Tuesday, March 30, 2010
The Russian Debutante's Handbook
I can't help it. I am drawn to foreign authors. I'm drawn to Russian stuff. I can't explain it. My ignorance of things Russian has led me to adding some Russian history books to the "to read" list just so I can appreciate some of it more. If I had to come up with a reason, maybe it is anti-hype. You'll note that the majority of what I read does not come from bestseller lists. I don't read Picoult or Patterson or the Kellermans or what have you. At least in this case Gary Shtayngart is an American even if he was born in Russia.
When looking for Russian literature, I found that people regarded Shtayngart's novel Absurdistan very highly. Naturally, our library system does not have it. So I went with this one. The titles could probably have been changed and nothing would be lost. The Russian Debutante's Handbook is funny, ridiculous, absurd even. It's an entertaining read but there are some problems which made my reading a single star.
The book is about Vladimir Girshkin, a Russian Jew in his mid-twenties who immigrated to the United States with his parents as a child. The book takes place in the 1990's and Girshkin is employed as a clerk in an organization that helps immigrants. His mother is a well-regarded financial wizard and his father is a doctor who pretty much engages in insurance fraud. So while his parents have embraced the American Way, Vlad is having problems.
Vlad's fortunes change figuratively and literally with two events. One, a Russian immigrant named Rybakov, who was almost made a citizen of the U.S. until he beat another foreigner with a loaf of bread during the induction ceremonies (he took the promise to defend the U.S. literally), comes to Vlad to seek help in getting his citizenship. Rybakov has been earning money from Social Security and lives quite well, much better than Vlad. When Vlad starts having financial difficulties, he requests money from Rybakov for "expenses". The second event is Vlad getting involved with his friend Baobab on another financial scheme. Vlad flies to Florida to meet with a fellow who needs Vlad to pose for his son at college interviews and in all likelihood is a drug dealer. The dealer tries to have sex with Vlad, Vlad panics, punches the dealer and flees and the dealer sets out to kill Vlad.
This is not quite the first half of the book.
After staging a pretend citizenship ceremony for Rybakov, Vlad flies back to Russia to meet with Rybakov's son, The Groundhog, who, surprise, heads up the Russian Mafia. Back home, Vlad is in his element. He helps the Groundhog set up businesses in Russia, legitimate and otherwise, to try and move Russia into a more capitalistic environment. Vlad begins dating a woman from the Midwest who seems like an innocent college girl from Ohio State but is also plotting to blow up an important Soviet landmark. Even back in the Russia, though, Vlad can't quite fit in. Whether conflicts with people because of being from the wrong part of Russia or because of his being Jewish, someone, somewhere, always seems to dislike Vlad because of his differences.
Ultimately, that's what the book is about - the difficulties of fitting in, especially for immigrants. It is an entertaining book that is full of bizarre twists. Too many, really, to adequately suspend belief. The route Shtayngart takes to get to them is often cumbersome and twisted. Shtayngart also relies a lot on stereotypes. The book seems farcical, and viewed in that light the stereotypes and the bizarre circumstances make sense. A novel that was more nuanced probably would have been better, especially given that this was a brute of a read at 460 pages.
I don't know that I enjoyed this enough to try and read Absurdistan any time soon (even if I could find a copy). While fun at times, the heavy satire and the long length would require me being in a different mindset than I find myself now.