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The Russian Debutante's Handbook

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.

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