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The Repatriate

December 18, 2008
The Russian Debutante's Handbook

The Russian Debutante's Handbook

The Russian Debutante’s Handbook
By Gary Shteyngart

Continuing in this vein of books about Russian immigrants, I tackled Shteyngart’s delightful 2002 debut this week. I read his most recent book, Absurdistan, about a year ago and fell in love with his sharp wit and caustic insight. It was exciting to revisit him in this epic, which figures as something like an immigrant’s bildungsroman.

Shteyngart’s humorous tale of one Vladimir Girshkin–“part P.T. Barnum, part V.I. Lenin, the man who would conquer half of Europe (albeit the wrong half”–is told with an energy reminiscent of Nabokov and an social intelligence akin to Zadie Smith. The child of profoundly Russian immigrants, Vladimir grows up in New York and struggles to distinguish himself from the shadows of his parents: his father, an opinionated doctor, and his mother, a passionate Communist who was a moderate celebrity in the Soviet Union.

Vladimir is, like Pnin, a mildly pathetic character who is weak and certainly identity-less. He doesn’t seem to have much aptitude for anything and struggles to make enough money to survive. He gets a tip from Baobab, a high school bud, which turns south when his employer tries to rape him in a Miami hotel room. After nearly getting killed by this wandering drug lord, Vladimir decides he’s had enough of America and its enforced roles and moves to Prava, Stolova, a geographical figment of Shteyngart’s imagination. Prava is an emblem of all the quasi-greatness of washed up post-Soviet territories. 

Vladimir cycles through various American women, beginning with a plump Jewish stripper and ending with a slightly anarchist Ohio girl, each time trying to find himself in them. He examines their identities and postulates how they will turn out, wondering if their lives are an indication of the path his own might take. His middle girlfriend, Fran, finally has enough of him when Vladimir follows her as she goes to buy a toothbrush. She asks him why he’s so dependent and he can’t give her a good answer. He gets burned repeatedly, but we don’t feel exactly sorry for him; most of the time, Vladimir is asking for it. He’s notoriously clueless but manages to remain lovable, for those evanescent reasons that pathetic men somehow possess.

Morgan, his last girlfriend, the one who blows up a Stolovan government building and eventually becomes his wife, has a moment of lucid insight into Vladimir’s nature. The couple are camping in the Stolovan wilderness and as they are together in the tent, Morgan considers why it is that she’s with this man in the first place.

He was neither a good or bad person. The  man lying on top of her, goose bumps dotting his chest, little brambles of facial hair pointing in the four major directions, eyes pleading for some sort of release, wet trembling hands cupping her shoulders—this was a wrecked person. How else could someone be so clever and yet so stumped? How else could someone shudder so terribly, so earnestly before an unassuming woman like herself?

It’s a dazzling, hilarious book and well worth the time it takes to read. Because no matter what you’ve been reading, you can never have enough of the Russians.

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