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The Russian Debutante’s Handbook
Gary Shteyngart
New York: Riverhead Books, 2002.
$24.95, 452 pages, ISBN 1-573222-213-5.

Steven Marc Jones
Liverpool John Moores University

The Russian Debutante’s Handbook
is the truly extraordinary story of an immediately engaging young man: the slightly neurotic Russian immigrant, Vladimir Girshkin. Vladimir is a sensitive, troubled individual, struggling to find a place in the frenetically paced New York of the early 1990s. Born in Leningrad, Vladimir is brought to the U.S. by his parents during the 1970s when "Jimmy Carter swapped tons of Midwestern grain for tons of Soviet Jews". The novel sets out to examine the experience of the Russian immigrant abandoning the rigours of life in the East to search for the American dream. Shteyngart explores some of the big themes at the heart of the immigrant experience: alienation, assimilation and national identity. He foregrounds notions of success and failure, throwing into sharp relief our thoughts about fairness and opportunity. He exposes what it means to be acceptable, to fit in. Such weighty ideas invite the reader to expect a sombre, meditative work, heavy with existential angst. Shteyngart’s novel is the antithesis of this. It is a roller-coaster ride through the materialist modern world. Shteyngart weaves his dark themes into a yarn that sparkles with madcap humour and schoolboy buffoonery and plays everything for laughs. It’s an exhilarating if not entirely successful ride.

Shteyngart turns Girskin’s quest for success and acceptability into an outrageous romp through American metropolitan life and Eastern European bohemia. This is lively, energetic writing blending adventure, madcap comedy and farce. The writer invokes a world that is governed by powerful and obscure forces. Chance meetings change lives. Coincidences are heavy with significance, underlying a reality which we instantly recognise as our own. It is an urban landscape of extremities, teeming with eccentrics, charlatans and social casualties, a world underpinned by snobbery and social injustice. Its atmosphere resonates with sex, avarice and melancholy, yet throughout there is a comic-book feeling, as if the bad things that happen never do any lasting damage, as if even the most dreadful events are two-dimensional, full of humorous potential and ultimately controllable.

The prose is sparkling and shot through with incisive wit and intelligence. A joy in the use of language shines through and there is the strong sense of a writer revelling in his art. Shteyngart has a fine eye for detail and his finely drawn observations of modern life are wickedly amusing as well as painfully accurate. There is a warmth in the writing, a compassion for the complexities of the human condition, that prevents the satire descending into cruelty. What makes this book initially so appealing is the humour with which the author portrays his characters and the compassion with which he depicts the dilemmas they face.

The early chapters of the book are set in New York and provide the reader with a sharply drawn critique of modern metropolitan life. This is a cityscape still hauntingly dominated by the twin towers of the World Trade Center, a detail that lends a pleasingly portentous atmosphere to the writing. The rush and hunger of modern materialism is brilliantly described. There is a strong sense of possibility, of the potential for glittering achievement but this is overshadowed by the ever-present danger of vicious failure. This is a world where the haves and have-nots live side by side. Against this turbulent background, we are first introduced to Vladimir. He is a mild mannered, self-deprecating young man full of the melancholia and self-doubt that we come to realise characterise the Eastern European soul. Working at The Emma Lazarus Immigration Absorption Society, he is very near the bottom of the heap as far as social success is concerned. He toils for a pittance, dealing with dispossessed ethnic community roaming the streets of Manhattan. His low status career is a source of anguish to his dominant and professionally successful mother who exhorts him to do better, to achieve a more obvious level of status and success. Her description of her son as her "little failure" gives us a poignant insight into the forces that have shaped Vladimir.

The man we meet in this early part of the novel is a very engaging creation, vulnerable enough for us to sympathise (perhaps even empathise), savvy enough to avoid appearing pathetic. His attempts to help other immigrants seem noble and his resistance to the money-obsessed environment in which he moves lend him a trace of the heroic. His affair with the emotionally needy Challah (a professional dominatrix) makes him seem attractively compassionate if a little long suffering. He agonises over traumatic events in his childhood and feels a sentimental nostalgia for his home country. In him we see embodied the dilemma of the psychologically complex Eastern European attempting assimilation into the unforgiving hyper-capitalist U.S. of the early 1990s. Here we see a portrait of an individual who very much needs something extreme to happen to him to galvanise his life. He is self-doubting. He is melancholy. He is authentically human. His journey is just about to begin. Vladimir’s encounter with Rybakov is a catalyst for change. The apparently psychotic "fan man" walks into Vladimir’s office one day seeking help in achieving U.S. citizenship. He is not what he seems. This sequence feels like a generous slice of wish-fulfilment, the fates conspiring to manufacture excitement. Anyone who has ever felt frustrated by life and fantasised about the intervention of a fairy-godmother must envy Vladimir’s meeting with this mad old man. Far from being an impoverished Russian lunatic, Rybakov is, in fact, an eccentric millionaire, complete with a meaningful relationship with an electric fan. He offers the astonished Vladimir an opportunity which would seem almost too good to be true were it not for the intimations of Eastern-European criminality and gang violence: "Get me my citizenship and my son will make you an associate in his organisation. The minute I’m naturalized you’ll have a first class ticket to Prava. He’ll turn you into a schemer of the first rank. A modern business man."

The offer is a tempting one but Vladimir resists, his moral framework still integrated enough for him to fear the essential wrongness of becoming a Mafioso. He prefers a more conventional means by which to help Ryabakov but the key issue is that the offer remains open. An escape route has opened up in an otherwise claustrophobic existence. Important here is the exposure of Vladimir’s need to appear successful: "And yet in the back of his mind, a window opened and Mother leaned out shouting for all to hear: 'Soon my little failure will be a big success.'"

It is this need for approval that goes some way to explain the radical transformations Vladimir undergoes as the novel unfolds. Having rejected Rybakov’s offer (for the time being), fortune smiles again as a chance meeting in a bar brings Vladimir into contact with Francesca, another quirk of fate that will radically alter his life: "There was a chuckle behind him. 'You look like Trotsky, she said.' Good god, thought Vladimir, I’m going to have an affair."

Francesca draws Vladimir into the sophisticated Beau Monde of Manhattan. It is a gleaming superficial world of cafés, parties and Tribeca loft apartments. Its denizens are shallow, arty types decked out in the latest Glamorous Nerd fashions. This is light years away from Emma Lazarus Immigrant Absorption and Vladimir’s perceived difference and inferiority are keenly depicted. These are people who judge others on their clothes and connections. The relationship with Fran is successful. Vladimir moves in with Fran and her family and discovers that his brand of Eastern European authenticity is very popular. "Beyond the walls of his new family’s bastion, its terraced loggia surveying the Gotham plain, Vladimir had attracted a loyal cadre of downtown libertines."

We begin to see Vladimir re-inventing, re-designing himself, adapting himself to new circumstances and new acquaintances, adopting personae that enable him to achieve popularity amongst "the lovely and interesting friends" among whom he is moving. He abandons Challah and embraces the new situation. This exposes both the waver thin superficiality of modern social life and the potential of individual identity to morph and adapt. It is both disquieting and exciting. The writing satirises the snobbery of this environment and invites us to question a society that attaches so much value to the surfaces of things. Yet there is an energising freedom in the idea that an individual can re-invent himself, can become acceptable in all kinds of settings by simply adjusting or heightening aspects of his/her nature. This feeling of duality haunts Shteyngart’s novel. We feel an ambivalence towards Vladimir’s trajectory and it is hard to know whether the author intends this or is not fully in control of his material. In the early sections of the novel, it is the former. The balance shifts towards the later as the story unfolds. Vladimir evolves into an urban sophisticate and develops a taste for the champagne lifestyle. He runs out of money and his friend Baobab suggests an easy-money solution: impersonate his boss, Jordi’s son, and receive twenty thousand dollars. It is too good to be true. Fate intervenes again to change Vladimir’s life. Vladimir’s exploits in Florida with Jordi, while hilarious, contribute to a growing sense of implausibly. Hitherto, events have appeared extraordinary but within the bounds of acceptability. An embarrassing, slightly slap-stick atmosphere prevails as Vladimir realises he had been brought to Florida for sexual purposes. A comic book fracas ensues, incorporating pink Cadillacs and a long distance car chase. It’s all great fun but absolutely unbelievable. The adventure results in the disintegration of his New York Life. Fran and her family are somehow involved with Jordi, and Vladimir finds he must skip town pronto. Thoughts of Rybakov and his increasingly appealing offer resurface. There is the strong sense here of this drama providing a convenient way to move the plot forward. It feels contrived and most importantly, it challenges the reader’s belief, turning the novel into a ludicrous cartoon.

The helter-skelter ride continues and becomes even more preposterous as the scene shifts from New York to the streets of Prava (a much vaunted Paris of the 1990s). Vladimir embarks upon his new life with gusto and tremendous verve, a verve which is, at times, surprising in an man who was initially so full of self-doubt and who has essentially been driven out of his U.S. home. But desperate measures require desperate remedies and in Prava, we see Vladimir become quite a different kind of man. He enters the dangerous world of Easter European mob culture with barely a flicker of trepidation. The sensitive, mole-like character we knew in New York is obscured by the astonishingly successful confidence trickster he becomes. The sense of wish fulfilment that underpins this story intensifies as he come to embody the kind of world-dominating fantasy that is so beguiling to the downtrodden and self-doubting.

Once settled in Prava, and with the help and support of the Groundhog, a violent but oddly engaging Russian Mafioso, Vladimir infiltrates the American ex-pat community with the hope of defrauding his naive fellow travellers by launching an ill-conceived pyramid scheme. He is incredibly successful and in some ways the reader wants to cheer. It is however, entirely lacking in verisimilitude. This tricky wheeler-dealer seems worlds away from the Vladimir we knew and one gets the feeling that the writer is not in control of his material. The criminal types and gangsters that surround him are cartoonish and two-dimensional, devoid of any real sense of threat. The complex of themes underpinning the plot are obscured by a story that beggars belief relying, as it does, on a character who responds to the most extreme events with barely a shrug and who really has discovered the secret to effortless success. It’s all a little adolescent and much of the novel’s essential darkness is sacrificed in favour of some very cheap laughs.

The terrorist plot to blow up the statue of Stalin’s foot that dominates the Prava skyline is resonant with memories of the 9/11 attacks. This is a clever idea but Shteyngart succeeds in stripping the drama of any real tension or treat. Instead it becomes a schoolboy romp with talk of Semtex and C4 providing a little extra spice. Vladimir’s lover, Morgan, an apparently placid American embroiled in the plot, is unconvincing and seems created to give Vladimir a much needed escape route. The machinations of the plot are practically audible. Towards the end the plot dissolves into a chaos of explosions and Chaplinesque brawls. Vladimir survives his near-fatal Mafioso punishment and takes flight with Morgan. It all seems very convenient. This is a narrative haunted by terrorism, violence and exploitation, themes so resonant in today’s world, yet Shteyngart makes them palatable and controllable. They are reduced to the level of mere entertainment. This material could be the basis of a powerful social satire but Shteyngart throws this possibility out with the trash. It’s hard to know how to respond apart from smiling. It's all a joke and we see the punch-line coming from a long way off.

Ultimately, Vladimir is forced to give up the criminal high-life and return home to the U.S., making a home in Cleveland. It’s a curious way to end an adventure like this one. The capitalist system is triumphant, reducing spirited (if implausible) extremity to edgeless mediocrity. The atmosphere is cosy and shot through with futility and the end of the novel is bleak. Vladimir has achieved assimilation and is living the American Dream. This is an insipid landscape composed of the dull work and the smothering cosiness of American domestic life. It feels as if the extreme and extraordinary events that have characterised Vladimir’s life in Prava have left no lasting impression. They seem to vanish like dreams leaving the dreamer troubled and uneasy. The character we see in Prava has all but disappeared and the Vladimir of old had reappeared, more doubtful, a little world-weary, more like the "little failure" his mother always suspected he would be. For one who has travelled so far and experienced so much, he seems oddly acquiescent. Yet this is success. Acceptance, material comfort, a place in the corporate crowd. It all feels like a defeat and perhaps this is the moral of the story: that in attempting to find acceptance one runs the risk of losing something essential in oneself. Here we get a glimpse of the novel’s dark heart. Vladimir worries about his son’s future, a future that resembles an Aldous Huxley dystopia:

A boy. Growing up in a private world of electronic goblins and quiet sexual urges. Properly insulated from the elements by stucco and storm windows. Serious and a bit dull, but beset by no illness, free of fear and the madness of Vladimir’s Eastern lands. In cahoots with his mother. A partial stranger to his father.

Ending the novel in this way feels like a sudden darkening in what has, hitherto, seemed rather like a jolly Boys Own Adventure tale. This is indicative of what I feel to be the novel’s central flaw. Shteyngart fails to fully engage with the essential weight and darkness of his subject matter and, instead, plays it for laughs from the start. Even the most dangerous characters don’t feel so dangerous. Even the most extreme of violent acts reads like something not quite real. This novel is a cartoon. Yes, it’s entertaining, amusing, diverting, but any attempt to suggest it deals seriously with any of its key themes is ludicrous. I had the feeling that some of the more serious ideas had been appropriated to give substance to a novel that is really as superficial as some of the people it satirises.

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