title: The Russian Debutante’s Handbook [purchase here]
author: Gary Shteyngart
genre: literary fiction
originally published: 2003
source: New York Public Library
One of two things must be true:
a) either Gary Shteyngart was channeling one of my ex-boyfriends (a Bukharian Jew from Uzbekistan) when he created Vladimir Girshkin OR
b) Shteyngart is a supremely talented architect of character.
And unless Shteyngart also has a time machine, I’m going to put my money on the latter rather than the former. In Vladimir, Shteyngart balances almost paradoxical levels of swagger and self-deprecation; throughout the novel, Vladimir manages to sell himself short one moment, then brazenly shoot the moon the next, and I was with him every step of the way. Even if I hadn’t dated someone with the exact same extremes in their personality, Girshkin would never have read as inconsistent because Shteyngart’s craft is that good and his characterizations, no matter how bizarre, are that honest (more on that in a bit). It’s a fascinating balance of traits to watch in a person, and likewise makes for a compelling character to follow, especially when combined with Vladimir’s intellect and propensity towards personal analysis.
In Vladimir Girshkin’s journey over the course of the novel, Shteyngart’s takes a fairly familiar story line and turns it on its head:
- boy comes to America from a conflict-ridden country
- boy struggles to please both his new American peers and his old-country parents/relatives
Here’s the part, where, if Shteyngart were another popular writer pontificating on the perils and complexities of The Immigrant Experience like, say, Amy Tan, the story would continue on as the boy, through the experience of his parents/relatives, is able to find his “unique” self, which usually means the boy becomes a bit more comfortable code-switching and balancing the old-country traditions and new American expectations. (ex: see anything written by Tan. Really. Anything. She’s RIDICULOUSLY consistent in her use of this structure, just swap “boy” for “girl” and “old country” for “China.” Formulaic, but it works for her.) Instead of Vladimir learning how to be both a Russian Jew and an American (two states he sees as incredibly disparate), through the experience of others, Shteyngart allows Vladimir to venture to the city of Prava (Prague), “the Paris of the 90s”, where he embarks on a journey of both deception and self-discovery as he learns to relegate his Russian Jewish childhood, his American adolescence, his Eastern European present and his uncertain future.
The narrative is rife with the bizarre personalities whose influence shapes Vladimir along the way: Challah, his ex-girlfriend, whom he not quite loves, who works in a sex dungeon; the Groudhog, the cut throat yet gregarious Russian mafioso determined to exploit the expat community of Prava who likes to be whipped while in the sauna; the Fan Man, father of the Groundhog, dead set on earning his American citizenship, and whose best friend is a small electric fan to whom he has given imaginary anthropomorphic qualities.
My favorite scene in the novel, which I can share without spoiling the plot, takes place in Prava and highlights not only Shteyngart’s unique narrative voice but the East/West motif that underscores the text. Here, Vladimir and the poet Fish are on the balcony of a nightclub and both have just snorted horse tranquilizer (It was the the 90s). From the balcony, Vladimir is watching buses arrive and depart from Prava from the bus station below:
“But Vladimir’s examination of this unhappy dichotomy, a dichotomy which was in some ways the story of his life, which brought on feelings of both elation and remorse–the elation of having a special, privileged knowledge of both East and West, the remorse of fitting finally into neither–was interrupted by the stinging, crystal-edged horse powder which the poet Fish administered to him nasally and then
Perhaps that’s an exaggeration. Something, of course, happened, even while Vladimir withdrew into the upper stories of his brain where the thin mountain air was not conducive to the cognitive process. The buses kept arriving and departing but now they were just buses (buses, you know, transport, point A to point B) and Fish rolling up and down the balcony naked, howling, and waving his tiny purple penis at the moon was just a young man with his purple penis howling. Nothing much was happening in a big way. In fact, nonexistence was no longer so unfathomable (and how many times had he, as a morose child, shut his eyes and plugged his ears with cotton, trying to imagine The Void), but rather a fairly natural progression of this goofy happiness. The floating, bottomless joy of anesthesia.
And then the fifteen minutes were up and, like clockwork, Vladimir was noiselessly airlifted info his body; Fish was putting on his clothes.” (p. 306).