‘The Russian Debutante’s Handbook’ by Gary Shteyngart

“What is America? . . . Is it a hamburger? Is it a hot dog? Is it a shiny Cadillac with a pretty young woman underneath a palm tree?”
— The Russian Debutante’s Handbook

One balmy Christmas, someone took out a book, read the first line of the blurb and proceeded to ask the next person to make up the next line. He or she would in turn ask the person sitting next to them to continue, and so on. By the time you got to the last person in the room, what you had was a totally bizarre rendition of a book whose title and real summary would be read aloud after a complete round.

If used in the blurb game, the most accurate summary of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook would be, “A soft core rendition of the American dream depicting the plight of a young Russian-Jewish immigrant who sets out to prove his over-achieving parents wrong. His attempts land him in the Russian domain of Prava (a pseudonym for Prague), where he involves himself in highbrow publishing, rowdy expatriate exploits and the Russian mafioso.”

The New York Times Book Review called it “a blisteringly funny, almost frighteningly energetic novel of adventure,” while a segment of its Kirkus Review is quoted on the inside of the book cover as “Ambitious, funny, intelligent, in love with irony and literary allusions, as if by a lighter Nabokov.”

Now putting Sthetyngart and Nabokov on the same gradient is what I would call a misdemeanour. It is true that The Russian Debutante’s Handbook is no Metamorphoses, nor does it declare to be. But Nabokov’s prose has depth, while Sthetyngart uses more than four hundred pages to draw a painfully clichéd caricature of modern immigrant mentally.

One would actually expect more of Sthetyngart, considering he was born in Leningrad and immigrated to the United States when he was seven, and probably has a suitcase full of first generation immigrant experiences. Unfortunately, Sthetyngart is either saving all the good stuff for his next book or has just decided not to use them, for The Russian Debutante’s Handbook is the “kind of apple [that] quickly turns brown on the inside,” to quote the author.

The Russian Debutante’s Handbook tries to be an exploration of immigrant subculture within a global urban landscape. Beginning in New York, which offers the complete set of props needed to create a mise’-en-scene of raving immigrants and wealthy intellectuals, we follow 25-year-old Vladimir Girshkin on several bad decisions, and end up in Prava, the Eastern European Paris of the ’90s. It is here that the roles of the privileged and unfortunate are switched. Vladimir sets out to make his fortune scamming clueless rich expatriate Americans.

The protagonist of Shteyngart’s book is the picture of insecure youth. Vladimir is seen to be forever coveting — may it be a look, a lifestyle, or a lover — and never being able to obtain what he desires because the opposition is running through his veins. Throughout The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, it is those who find themselves in this same position that are the saddest characters. They are the ones that Shteyngart paints as the most socially acceptable, and yet one can detect a bitter dissatisfaction beneath the Gladwrap personalities. On the flip side, the characters who possess more unconventional, if not slightly more embarrassing behaviour, seem to be those who have assimilated successfully into their foreign surroundings.

Shteyngart uses archetypes that are most commonly portrayed in media as a basis for his characters — characters that seem to jump right out of a Woody Allen film. This is where The Russian Debutante’s Handbook is both funny and disappointing. It is like seeing someone who resembles an old friend. You run up to this person with the anticipation of reacquainting yourself, and then disappointingly, with closer inspection, discover that the person is not whom you thought he or she was.

Reading Shteyngart can be frustrating because you know he has the tools needed to create a web of fascinating characters. Being an immigrant himself, he must have the knowledge that comes with first hand conflicts that affect characters like Vladimir. Instead, what we get in The Russian Debutante’s Handbook is store-bought stereotypical behaviour and attitudes. The work is lacking the variables that can enrich the prose and improve the depth of the entire story.

A picture of the author on the back flap shows Shteyngart garbed in an outfit right out of Dr. Zhivago, complete with thick framed glasses, moustache and timid looking baby bear on a leash. It does make one wonder if Shteyngart wrote The Russian Debutante’s Handbook with the farcical intent of unveiling American society at its worse — a land of the free inhabited by a shallow population.

If this is truly the case, Shteyngart proves successful. No character in the book is excluded from harbouring the ‘wannabe’ personality. Each character is dying to be somewhere or someone else. If this is the author’s original intention, Shteyngart’s book would need only be improved by a heavier dose of black humour spread on thick and heavy, for the his current style is too void of any particular opinion to put in perspective.

To answer the question of “What is America?” It could be a hamburger, a hot dog, a shiny Cadillac, and a pretty young woman underneath a palm tree, or all of these, as the character Lazslo proclaims. But for the satisfaction of the reader, it should be a lot more.