The Cool War

“The serious novel has no future in this country,” the hapless protagonist of Gary Shteyngart’s breezily hilarious new novel of twentysomething angst and immigrant assimilation rather self-consciously declares. “We must turn to the comic.” At first glance, it looks like there may be no better demonstration of this claim than The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. Few recent novels can claim to be as funny as this wildly imaginative fantasy inhabited by poor Vladimir Girshkin, a 25-year-old Leningrad-born immigrant whose epic search for that most American of dreams – a meaningful identity – takes him from his low-paying job at the Emma Lazarus Immigrant Absorption Society in downtown Manhattan to the fictional Eastern European capital city of Prava, in the former Soviet republic of Stolova, where he becomes the right-hand man of a mafioso called the Groundhog.

And yet, as you gleefully watch Vladimir conquer what his soulfully funny creator refers to as “the wrong half” of Europe, you realize that for all the fun it provides, the 30-year-old Shteyngart’s own debut is as serious as it is funny. With dizzy pacing and satiric acidity reminiscent of Bulgakov, his tale of Vladimir’s ascent – descent? – is transformed into a rich moral and political parable about the tragicomedy of post–Cold War culture.

The structure of Shteyngart’s book has a classic, even hackneyed shape: the education of an innocent. Almost against his will (but certainly not against the will of his almost endearingly dissatisfied mother, whose nickname for him is Failurchka), Vladimir feels himself succumbing to the sadly typical American affliction of bottomless want. Satisfied if not actually content, at the beginning of the book, with his dull job and morose sex-worker girlfriend, Challah, the ill-paid Vladimir starts hanging with a crowd of cool rich-kid faux intellectuals – with disastrous results: “Now, with love and acceptance finally in the bag, he dreamed of money. What fresh tortures would await him next?” The answer, hilariously, is the rest of the book: After taking a bribe from a Russian mafioso desperate for citizenship, Vladimir finds himself on a plane to Stolova, where he is enlisted to help the mafioso’s son start a vast pyramid scheme intended to rip off the American kids who have swarmed to this new, hip center of “Eastern Bloc a-go-go stuff.” Like his protagonist’s, Shteyngart’s status as a man with a foot in each hemisphere – he was born in Leningrad in 1972 and emigrated to the U.S. at the age of 7 – has given him an ear for the inanities of each. Nothing escapes his withering attention, whether it’s the vacuous grandiosity of East Bloc rhetoric (the title of Stolova’s national anthem is “Our Locomotive Hurtles Forward, Forward Into the Future”) or the equally empty slogans of the hipsters whom Vladimir wants so desperately to fit in with. “I like you because you’re a foreigner with an accent,” his spoiled girlfriend says in her parents’ vast Fifth Avenue apartment. “I like you, in other words, because you’re my ‘signifier.’ “

Black-clad pretentiousness is, of course, easy enough to target; what elevates The Russian Debutante’s Handbook far above the past decade’s spate of world-weary twentysomething novels is the sad residue lurking beneath all the glitteringly sardonic observations – something as soulful and irreparably damaged as Vladimir himself. Shteyngart’s Russian-Jewish, Russian-American hero suffers from the bittersweet and unresolvable tragedy of being hyphenated – of being perennially “neither here nor there.” The impassioned climax of his bizarre return “home” is an outburst in which the young man articulates the terrible, secret sense of failure that many immigrants, particularly those from Vladimir’s neck of the global woods, must feel. “We’re like human Ladas or Trabants,” he shouts at a pair of earnest Stolovans who, along with his Ohio-born new girlfriend, want to blow up the last remainder of a colossal statue of Stalin. “We’re ruined … make all the money you want, hatch those American babies, but thirty years later you’ll still look back at your youth and wonder: What happened?”

Shteyngart’s hero ends up returning to the States, of course – the echt U.S. of the Middle West, no less – and a humble new beginning in that most capitalist of careers: accounting. This author’s future, it seems safe to say, will be a good deal more exciting; we can only be grateful that, before moving on to the new life that his rare talent will surely bring him, he has paused to think about the old life – about “what happened” – and to bid it such a rich, complicated, and humorous farewell.

The Russian Debutante’s Handbook
By Gary Shteyngart. Riverhead; 464 pages; $24.95.

The Cool War