Review by Mark King
Anyone who has been to Prague in the last decade will recognise
the 'Prava' in Gary Shteyngart's debut novel, The Russian Debutante's
Handbook. The city teems with loud American youths who, bankrolled
by affluent parents, have immersed themselves fully in the hedonism
widely on offer. And Prague has it in spades.
But this impressive comic novel is not really about Europe, it's
a dissection of pre-September 11 America.
Vladimir Girshkin is an intelligent Russian immigrant who just
can't seem to find a niche for himself in contemporary USA. The
fact that he has two, already successful, parents who ridicule
his lack of ambition doesn't help. Nor does his job.
Vladimir is a lowly clerk at the Emma Lazarus Immigrant Absorption
Society, trying to help immigrants he already knows have no chance
of achieving much. He dates an overweight S&M dominatrix while
trying to fit into a Society that has little regard for him or
his alien, 'Yiddish' ways. In short, Vladimir is striving to be
the person America wants him to be.
From trying to walk in a less Jewish way, to dating an American
prom Queen-type and embracing the upper middle-class bourgeois
party circuit, poor Vladimir slowly begins to Americanise himself.
But he hasn't the funds to maintain his lifestyle and he can't
shake off his Russian roots, a dual problem that leads him off
the straight and narrow.
When an eccentric elderly Russian enlists his help in obtaining
US residency, Vladimir is drawn into a criminal underbelly that
threatens to undermine everything he has achieved to ingratiate
himself with the indigenous capitalists of America.
From a dodgy meeting with the Russian mafia in a boat moored
off Manhattan, to an excruciating scene involving a gay predator
in a Florida hotel and eventually, his trip to Prague, Vladimir
learns as much about himself as he does the West.
Shteyngart has crafted a rich comic novel full of laughable national
stereotypes and biting satire. In the playful way it pokes fun
at the idionsyncracies of language, Shteyngart's book resembles
Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated (though with
none of the latter's heavy-handed subject matter). Both derive
humour from situations where cultures clash through conversation.
But The Russian Debutante's Handbook is not just about language.
It reflects the American dream off a Russian mirror and throws
the ironies of capitalism into stark relief.
Part of Shteyngart's triumph is that while ridiculing Russia
and America, he makes both countries seem attractive in their
own peculiar way.