expected eye contacts and shrugs, then kept walking (De La Pava 108)."

If you're looking for a strictly literal plot description, there are a couple ballpark estimates which are accurate yet don't fully explain what the novel's aim is, overall. Casi and a colleague learn about an impending drug deal, which coincides with Casi having a very complex existential crisis. He realizes that his work as a public defender comes with limitations and sometimes goes in circles against his better efforts, despite his having never lost a case. Casi and his colleague, Dane, end up seeing the deal as a way to make a serious payday. In a seeming nod to David Foster Wallace (as with Gaddis, I'm using real examples, not merely linking these three writers on the basis of book length), one of his neighbors watches The Honeymooners constantly, trying to pick out themes and links between the classic television show and today's obsession with programming. His family is rendered in a very realistic fashion--he has a loving, slightly overbearing mother and a wise sister. The biography of Puerto Rican boxer Wilfred Benitez is given dozens of pages, serving as one of Casi's many obsessions. News reports of a child kidnapping circulate through television news programs and casual conversations. Like any large, ambitious novel, these links might seem bizarre on their own, but they do weave together very succinctly (in a novel that's the exact opposite of succinct).




Casi and Dane's heist is thrilling and would be the climax (or lead-up to the climax) in virtually any other novel, since the plotting and discussion of it come and go consistently until its actual moment. But this isn't a novel about a heist. After this whirlwind audacity, Casi's attention focuses on one of his defendants, a mentally challenged young man being imprisoned in Alabama. Casi makes a trip to visit him, and toward the end of the novel, we read some incredibly touching correspondences between the two. As the letters pile up, Casi begins to break out of his professional demeanor and moves toward genuine empathy and comfort for someone who desperately needs it.

"Dear Jalen:

I checked and you can of course write me a letter with an account of what happened that resulted in you being placed in isolation by prison officials. Please do so as soon as possible so I can try to help you.

In several days, the Supreme Court will hear argument on Atkins v. Virginia. The brief in your case is basically completed as well, with just some final editing to do.

Hang in there, I know this is a difficult time. Everything can still work out, both with this disciplinary thing and with your case in general.

Your good friend,
Casi (De La Pava 638)"

"Mister. Casi/

Pleese rite me sum more letters fast please. You

don't have to tell me about the case because i just want

thje letters four the reason i stated before.

P.S.i am only aloud to get leterrs from you (De La Pava 639)."


Altogether, Casi's role as a defender, a consumer of information, and a conflicted human being make him one of the more vibrant main characters in contemporary literature. This information consumption is both wanted and unwanted, and, in yet another nod to Gaddis (especially The Recognitions), bits and pieces are constantly flowing throughout. De La Pava's comic timing and observations are terrific.

"For some reason my alarm clock went on then. The radio said I could have the world provided I gave them twenty-two minutes in return. The woman said that a man was shot in the face and killed on 123rd street while horrified witness looked on from their windows. Police responding have made the grisly discovery of several more bodies in a nearby apartment as well as in the surrounding area. No word yet on a possible motive for the killing but police are urging anyone with information to call the NYPD's tips hotline. The woman then added that a car must have its oil changed every three thousand miles in order to operate optimally but that nothing prevented one from doing so more often than that. She then identified what she felt was the best place to go for that purpose (De La Pava 524)."

The uneasy question that will likely be asked: is A Naked Singularity worth the nearly 700 pages of a reader's time? I'm answering yes on this one, even though there are some passages of dialogue that could have been edited out, not for lack of being good, but for being occasionally repetitive. However, this novel has received very accurate praise in the last year. The reviews have been positive, but not shouts from the rooftops. It's an intelligent work that takes time, care, and an openness to a wide variety of themes and ideas. Granted, De La Pava's work might not appeal to wider reading circles, but it's definitely worth the attention it has received, and is a great pick for anyone looking for something entertaining and thought-provoking. It's wholly original, yet in addition to the shades of Gaddis and Wallace, I also felt some hints of Teju Cole and Roberto Bolano. However, De La Pava doesn't copy any of these writers; he goes down his own paths. I've often critiqued certain books for being too complex for their own good, but there's a definite method to De La Pava's work. He's not tossing in his ideas and voices carelessly. This is a meticulously plotted collage of everyday life, with a mix of the fantastical. I'll definitely read this again in the future, and perhaps in that time, it will have gained an even bigger cult following. But it's great to write about a previous unknown getting attention for literary audacity, rather than a gimmick. It's been over a month since I finished reading this, and I'm still contemplating it. There's so much to take in and experience, and anyone who rolls his or her sleeves up will get something beneficial out of it.

Work Cited:
De La Pava, Sergio. A Naked Singularity. Copyright 2008 by Sergio De La Pava.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Deaths and the Rumors: Katherine Boo's "Behind the Beautiful Forevers"



Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers has been on my radar for over a year. I read the jacket description when it was published, and the subject matter was compelling, fascinating, and most importantly, seemed to be focused on true reporting. As my reading log grew more complicated and strained, I kept putting it off, and the more I waited, the more recognition, praise, and awards were heaped upon it. I'm often wary of books with far too much breathless praise, since I'm more likely to be disappointed when I finally wipe away the blurbs and get into the actual writings. However, I'm pleased to note that the book is truly worth the hype. In exploring the workings and personalities contained within a Mumbai slum, Boo has created a microcosm of poverty-stricken areas all over the world. This isn't done with excessive, lavish emotions or pandering. The citizens in Annawadi, a makeshift "city" near the Mumbai airport, have good and bad personality traits, and their lives are presented from various angles. Behind the Beautiful Forevers might very well define the stark divide between wealthy and poor citizens in the world, much in the same fashion that Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickled and Dimed explored American poverty in a time when the subject wasn't on the radar as much as it is now. And amazingly, Boo's book fits a description that I tend to shy away from: it's a work of non-fiction that often reads like a novel, but without sacrificing details or relying on embellishments. There's such an emotional diversity that the events and people are part of a complicated story. However, one has to realize this is true, and is the result of problems that need immediate attention everywhere.

Annawadi was founded in the early 1990s by laborers working on a Mumbai airport, and what was supposed to be a temporary spot morphed into a slum populated by thousands, in the shadow of wealthy travelers and lavish hotels. The founding is told with minor details, but enough to paint a vivid picture. This is one of Boo's strengths as a journalist--as I mentioned before, there's no embellishment. Even in the most casually detailed scenes, there are many small details that allow the reader to realistically visualize the unfolding scenes.

"The slum had been settled in 1991 by a band of laborers trucked in from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu to repair a runway at the international airport. The work complete, they decided to stay near the airport and its tantalizing construction possibilities. In an area with little unclaimed space, a sodden, snake-filled bit of brushland across the street from the international terminal seemed the least-bad place to live.

Other poor people considered the spot too wet to be habitable, but the Tamils set to work, hacking down the brush that harbored the snakes, digging up dirt in drier places and packing it into the mud. After a month, their bamboo poles stopped flopping over when they were stuck in the ground. Draping empty cement sacks over the poles for cover, they had a settlement. Residents of neighboring slums provided its name: Annawadi--the land of annas, a respectful Tamil word for older brothers. Less respectful terms for Tamil migrants were in wider currency. But other poor citizens had seen the Tamils sweat to summon solid land from a bog, and that labor had earned a certain deference (Boo 5)."

The reader is introduced to a number of the Annawadi citizens. Some of the primary people are Abdul, a young Muslim trash scavenger; Fatima, known as One Leg, a promiscuous, vengeful figure who suffers a terrible accident that leads to a ludicrous criminal trial; Asha, a hungry political hopeful who attempts to rule Annawadi by coercion and for financial gains; and Manju, Asha's daughter, a beautiful young woman trying to make the best of her circumstances with the hope of gaining entry into college. Boo's writing clears up quite a few misconceptions about non-American slum life. While all the residents are poverty stricken, some are better off than others. There are cellphones and televisions inside some of the huts. The fact that Manju is able to consider a college education despite her surroundings means that a glimmer of hope envelops some of the residents. Some are merely content to dream of better squalor. Throughout, there are sad refrains familiar to Americans: the crippling divide between wealth and poverty means that virtually all the people in Annawadi are doomed to lives of intense work with little benefit. Some medical setbacks and fears are met with dismissive replies to pray, with the hopes that god will provide. And even the slightest problem can set a citizen into unimaginable debt.

The book's title comes from a terribly misplaced piece of advertising on a wall outside Annawadi. Boo mentions it almost as an aside in a piece about Sunil, one of Abdul's fellow scavengers:

"It interested him that from Airport Road, only the smoke plumes of Annawadi's cooking fires could now be seen. The airport people had erected tall, gleaming aluminum fences on the side of the slum that most drivers passed before turning into the international terminal. Drivers approaching the terminal from the other direction would see only a concrete wall covered with sunshine-yellow advertisements. The ads were for Italianate floor tiles, and the corporate slogan ran the wall's length: BEAUTIFUL FOREVER BEAUTIFUL FOREVER BEAUTIFUL FOREVER. Sunil regularly walked atop the Beautiful Forever wall, surveying for trash, but Airport Road was unhelpfully clean (Boo 36-37)."

Women and children dominate the landscape, since the majority of the grown men mentioned are either addicts, drunks, or criminals. Even the women and children who resort to extreme measures to provide do so with a sense of logic and a need for survival. But as I said earlier, the subjects are treated honestly and realistically. During my reading, I often had the same feelings I had when watching, of all things, the documentary Murderball. In that film, disabled athletes are shown as people, not objects of sympathy or patronizing. Some of the featured people were arrogant and unlikable. Boo shows that relationships within slums are sometimes no different than anywhere else. The reader is in tune with the plight of the residents, but sometimes on an individual level, the reader is likely to be repulsed by some of the actions. The main climax of the book involves One Leg's self-immolation following a neighborhood dispute. Despite committing this act herself, she claims she was driven to do so by Abdul and his parents. While this is a ludicrous accusation, remnants of mysticism still permeate Indian life. There are whispers of witchcraft and the potential for One Leg to haunt the family following her death. This brazen act ties together a lot of the issues and complications in Annawadi: neighborhood strife; religious and supernatural beliefs; the danger of the Indian jail and court systems; and how an accusation can quickly lead to a remaining life of shame, destitution, and ostracizing, even in the face of complete innocence.

"Kehkashan shrieked. The brothelkeeper was the first across the maidan, three boys fast behind, throwing their weight against the door until it broke. They found Fatima thrashing on the floor, smoke pouring off her skin. At her side was a yellow plastic jug of kerosene, overturned, along with a vessel of water. She had poured cooking fuel over her head, lit a match, then doused the flames with water.

'Save me!' she shouted.

The brothelkeeper tensed. Something low on Fatima's back was still burning. He grabbed a blanket and smothered the flame, as a vast crowd formed outside the hut.

'All day these Muslim garbage people have been fighting so loudly.'

'Didn't she think of her daughters before she did this?'

'She's okay now,' the brothelkeeper announced, rolling away some cooking pots he'd knocked on top of her in his haste to extinguish the fire. 'Alive, no problem!'

He pulled Fatima up. When he let go, she flopped back down, howling.

People took not of the upturned vessel of water.

'She's a fool then,' said an old man. 'She wanted to burn herself a little, create a drama, and instead she burned herself a lot.'

'It is because of these people that I have done this,' Fatima cried out, her voice astonishingly clear. Everyone knew which people she meant (Boo 95-96)."




While Annawadi can reflect poverty all over, Boo's Author's Note shows why this specific area is such an important necessity for documentation: "I quickly grew impatient with poignant snapshots of Indian squalor, the ribby children with flies in their eyes and other emblems of abjectness that one can't help but see within five minutes of walking into a slum (247)." This sentence alone might seem harsh and cold, but's not: Boo goes on to explain her desire to explore and document outlying factors, such as the political and social beliefs and works of the surrounding country, and how possible it would be for a poor child to grow up with better circumstances. Images of poverty are stark and stomach-churning, but quick, visceral reactions can be misleading. Aside from the jacket photo, there are no photographs included in the book--Boo rightfully makes the writing convey the images, rather than immediate sensory reactions to the wholly different visual. In a shocking (but a likely more prevalent scenario than most Westerners realize) passage, she shows how schools in the area clean up their act when visitors or human rights workers are expected. Things are cleaned, happy faces put on, and dutiful reports are sent back to the rest of the world. Begging is even a complicated act. One of the boys attempts reverse psychology, refusing to look needy for tourists, instead hoping that they'll take his demure appearance as more deserving than outright pleading.

I sometimes don't pay close attention to bylines in The New Yorker, so I'm sure I've read a good handful of Boo's writing without realizing it. I'm still amazed at her writing style. She's a dedicated journalist and anthropologist, and her keen observations lead this to be a novel-like report. Aside from her personal notes in the epilogue, she's an invisible figure, keeping the attention on the slum's people and events rather than her own presence. Simply put, the world needs more reporting and explorations like this. The developed world has been exposed to countless images and reports of poverty, but centralized, personal accounts from areas a reader would likely never know about outside of a book illuminate a variety of needs. This isn't a snapshot, a heart-tug, and a call for a five dollar donation. It's a grim plea for changes in how the world views and deals with poverty. When a destitute slum is a walk away from opulence and thrives on the trash produced by said opulence, something is dreadfully wrong. Since Boo is such a neutral reporter, I was left longing for her opinions, even though her opinions are not the point of Behind the Beautiful Forevers. She doesn't judge, she doesn't "play favorites." I would venture a guess that she has strong opinions on how to tackle this kind of divide, but then again, so does everyone else, so she wisely avoids moralizing. This book is vastly compelling, shocking, and necessary. Sadly, these accounts are still waiting to be told all over the world, and this kind of reporting is a step in the right direction, starting many conversations about how to bridge the haves and the have-nots.

Work Cited:
Boo, Katherine. Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Copyright 2012 by Katherine Boo.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

International Lampoons: Gary Shteyngart's "The Russian Debutante's Handbook"



Ever since the publication of Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story in 2010, I've been eager to read his previous two novels. Super Sad True Love Story had its share of immense praise and intense criticism, and I enjoyed Shteyngart's imagination, dialogue, and careful blend of situation/cultural comedy. It touched upon contemporary crises (immigrant experiences, the fragility of the American economy) in a futuristic setting, with an oddball love story blending with a look at an American landscape just ludicrous enough to be wholly believable. As expansive as its plot was, it was a surprisingly compact novel, composed primarily in letters and e-mail correspondences. I had all of these ideas in mind as I finally picked up a copy of The Russian Debutante's Handbook, his 2002 debut. Having a roughly decent idea of Shteyngart's creative ideas and topics, I expected and received more humorous ruminations on the nature of Americanization and immigration, but this time, it's completed on a much bigger, more complex scale. While I have a tendency to read certain bibliographies in wildly random orders, I can see the progression between Shteyngart's debut and his most recent offering. While The Russian Debutante's Handbook has quite a bit to enjoy, it ultimately feels like he tried to pack too much into a single work. Given the years that have passed, his newer book feels like the work of someone with more experience, someone who knows how to do a lot with less. For a debut novel, The Russian Debutante's Handbook is impressive, but occasionally overbearing.

The novel follows the life and exploits of Vladimir Girskhin, a timid, neurotic Russian-Jewish immigration worker in New York. He interacts with his odd parents (specifically his overbearing mother), his girlfriend Challah (an overweight dominatrix), and a parade of occasional friends and visitors to the immigration offices. He meets the acquaintance of Rybakov, a wealthy, extremely eccentric (he has animated conversations with an oscillating fan) Russian who wants to become an American citizen. While attempting to bride Vladimir, he mentions his son, a Russian mafioso known as the Groundhog. A series of escalating events eventually steer Vladimir to Prava (a substitute for Prague), an enclave of American expatriates. These events include Vladimir forming a relationship with a young American woman with high tastes and demands to the point of bringing him to financial ruin; a con involving the friend of a friend who attempts to sexually assault him; and the constant worry and expectations of his parents, who spent a lot of money to put him through a fancy liberal arts college in the Midwest. After traveling to Prava, Vladimir reinvents himself as a suave American swindler, creating a complicated Ponzi scheme to defraud people under the watchful eye of the Groundhog.

Throughout all of these shenanigans and layers, Shteyngart fills the novel with generous layers of hilarity, both explicit and sly. Vladimir toes the line between American values and Russian traditions, often befuddled and perplexed by both.

"'Vladimir, how can I say this? Please don't be cross with me. I know you'll be cross with me, you're such a soft young man. But if I don't tell you the truth, will I be fulfilling my motherly duties? No, I will not. The truth then...' She sighed deeply, an alarming sigh, the sigh of exhaling the last doubt, the sigh of preparing for battle. 'Vladimir,' she said, 'you walk like a Jew.'

'What?'

'What? The anger in his voice. What? he says. What? Walk back to the window now. Just walk back to the window. Look at your feet. Look carefully. Look at how your feet are spread apart. Look at how you walk from side to side. Like an old Jew from the shtetl. Little Rebbe Girshkin. Oh, now he's going to scream at me! Or maybe he's going to cry. Either way, he's going to hurt his mother. That's how he repays his lifelong debt to her, by tearing her to shreds like a wolf (Shteyngart 45)."

The multicultural line is also consistently crossed as Vladimir deals with two of his favorite pastimes: drinking and dealing with women.

"The waitress was arriving with the bourbons, and Vladimir looked to her pleasant figure--pleasant in the Western sense, meaning: impossibly thin, but with breasts. She was clothed entirely in two large swatches of leather, the leather fake and shiny in a self-mocking way, absolutely correct for 1993, the first year when mocking the mainstream had become the mainstream. Also, the waitress had no hair on her head, an arrangement Vladimir had warmed to over the years, despite his fondness for rooting his nose through musty locks and curls. And finally, the waitress had a face, a fact lost on most of the patrons, but not on Vladimir who admired the way one overdone eyelash stuck miserably to the skin below. Pathos! Yes, she was a high-quality person, this waitress, and it saddened Vladimir that she wouldn't look at him in the least as she served the bourbons (Shteyngart 52)."

In a sense, Vladimir's neurosis and self-consciousness is akin to early Woody Allen films. He's frumpy and consumed, yet it never stops him from attaining beautiful women, even if he can't maintain a wholly successful relationship. The Russian Debutante's Handbook goes into a complicated mix of plots and characters once Vladimir arrives in Prava. For a debut novel, Shteyngart is to be commended for balancing such a dizzying array of characters and happenings. It successfully mirrors and lampoons crime and capitalism in post-Cold War Europe. Shteyngart creates vivid, beautiful descriptions of the grim surroundings:

"And then Vladimir looked down. He had picked up the expression 'sea of spires' from some travel brochure back at the airport's tourist office, and while there were certainly golden spires reflecting in the late-summer sun in the architectural stew below, it seemed rather partial of the pamphlet to fail to mention the sloping red roofs landsliding down the hill and into the gray bend of water that Kostya pointed out as the Tavlata River. Or the enormous pale-green domes on both sides of the river capping massive Baroque churches. Or the tremendous Gothic powder towers, strategically spread out along the cityscape, like dark medieval guards protecting the town from the usual nonsense that had managed to consume so many European skylines throughout the years (Shteyngart 203-204)."



One of Vladimir's Ponzi schemes involves creating a literary magazine, which allows Shteyngart to poke fun at pompous artists and American expatriates. The seed of the literary magazine is planted when Vladimir makes the acquaintance of Cohen, an Iowan living in Prava. The two men bond over poetry, and through the comical discourse, jabs at creativity and identity are thrown in.

"So that was his story! That was Cohen's theme! His father was a rich asshole. How shocking. Vladimir was ready to attack Cohen with his own background, from the Jew-baiting of Leningrad to his years as a Stinky Russian Bear in Westchester. Assimilation, my ass. What do you know of assimilation, spoiled American pig? Why, I'll show you...I'll show you all (Shteyngart 219)!"

So where does this novel stumble? My biggest critique comes with Shteyngart's style. I'm a huge fan of comic, literary novels, but generally, it's a very difficult balance to achieve. The Russian Debutante's Handbook is hilarious, but Shteyngart suffers from a similar problem I found in Robin Sloan's Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore: there are far too many winks and asides delivered straight to the reader, not so much in the sense of "breaking the fourth wall," but in the sense of distracting from the novel. Yes, it's an intentionally absurd fantasy of international intrigue, but it's still a novel. There were so many passages that made me think "this should really just be narrated in the first person point of view" that I eventually stopped keeping track. I also kept wondering if Shteyngart was trying to imagine himself as Vladimir instead of creating a unique character. The asides and direct statements also distract in the sense that the reader pretty much assumes that everything is going to work out alright in the end, even in the face of intense developments and plot twists. Toward the end, Vladimir is accosted by a gang of skinheads. The scene is tense, but the narration up to then has been so loose and carefree that the reader mentally jumps ahead and wonders how everything is going to be tidied up. This creates a stumble in an otherwise great work of satire. At times, the novel is too hip for its own good.

And as I've mentioned far too many times, I have nothing against long, complex works, but The Russian Debutante's Handbook goes through some tedious repetitions. There are countless drunken, drug-hazed scenes at American and European bars, most of which move the plot along, but some of which are scenes for the sake of being scenes. The Russian gangsters are witty caricatures with surprising depth: for all of their danger, some are church-going folks, and some reveal some tender self-doubt and hesitations. Generally, the novel is plotted and outlined very carefully, but one has to wonder what Shteyngart's ultimate goal was to accomplish. As a whole, it succeeds as a satire of various nationalities and their identities, but it hits just enough lulls and repeats to weigh the reader down.

Ultimately, this is why I found Super Sad True Love Story to be a much stronger example of Shteyngart's literary themes. It's just as comical and ludicrous, but the characters are much stronger. By eliminating a host of secondary characters, the later work is free to focus on love, culture clashes, and a crazy imagining of a fictional country (the future America). Shteyngart's debut never wavers in its sociological observations, but it concludes as a standard first novel, with so many ideas and a need to add constant expansions. Gary Shteyngart is an intelligent, creative, and hilarious novelist, and the seeds were planted here. It just took a bit of time and growth to find out where the emphasis should go.

Work Cited:
Shteyngart, Gary. The Russian Debutante's Handbook. Copyright 2002 by Gary Shteyngart.