Gary Shteyngart’s Immigrant-Becoming-American Schlemiel: The Unlikely Hero of our Times

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Vladmir Girshkin is the main character of Gary Shteygart’s novel The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.   It is the story of a particular kind of Immigrant-Becoming-American-Schlemiel and his becoming-American world.  The “arc of his dreams,” as the schlemiel-like narrator of the novel shows us, begins in Russia and ends in America.  These dreams come from a character whose story (and whose persona) is characterized as “Part P.T. Barnum, part V.I. Lenin, the man who would conquer half of Europe.”

If we listen closely to this sentence, we will have to ask two simple questions:

1)    If Lenin was the man who would conquer half of Europe, was P.T. Barnum the man who conquered the other half?

2)    What does it imply that Vladmir’s story is one part Lenin’s power and the other part, so to speak, “American circus power”?

In response to this, I’d suggest we ask what P.T. Barnum’s power is and how that power relates to Vladmir, and what Lenin’s power is and how that relates to Vladmir.  On the one hand, the power over “the other part of Europe” is an American-carnivalesque-power.  And this, as we see in the novel, is part of Vladmir’s character and is part and parcel of the narration of Vladmir’s story.  This circus power is the power of the American-schlemiel-dreamer.  On the other hand, we have the power of Lenin which is political, intentional, and masculine.  I’d suggest that the latter is humored by the former and that the schlemiel is kept in check by the latter.

But the narrator shows us, right off, that America has the home team advantage, since the story doesn’t begin in Russia; it begins in a shabby immigration office in Manhattan.  And the story takes off in the most mundane way, which indicates that Vladmir may in fact dream of power since he has none.  But we see something other than power in his office. He is in the “middle of (immigrant) things.”  The story begins…

On a Monday morning. In an office. With the first cup of instant coffee gurgling to life in the common lounge.

But not so fast.   This scene of the immigration office is revised by the narrator. His revision gives you a sense of the narrator’s way of thinking and speaking.  He tells us of how Vladmir’s

…story begins in New York, on the corner of Broadway and Battery Place, the most disheveled, godforsaken, not-for-profit corner of New York’s financial district.  On the tenth floor, the Emma Lazarus Immigrant Absorption Society greeted its clients with the familiar yellow water-stained walls and drying hydrangeas of a sad Third World government office.

He is a schlemiel who works together with “Assimilation Facilitators” to process immigrants.  In this American scene, these Assimilation Facilitators forge truces between warring peoples of the world in order to make peace in the office (not the world): “in the reception room, under the gentle but insistent prodding of trained Assimilation Facilitators, Turks and Kurds called a truce, Tutsis queued patiently behind Hutus, Serbs chatted up Croats at the demilitarized water fountains.”

While this is all going on, Vladmir is in “the back office.”  He is the immigrant schlemiel: “the immigrant’s immigrant, the expatriate’s expatriate, enduring victim of every practical joke the late twentieth century had to offer and an unlikely hero of our times.

Reading these words about a fool who is the “unlikely hero of our times,” I am reminded of the title and main theme of Ruth Wisse’s schlemiel-theory opus: The Schlemiel as Modern Hero.   At the end of her book, it seems as if the schlemiel ‘was’ a modern hero but is no longer one since (in the early 1970s) Jewish American writers like Phillip Roth wanted to put an end to the schlemiel.

The schlemiel can only live in a world which is neither fully optimistic nor fully skeptical.  And the world of the 1970s wanted to create more “positive” images of the Jew in which Jews were shown as normal, strong, and American.  The schlemiel, interpreted by Roth (in Portnoy’s Complaint) and Bruce Jay Friedman (in Stein) as a half-man and a loser, seemed to have been something they had left behind after they wrote his obituary.

To add to this, Irving Howe thought Jewish literature would lose its Jewishness the farther it went away from its immigrant roots. But this opening of the novel challenges Howe, Roth, and Friedman.  And it puts forth the new “unlikely hero” who also happens to be an immigrant.

In one fell swoop, Shteyngart shows us how the schlemiel lives on but as a new kind of immigrant: Vladmir Girshkin.

His becoming-American is the story of a schlemiel – an “unlikely hero” whose story is part P.T. Barnum and part Lenin.

(I will be blogging more on this extraordinary novel over the next few weeks.  This will, of course, be interspersed with blog entries and guest blog entries about new and old work on, about, or related to the schlemiel.)

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