Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Novels of Gary Shteyngart

The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. New York: Riverhead Books, 2002. Burling 3rd Floor PS3619.H79 R87 2002

Absurdistan. New York: Random House, 2006 Burling 3rd Floor PS3619.H79 A63 2006

Super Sad True Love Story. New York : Random House, c2010 Smith Memorial PS3619.H79 S87 2010


Gary Shteyngart has something to say about the human condition in the 21st century that I find to be very much worth reading. Through the course of writing his first three novels, I believe Shteyngart has honed his message to a very fine and pristine point. I won’t say that he has perfected his art, because, what might be next—I can only hope he has several more novels to go before perfecting it. If you read all of Shteyngart, and I recommend that you do, start with the first novel and work your way through to Super Sad True Love Story. I found Debutante hard to finish, Absurdistan a little truculent until the wild and ferocious ending, and Super Sad True Love Story a delightful and misery inducing read from start to finish—and it has just stayed with me and I want my friends and the President of the United States to read it.

All three novels feature hapless, lovable yet unlovable anti-heroes born of Russian parents with an extended experience in the United States.  This hapless hero wants to be loved and it helps to have adequate funds.

The Russian Debutante’s Handbook: Vladimir Girshkin moved with his parents from Russia as a small boy. As the novel opens, he works for minimum wage (or perhaps slightly higher than minimum wage) at the Emma Lazarus Immigrant Absorption Society. As the novel progresses, he leaves his professional dominatrix (although in real life very un-dominating) girl friend for the well to do and high living Francesca. Becoming short on funds Girshkin falls under the influence of an eccentric though wealthy immigrant with connections to the underworld. Girshkin ends up working for the immigrant's son in an unnamed East European country filled with wealthy and naïve expatriots. A new girlfriend …, Girshkin discovers poetry . .. , starts a literary magazine (or plans to), … mayhem, high jinx, move on to…

Absurdistan (2006) and enter Misha Borisovich Vainberg, the hefty hero and graduate of Occidental College (a thinly disguised Oberlin College which Shteyngart also attended) with a degree in multiculturalism. He lives in Russia craving the love and acceptance of his gangster father who early in the novel meets a violent end.

Misha’s friends include Alyosha Bob and Misha’s true love, Rouenna, both from the United States. Rouenna leaves Misha for (the much hated by Misha) writer Jerry Shteynfarb, author of The Russian Arriviste's Handjob. In his search for consolation Misha ends up by hook and by crook in the country of Absurdistan, a presumably oil rich nation complete with warring religious factions. It turns out that Golly Burton and Kellogg, Brown, and Root are important contractors in this country, everything has a corporate name, and all the corporations have their own private armies. American officials see this country as the opportune place for a manufactured and distracting war. The war gets out of hand and Misha escapes to a remote enclave of Mountain Jews who revere his father and take him in. No summary of this book can do it justice. You need to experience the final chapters to fully appreciate the satire.

Finally, Super Sad True Love Story. Our hero is Lenny Abramov, who came to the United States with his parents at a very young age. They live in an outlying suburb of NY City, and Lenny lives right in the city. He works for a boss who also serves as his father figure.  They are in the business of extending lives—but only for those with the appropriate credit scores and other high social rankings. The novel takes place, disturbingly, in the not too distant future. Everything is corporatized, the dollar is pegged to the Yuan, everyone is Global teening and equipped with apparats that can be used to rank everyone in a room by hotness as well as give you all their important details (including credit score). The streets are lined with credit poles that flash your credit score as you walk by. The country is starting a program of deporting those with low credit scores and loud speakers and video billboards urge you to shop, which is a patriotic duty as well as an absorbing pass time. Lenny is a reader and owns actual books. This, however, sets him apart and makes him a little bit scary. Most students scan texts—nobody reads entire works.

Lenny meets Eunice Park while vacationing in Italy. He falls madly in love with her. The plot revolves around their evolving love affair and the accompanying dissolution of the United States.

All three novels share themes of rampant consumerism, over indulged and over entitled youth, a creeping, controlling, corporate owned, and militaristic government, and a wide gap between the privileged and the underprivileged. Shteyngart’s novels are humorous and sad at the same time (as is all good humor). It is so close to the truth, so close to what is happening that we don’t need to enact any great suspensions of belief to follow the plot lines to their sorrowful finish.  (Read Shteyngart’s third nove to the end to find out about the importance of Italy in future world affairs)

Finally, I found that Shteyngart’s future was not so different than that portrayed by David Mitchell in Cloud Atlas, although much more human and less robotic. AND, for a good interview with Shteyngart check out the podcasts at the Bat Segundo Show and Fresh Air.

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