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Tuesday, January 18, 2011
The Russian Debutante's Handbook and last Gary Shteyngart post
The Russian Debutante's Handbook is about a Russian Jewish man named Vladmir Girshkin who works as an immigration officer. A retired Russian sailor offers Vladmir a deal where if Vladmir can get the sailor U.S. Citizenship, Vladmir can have a job working for his son, who is the Russian Mafia head of the fictional city of Prava. The story is set in the early 1990s and Prava is a stand in for Prague, a destination that was idolized as a post communist, but not without some creature comforts city where the misanthropic grunge youth of my day could run away to and become artists. When I was adventuring in the early 1990s I badly wanted to run away to Prague myself. I was always fascinated by the Levi's commercial where a man trades a couple of pairs of jeans for a Yugo. I never had the guts or imagination to get a passport though so my Prague dreams never came true.
Girshkin ends up taking the deal, not out of desire to move to Prava but because he narrowly escapes being raped by a gangster in what shouldn't be, but is, the most hilarious hotel male rape scene I've ever read. My tastes must lean heavily towards the vulgar because just like in Choke, the tragic debauchery made me keep laughing out loud which made my wife keep asking what was so funny. Shteyngart brings an overweight dominatrix, a self obsessed writer, a whole slew of stereotypical Russian gangsters and a whole avant-garde eurotrash youth scene along for what was a fairly pleasurable ride.
I absolutely loved the layout of this book, every chapter was concise and read as if it could have been a complete short story. I love when authors show that kind of literary talent and are able to being a series of short narratives together to show an arcing storyline with a plausible ending that is triggered by the action of the main character. Actually after reading this book I have to ask what happened in Shteyngart's other books, it seems as if his imagination improved but his skills somehow deteriorated.
The book wasn't all perfect, this one had the best ending of any of his three books but the last couple of hundred pages could have used some serious cutting. It includes a 25 page chapter of the main character visiting Auschwitz. It's an interesting read and a great description of a tourist visit to Auschwitz but it really didn't have anything to do with the story or develop the characters. The main character was well defined as an athiest Jew early on in the first chapters so this visit-right in the middle of the resolution of the novel no less-didn't add to the story.
I'd give this book a thumbs up to a prospective reader. Yes it's not a perfect novel but it's hard to find one that is and it's one of the better literary style novels I've read in a while. Of course be forewarned that Shteyngart is not for the kids or for those that want to remain pure of heart and spirit. He's absolutely on the vulgar side but like Palahniuk he handles it well and the scenes are rib tickling and move the plot along.
So to discuss Shteyngart overall, I'm satisfied after reading his books that it was time well spent. If I end up attending a cocktail party and the conversation goes down a literary path I feel well prepared to say that I can discuss something current. Shteyngart is a master at creating dystopian worlds. While I've almost forgotten about the characters in Super Sad True Love Story the world is a place where I spend quite a bit of my idle mental time. Every time I see an article about oversharing, social networking, web privacy breaches or nasty politics I think a bit about that novel. It's so haunting that I feel like the man in Stephen King's story "The Man in the Black Suit", who is pursued by thoughts of his demon until he is too old and helpless to do anything if the demon decides to come for him. Absurdistan was set in what was the present at its time of publication and The Russian Debutante's Handbook was in the past, although since Shteyngart is the same age as me it may be a novel he started as a young man in his twenties and polished enough to publish over the next few years. His earlier two novels are much more character driven and his over the top character casts will be what I return to when I daydream about them.
Shteyngart has the pernicious literary habit of worshiping New York City. While I have no problem with novels being set in New York, after all those millions of stories in the naked city must be told, I'm growing weary of the starry eyed worship of the city that was better explained and better left alone to the time period when Woody Allen was making watchable movies. Each of Shteyngart's characters is a secular Russian Jewish immigrant, which I assume is how Shteyngart sees himself, however the characters spend a whole lot of time lamenting their genetic fate even though those laments don't end up driving a lot of plot. Shteyngart should really go out and get some family therapy instead of trying to foist his insecurities onto his characters and thereby his readers. In my opinion if the characters' background was left as background and not as a place for them to wallow between scenes his novels would be much more punchy and his Amazon star ratings would improve by a whole star.
Shteyngart is such a master of human nature and the English language though that his sins are forgivable and his novels well worth reading. His character's actions are unexpected but exactly in character and his sense of place and human motivation are right on target. His tragic and deeply flawed characters are all lovable which is exactly what makes good literature. He knows that what we all want is to be loved for our flaws and his descriptions of that love are so apt and transcendent that I believe that people will be reading his books for years to come.