Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Russian Debutante's Journey

Vladimir Girshkin, the main character in The Russian Debutante's Handbook, is a Russian American Jew who travels across continents to gain confidence, find love and happiness. Vladimir does not set off on a mission with such goals from the beginning of the novel. Unlike the regular coming-of-age narrative, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook lets the reader relish in a dynamic plot with plenty of twists and turns that at prima vista have little to do with the standard novel of a maturing character. The numerous humorous situations populate the plot of the novel with strange but real opportunities for the character to reflect and grow.

Reflection in the book, however, comes secondary to action. The young protagonist rushes into every serendipitous situation that life offers to try to change his status, mainly to impress of his possessive and manipulative mother. He wants to get a profession that will make him look good in the eyes of his parents; what he discovers later is that this should in fact be a profession that will make him feel independent and more confident. Thus, Vladimir befriends Fan Man, who promises him a prosperous job in exchange for a favor which risks his current occupation; he ventures into a well-paid machination with a man who tries to sexually harass him; in the end, Vladimir decides to get into a murky enterprise in Eastern Europe with suspicious Russians in hopes to become richer and therefore a better candidate for the heart of his girlfriend. In the beginning of the novel, Vladimir is ready to try everything only to get the confidence of which his parents robbed him over the years. And truly, how can a man at the age of 25 feel at ease with his identity when his mother is still trying to teach him how to walk properly?

The European syndrome of the dominant mother and the weaker son lines up with all kinds of Eastern European features of the protagonist in the book. Vladimir experiences the anxieties of the Russian, those of the Jew and also the problems of the Eastern European immigrant. He suffers torn between many cultures, trying to reconcile all his ethnic and geographical identities. When he finally gets to Europe in search of a new career and new identity, he pauses one day and asks himself the question “Who is Vladimir Girshkin? Who indeed?” (248). Afterwards, he puts on the mask of a a poet who ironically writes a poem about his mother and reads it in front of a raving pseudo-artistic public in Prava, Shteyngart’s name for a fictional city awfully similar to Prague.

Gary Shteyngart flips upside down the regular take on an immigrant identity; instead of depicting the character as tragically trapped between different worlds, he uses every opportunity to concoct ridiculous situations based on the immigrant’s position between many cultures. The humorous tone of the novel does not denigrate the image of the immigrant; on the contrary, it builds him up as a hero in this action-driven plot. Vladimir has the potential of becoming an excellent partner in the mafia enterprise in Prava because of his understanding of Russian culture: he can speak to his counterparts in Russian and relate to their existence. At the same time, he has the chance of even becoming a leading figure among them because he is the only one who understands American culture and therefore can mingle with the ex-pats in Prava making them invest in a fraudulent enterprise. Vladimir is in the zenith of his life while he works for the underground Russian organization in Eastern Europe. Shteyngart even names the part depicting his time in Prava “The King of Prava” and one of its chapters “The Happiest Man Alive” – both descriptions of Vladimir’s success in the game that takes place on the verge of two cultures – the Eastern European and the American.

The Russian debutante in the novel is looking for confidence, but also happiness and love. His first relationship is with an ordinary American girl that he meets in one corner at a party. His second girlfriend is a New Yorker whose parents are college professors and quite liberal; she shows him a world of possibilities and introduces him to a more international New York crowd. Vladimir’s third girlfriend, who becomes his wife in the end of the book, is an American girl who is interested in Eastern Europe and even learns to speak the language of the Stolovan Republic. In fact, Vladimir meets her in Prava; she is the bridge that connects his Eastern European identity with his American one. Morgan, his future wife, tell him:

… here is the thing about you, Vladimir… I like you because you’re nothing like my boyfriend back home and you’re nothing like Tomas either … You’re worthwhile and interesting, but at the same time you’re … You’re partly an American, too. Yeah, that’s it! You are needy in a kind of foreign way, but you’ve also got these… American qualities.” (388)

Vladimir’s complex identity finally works for him, or at least he is learning how to use it in his benefit. He gains confidence, falls in love, feels happy. Vladimir is seemingly happy in the last part of the novel when he finds himself living in Cleveland, working in the company of his wife, awaiting his first child. He is also slightly sad, or rather nostalgic for the days in Eastern Europe where he could actively use his potential of an immigrant able to live on the verge of two cultures, navigate two worlds from his position on the border.

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