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? 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.

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