The Prologue to Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan

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Schlemiels come in all sizes, shapes, and colors.  Rather than simply generalize about the schlemiel – which I, like Ruth Wisse, Sander Gilman, Hannah Arendt, Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi, and a few other schlemiel theorists often do – I’d also like to take a closer look at all the different kinds of schlemiel so as to expand the horizon of schlemiel theory.  I’m especially interested in how different writers from different time periods articulate this character.  To be sure, the way they convey the schlemiel and his/her ways teaches us about how they approach the schlemiel.   And the differences between these articulations – as well as the general trends – teach us a lot about this character and how it takes on different shades: sometimes s/he is adorable, other times s/he is irritating; sometimes s/he is an utter failure, other times s/he’s a partial failure; sometimes s/he’s redemptive, sometimes s/he’s not.  But, to be sure, one can always say that the schlemiel is the odd one out.  His/her oddity is manifested in an awkwardness that arises out of misjudging the norm or in misjudging this or that situation.  On the other hand, the schlemiel’s oddity may not be manifested in awkwardness: he or she may be odd with out even knowing it.  But how odd is s/he? What makes him/her odd?  These questions inform the decisions that many writers, filmmakers, poets, and comedians make when portraying the schlemiel.  And the decisions they make can and often do change the way we look at this character in this or that historical period.

One writer who provides something of a new schlemiel – who evinces a complex form of oddity – is Gary Shteyngart.  In this blog, I have written extensively on Vladmir Girshkin – the schlemiel of his first novel: The Russian Debutante’s Notebook.   I initially found what I call Shteyngart’s “immigrant-becoming-American-schlemiel” to be quite a novelty.  This new articulation of the schlemiel challenged the literary critic Irving Howe’s claim that, with the end of the waves of post-pogrom Jewish-European immigration to the USA, Jewish fiction would have little to draw on.  To be sure, Howe, saw great creativity in the struggle Jews had with assimilation.  Their liminal state prompted many Jewish writers to create fiction which often had a modernist flavor.  Now that we are in a “post-assimilation” era, he thought that was a thing of the past.  However, Shteyngart shows that its not.  His characters are Russian Jews who have come over to the United States in the post-Communist Era.  And, because they are somewhere between worlds and have a hard time succeeding, they provide us with a new articulation of the schlemiel.

However, what I found disappointing about Shteyngart’s first novel is that it actually traced a story arc that differs considerably from the story arcs we find in much literature on the schlemiel (from Sholem Aleichem to Saul Bellow).  This starts with what I called a “partial transformation.”   And when he flees America for Eastern Europe, this transformation takes on more of a reality (as he becomes more masculine).   At the end of the arc (the epilogue), the main character, Vladmir, decides to live a normal life.   Since he becomes a dad, and because I find the gradual displacement of the schlemiel in this novel to be disappointing, I call this a “dad ending.”   After assessing the novel, I turned toward a generalization about the schlemiel and its arc, which can be found in the work of Hannah Arendt.    In my view, Arendt and Shteyngart (at least in this novel) were situating the schlemiel on a path that I did not agree with since I find nothing wrong with the schlemiel being an “exceptional” (as opposed to a “normal”) character.

With this reading in mind, I have decided to give Gary Shteyngart another chance. To this end, I have chosen to make a series of close readings of his second, follow up, novel: Absurdistan.

Like any reading, I’d like to start at the beginning, which Shteyngart makes a prologue rather than a first chapter.  It’s entitled “Where I’m Calling From”.   Perhaps because I have read too much Freud or have a penchant for history, I can’t help but think of the expression the “the past is prologue” whenever I see a prologue.  Regardless, I think it is a good intuition to take this thought to heart when reading this prologue.  And in this novel it “pays” to do so since the main character – Misha Borisovich Vainberg – is a narrator who is interested in telling the reader how he screwed up.   And this, to be sure, is one of the schlemiel keys to this novel.   But the question that interests me is whether such reflection means he is, so to speak, beyond his schlemiel character and situation.  Will he, like Vladmir in The Russian Debutante’s Notebook, undergo a transformation from a schlemiel (a man-child) into a man in the Epilogue?

As I read this novel, this question lingers.

But at the beginning there is no question: Misha is a schlemiel.  His description of this book tells us that this book is, on the one hand, a book “about love…too much love” and, on the other hand, a “book about being had.”  His love, so to speak, produces bad luck: it allows him “to be had.”   But, like many an innocent schlemiel, he is not to blame; they are:

I’ve been had.  They used me.  Took advantage of me. Sized me up. Knew right away they had their man.  If “man” is the right word.  (vii)

Indeed, is “man” the right word or is schlemiel the right word?

Reflecting on how he came to being a man-child of sorts who has taken advantage of, Misha demurs: “Maybe this whole being-had deal is genetic.”  Along this line of thinking, he first turns to his grandmother who was “an ardent Stalinist and faithful contributor to Lenningrad Pravda.”   But his point isn’t that she was had by the Communists she supported.   To be sure, in his flurry to explain himself, he seems to have lost his point regarding the “being-had deal” as “genetic.”   However, he does remember himself in a picture with his grandmother “as an infant…I’m drooling on her. She’s drooling on me.”

This logic, of course, is off.  But that’s the point.  He’s less concerned with the “genetic” origins of his condition then with his present, sad state.  Now, apparently, he is “missing teeth” and has a “dented lower stomach.”  His heart is “bruised” and there is a “kilogram of fat hanging off” his “breastbone.”

Although he reflects on his present state, he doesn’t loose his thought regarding his genetics.  It resurfaces, it seems, in a thought about “where he is writing from” (the title of the prologue).   This place may have something to do with the origin of his schlemiel-condition.  Misha is writing from the “former Soviet republic of Absurdsvani.”  And this place is a “small village populated by the so-called Mountain Jews.”   These Jews are “isolated” and have a “single minded devotion to clan and Yahweh.”  In contrast to the Jews he has grown up with, they are “prehistoric, premammalian even, like some clever miniature dinosaur that once schlepped across the earth, the Haimossaurus.”

This village of Jews – his people -are an odd bunch:

The villagers gathered around me, the dried-out senior citizens, the oily teenagers, the heavy local gangsters…even the confused one-eyed octogenarian rabbi who is now crying on my shoulders, whispering in his bad Russian about what an honor it is to have an important Jew like me in the village. (viii)

Although he is astonished by this odd village of “mountain Jews” and feels touched by their kindness, he tells the reader that he is a “deeply secular Jew” who misses New York City and his old girlfriend Rouenna:

The mountain Jews coddle and cosset me; their hospitality is overwhelming…and yet I yearn to take to the air. To soar across the globe.  To land on the corner of 173rd Street and Vyse, where she is waiting for me.  (viii)

So…where he is writing from (a place of Jews where he feels comfortable with – an important point, as I hope to show, since he has problems with some kinds of Jews; namely, Hasidim) is not where he wants to be. He wants to be somewhere else far from these “pre-historic” origins (which he is not totally at odds with, but cannot settle with).

The prologue ends with him meditating on his “love” in New York City.  And he restates his claim that this book – Absurdistan – is a “book about love.”  But he adds to this one new thought: “it’s also about geography….I am Here.  I am here next to the woman I love.  The city rushes out to locate and affirm me.”

One can end the prologue here, but that would be a mistake.  After all, he’s not there. He’s in a Village of Mountain Jews.  And, in addition to that, he says that this is a novel about love AND about “being-had.”   These last two elements, in contrast to his emphasis on love as the underlying meaning of the book, teach us that this is much more than a novel about love: its also a novel about Jewishness and the schlemiel-who-is-had.

This combination makes for a nuanced schlemiel character.  What I like about this prologue is the suggestion that we read Misha – and the schlemiel character – in terms of a tension between a consciousness of being-had, Jewishness, love, and New York City’s tension with Absurdistan.  This makes for yet another Immigrant-Become-American-Schlemiel story arc.  However, the question is whether or not it ends with the schlemiel it starts off with in the prologue: a schlemiel-in-love, a schlemiel-who-has-been-had, and a schlemiel-in-search-of-home.

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