Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Trabi vs The Groundhog

When we first meet Vladimir Girshkin in The Russian Debutante's Handbook by Gary Shteyngart, he is cast as a pathetic character.  The only child of Russian immigrants, Vlad is working at an "Immigrant Absorption Society" at a low level desk job in New York City.  We get the impression that Vlad is a sort of stunted guy with not much going on, even though his girlfriend is a dominatrix.  That a guy who lives with a dominatrix can be portrayed as a boring loser is just one of the many twists that Shteyngart incorporates into this story of post-Communist chaos.

Despite the dominatrix, Vlad is living a somewhat normal life, until he falls in love with another woman, and realizes that he will need to supplement his income.  Being inventive, Vlad comes up with shady schemes, which eventually make it unsafe for him to continue living in New York.  Taking advantage of an opportunity that first presented itself at the Immigrant Absorption Society, Vlad flees America for Prava, "the Paris of the 1990's."

Like Absurdistan, the city where Shteyngart set his later novel by that name, Prava is entirely invented.  It is vaguely somewhere in the former Soviet Union, and I imagine it being closer to Germany than Kazakhstan, but that's just me.  Also like Absurdistan, Prava is full of Russian gangsters trying to take the city over from the long time citizens, here known as "Babushkas".  "Babushka" is actually the only word that I remember from my high school and college Russian classes, meaning "Grandmother".

In Prava, Vlad quickly reinvents himself into a person of great status.  He has read something about a Ponzi scheme, and thinks that he can pull one off.  A gangster named "The Groundhog" sets Vlad up with a generous allowance, which he is supposed to use to lure in American ex-pat investors.  To everyone's dismay, it works.  Of course, all good criminal enterprises must come to an end, and Vlad again finds himself on the run.

Shteyngart is clever with his characterizations, and the mood of the period.  Although the book was published in 2002, the story is set in 1993, fresh after the Berlin Wall's collapse.  One of my favorite parts was where Vlad met Morgan, and was surprised that she would actually say what she thought, rather than relying on the things one is supposed to say to be thought of as cool.  "Was she, perhaps, a stranger to hipness?"  Vlad asks himself, feeling a little protective of her. 

Shteyngart relies on the stereotypes of the Russian gangsters being dressed in track suits, driving black luxury vehicles, and acting like trigger happy alcoholics, reminding me of The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.  In The Corrections,  an American character, Chip Lambert, finds himself, like Vlad, cast as an unexpected gangster.  Could it be that the stereotypes of Russian entrepreneurs of the 1990s are so accurate that it is OK to use them? 

The unsung hero of The Russian Debutante's Handbook  was the Trabant, which allowed Vlad to reach his final destination.  The Trabant, or Trabi, was something of a staple in Eastern Europe, especially before the fall of the Soviet Union.  Trabis were utilitarian cars, which would get a person from point A to point B, but not much else.  However, since there weren't a lot of choices, they were as good as it got for most people.  Here is what one looks like:

My sister, like Vlad, found herself in Eastern Europe in the early 1990's.  She was teaching English to residents of the former Eastern Germany.  While she was there, she bought a Trabi, and when she came home, she disassembled parts of it to take with her and make into something of a collage. It is easy to cheer for Vlad and the mighty Trabi when the Groundhog and a fleet of BMWs are in pursuit.

The Russian Debutante's Handbook was a NYT Notable Book for 2002.  For me, it's one more down for the Off the Shelf Challenge, and a double countsie that counts for the Support Your Library Challenge too, since I listened to it on CDs checked out from my library.

Next up on CD:  Change of Heart by Jodi Picoult

Still Reading:  New American Haggadah by Nathan Englander and Jonathan Safran Foer

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