The Russ­ian Debu­tan­te’s Handbook

October 26, 2011

Gary Shteyngart’s nov­el, The Russ­ian Debutante’s Hand­book, fol­lows in the tra­di­tion of nov­els such as Hen­ry Roth’s mas­ter­piece, Call It Sleep. Each is mas­ter­ful­ly writ­ten, inte­grat­ing believ­able his­toric ele­ments with fic­tion­al­ized sto­ries that give insight into the adap­ta­tions of an immi­grant com­mu­ni­ty to life in Amer­i­ca. Shteyngart’s work is long over­due. The col­lapse of the Iron Cur­tain brought a mas­sive Russ­ian immi­gra­tion to Amer­i­ca, thirst­ing to ben­e­fit from the free­doms offered here both edu­ca­tion­al­ly and finan­cial­ly. The impact of this siz­able com­mu­ni­ty on life in New York is wor­thy of doc­u­men­ta­tion and roman­ti­ci­sa­tion. We track the evo­lu­tion of Vladimir Gir­shkin from hum­drum clerk in an immi­grant absorp­tion cen­ter on New York’s Low­er East Side, to zany con man back with the ex-patri­ot com­mu­ni­ty in Pra­va. As East and West inter­sect, char­ac­ters appear and reap­pear, some humor­ous, some hum­drum and some mafiosa qual­i­ty, wan­der­ing through the pages of the nov­el and through the ever evolv­ing life of our vari­ably humor­ous and melan­choly hero. Through his work at the absorp­tion cen­ter, Vladimir encoun­ters an eccen­tric Russ­ian war hero whose best friend is an elec­tric fan. This event lit­er­al­ly blows Vladimir off his bor­ing life course and his mechan­i­cal sex­u­al rela­tion­ship with his girl­friend Chal­lah into the adven­tur­ous life of a pyra­mid scheme pro­mot­er whose scheme is, as are the rest of Vladimir’s encoun­ters, bril­liant, crazy and matur­ing. — 2002/2003 Judges for Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award in Fiction

Discussion Questions

From Pen­guin Ran­dom House

1. Assim­i­la­tion is a major theme in The Russ­ian Debu­tan­te’s Hand­book. Dis­cuss Vladimir’s var­i­ous attempts to assim­i­late. Which one is most suc­cess­ful and why?

2. Vladimir retains a dis­tinct self-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion as a poor Russ­ian Jew, despite his moth­er’s suc­cess in Amer­i­ca and the many oppor­tu­ni­ties avail­able to him as an Amer­i­can cit­i­zen. Dis­cuss his ennui as a man­i­fes­ta­tion of suc­cess­ful Americanization.

3. Rybakov is also attempt­ing to assim­i­late in his way. Dis­cuss the humor inher­ant in the Fan Man’s chief impe­tus toward cit­i­zen­ship being the legit­imiza­tion of his opinions.

4. How does Vladimir’s moth­er’s intense desire for her son’s suc­cess back­fire? Why does her pres­sure on him to assim­i­late also backfire?

5. Vladimir does­n’t seem to care much about mon­ey in his days at the Emma Lazarus Soci­ety. How does his affair with Fran­nie change that? What is the new­found appeal of mate­r­i­al success?

6. Vladimir shows him­self to be remark­ably adapt­able. What is the cru­cial dif­fer­ence between adap­ta­tion and assimilation?

7. His­to­ry is an impor­tant char­ac­ter in this nov­el. How does it dif­fer­ent­ly effect the lives of Rybakov? Kostya? Per­ry Cohen?

8. How is the destruc­tion of the Foot sym­bol­ic of both Prava’s escape from his­to­ry and Vladimir’s?9. What does Vladimir learn about appear­ances from Mor­gan? Dis­cuss the irony of this All-Amer­i­can girl’s desire to immerse her­self in Pra­va and its pol­i­tics, and flee the bland , afflu­ent nor­mal­cy so many immi­grants seek.

10. Do you believe that Vladimir has assim­i­lat­ed at the end – that his life in Cleve­land as an accoun­tant with a wife and baby on the way has final­ly Amer­i­can­ized him? Or does Vladimir’s nos­tal­gia for his past sta­tus as an out­cast reveal some­thing more com­plex about the make­up of our souls?