The Russian Debutante’s Handbook is an ambitious, over-indulgent, clever, and repetitive debut novel. Brimming with style and energy, Shteyngart grabs you with his comedic rambunctiousness right from the beginning. He has a gift for crafting fascinatingly eccentric characters, and equally outrageous scenarios to throw them in. But as the plot hijinks are continually kicked into overdrive the book starts to feel like a mature pre-teen who wants to feel adult but still can’t quite control their desperate-for-attention manic energy. This is a greedy gripe at a writer trying to do too much and doing it well most of the time.
Vladimir Girshkin is twenty-five-years old. He is working a low-paying job helping Eastern European immigrants gain American citizenship. He cares about his job about as much as he cares about his roommate/girlfriend Challah who works as a dominatrix and with whom he has punctual weekly sex. His only friend is Baobab, an enthusiastic loser and professional scammer. Vladimir is contentedly wasting his life much to the dismay of his business magnate mother who refers to him as her “Little Failure” and to the affectionate disinterest of his lazily successful doctor father. But this happy malaise is disrupted when Vladimir begins an affair with Francesca, a graduate student from a wealthy intellectual family.
The Vladimir/Francesca section of the book can’t escape comparisons to Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus. However, Shteyngart’s style is more influenced by a later Roth work, Portnoy’s Complaint. Gone is the mournful disillusionment of Goodbye, Columbus, Vladimir is much more of the Alexander Portnoy type than Neil Klugman, with the outsider immigrant/mindless American affluence dynamic taking on a much more exaggeratedly dysfunctional quality. Vladimir tells us from the start that he is willing to be Francesca’s romantic dog in trade for the luxury and superficial security her, her friends and her parents provide him. The effort that goes into the performances he must play for his new social circle goes from being the casual survival mechanism he employs out in the world to a full-time job – doting lover to Francesca, doting son to her parents, eternally enthusiastic companion to his new hipster friends. Francesca notices the performative quality of his personality, and is unable to comprehend the effort that Vladimir puts into every aspect of their relationship. He pines for that brand of American acceptance that is only given to her and her circle, the wealthy and the white, and while his family has the former and his skin color allows him to pass for the latter, ultimately he is unable to escape his deep-rooted outsider-ness.
What actually leads to the end of their relationship is far less cerebral – money. Desperate for the cash needed to go out to fancy restaurants and wear respectable clothes, Vladimir is sent on a con scheme by Baobab. This results in Vladimir being sexually assaulted by a gangster, and, after punching his way to an escape, is left in danger. To escape the country he tricks a the “Fan Man,” a crazy Russian immigrant with a wealthy gangster son, known as the Groundhog, into believing he has gained citizenship. This complete, he travels to Prava and into the employ of the Groundhog.
The rest of the novel takes place in Prava where Vladimir concocts a series of Ponzi schemes including starting a literary journal to get donations from the many wealthy American expatriates, and starting a rave club. And, like the insatiable Portnoy he is deep down, there is another strange love affair.
Shteyngart’s novel follows in the tradition of picturesque journeys of indignity and humiliation, a sub-genre mastered by Nabokov and Roth. But Shteyngart doesn’t commit to debasing Vladimir to nearly the same extent as Roth does Mickey Sabbath of Sabbath’s Theater or Zuckerman in a number of novels, or that Nabokov throws at Hermann Karlovich in Despair or even mad old Humbert Humbert. Which isn’t to say this is necessarily a flaw, because he has far more affection and compassion for his respective jolly rogue. Vladimir is selfish, but his selfishness isn’t reliant on the manipulation and exploitation of others. This is an ironic thing to say considering his exploits in Prava are defined by pyramid schemes, but the results of his cons bring tangible excitement to the lives of the figures he involves.
This is perhaps where the novel’s problems lie. There is never much weight to Vladimir’s actions. This isn’t a problem with the sections that revolve entirely around his relationships, but less so when the moral implications of his actions become murkier. Groundhog and his gangsters are only too happy to encourage his pyramid schemes, and the only conflict is that of a murderous member of the gang whose threat is kept in the background until conveniently used near the end. His exploitation of the Groundhog’s father, the Fan Man, is played entirely for the creation of narrative chaos. The conflict mostly comes from Morgan, Vladimir’s main love interest, a seemingly ordinary Midwestern American woman with a secret alter-ego that’s not very shocking in comparison to the novel’s more melodramatic developments.
Shteyngart is a writer of infinite charm and insight into the eccentric dysfunctions of modern life. This is best shown by his examinations of Vladimir’s relationships with Francesca and Morgan, and his biting portraits of American intellectual entitlement, the expatriates of Prava being a wonderfully vapid group. But for some reason he doesn’t seem to think this is enough, and is compulsively driven to cranking up the drama. While his character development and interest in chaotic sexual relationships can certainly be compared to Roth and Nabokov, the barrage of guns, gangsters, and chase scenes is more in line with the Marx Brothers, or the cartoonish set pieces of A Confederacy of Dunces. And I can’t say this mishmash of styles has the best of results, especially in the regards to the scenes of violence that signal the end of his time in both America and Prava. These moments don’t have remotely the weight that seems necessary. The third-person narration the book is written in has the same dastardly buffoonish charm as the book’s protagonist, and through this voice it’s impossible to believe anything too horrible will happen.
For all of my complaints, I still devoured The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. Shteyngart’s debut is over 400 pages, but the pages fly by. Surrounding all of the tiring plot indulgences are a diverse variety of well crafted characters you can’t help wishing wouldn’t come and go as if through an eternally revolving door, and a delightful main character who doesn’t need so much performative melodrama to capture our interest.