Dad Endings: On the Transformation of Vladmir Girshkin from Schlemiel to Bad-Man to Dad-Man – Part II

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Power corrupts. And it corrupts not only those who hold it; it can also corrupt those who are its victims since the victim can become the victimizer.   This is a theme that intrigues Gary Shteyngart whose main character, a Russian-Jewish-Immigrant to America becomes a victim who is given an opportunity to. so to speak, turn the tables.   We see this at work in the middle of The Russian Debutante’s Notebook where the main character, Vladmir, ends up despising young Americans who come to Eastern Europe to “rebel against their parents.”   He initially takes them as the targets of his “ponzi scheme.”

However, at a certain point, he is smart enough to realize that his negative reading of Americans is a misreading.  And the person who brings him to this realization prompts him to go from being an exceptional bad-man to a normal “dad-man.”   This transformation, in many ways, bears an interesting light on Hannah Arendt’s claim that the schlemiel is left behind for the normal man.  The problem with her reading is that there are too many gaps.  Shteyngart, in an odd way, fills many of these gaps in since Vladmir goes from being a schlemiel to a bad-man; and from a bad-man to a normal dad-man.

As I noted in yesterday’s blog entry, Vladmir’s first “victim” is a writer named Perry Cohen.  In the style of a “bad-man,” Vladmir tries to mock – to himself – the juvenile writer he meets in a bar.   But, in the midst of this mockery, there are moments of tenderness when he remembers the poem he wrote on his mother when he was an undergraduate.  But this memory fades in and out – it, like the memory of the feminine, trades places with his new masculine approach to things (wherein he must con people and follow through to his criminal promises to “the Groundhog).

When Vladmir first sees him, he calls Perry the “young Hemmingway across the room.” His first reflections on Perry show us that Vladmir sees himself as “other” than Perry the American-Jew from the Midwest:

Vladmir imagined a background of worried parents, angry transatlantic phone calls, pouches full of law-school applications being dragged through the streets of Prava by exhausted Stolovan postmen. (216)

But, in a few telling moments, we see that Vladmir has a soft spot for this wayward American-Jew who is in conflict with his upbringing.  Vladmir, as we have seen, also has some difficulties (although his are much different).  Regardless, they bond:

And so Cohen told Vladmir of the story of his father.  The two men had known each other for two minutes now; a pen had been transferred from one to the other; ethnic backgrounds had been established; a few sallies had been launched.   What that all it took – the equivalent of two dogs sniffing out each other’s rears – to get the writer Cohen to tell the story of his father?  (217)

But this is short-lived since Vladmir becomes competitive and finds Cohen’s experience of assimilation to be insignificant when compared to his own. This is where the beast comes out:

What do you know of assimilation, spoiled American pig?  Why, I’ll show you…I’ll show you all!  Oh, and the way Cohen had told the story.  Lowering his voice during the bit about the Gipper, trying to sound hurt but brave when recalling his father’s transgressions.  Crocodile tears, my suburban friend.  Your father could be a deforester of forests and a murderer of Hutus, but in the end what determines your fate is the size of your trust fund, the slope of your nose, the quality of your accept. At least his daddy wasn’t accusing him of walking like a Jew.  God damn it! Vladmir could just kill this Cohen! (219)

This pattern of warming up to his more privileged American compatriots and pulling away from them (attraction and repulsion) informs his Jewish-American-Russian identity.  And this comes to the fore when he is in Eastern Europe, not in the USA.  It comes to the fore when he is given an opportunity to make these young Americans into a victim of his “ponzi scheme.”  Its fascinating how Shteyngart evokes and works through Vladmir’s crisis.

By way of Cohen, Vladmir meets several other Americans in Prava who are also “rebelling against their parents” and upbringing.  He is intrigued by the members of the group, and is drawn in by the American girls, their bodies, and their American-ness. But he is also repulsed by it.  By way of parties, drinks, and schmoozing, Vladmir suggest that they all work together to create a literary journal in Prava – Cohen will be the editor.

Meanwhile, Vladmir briefs “The Groundhog” on the progress of his PravaInvest scheme.  But, as the novel goes on, we see that there is a snag.  In relation to Cohen and many other handsome and fit Americans, he feels his body is out of place.  He is vulnerable.  And this vulnerability is foreshadowed when, in his room alone, he remembers his childhood; and, when he rises up from his memory in his Prava apartment, he ties to walk like a “man” rather than as a “Jew.” But he fails:

Vladmir got up from his bed.  He tried walking the way Mother had shown him a few months ago in Westchester.  He straightened his posture until his back hurt. He put his feet together gentile-style…But in the end he found the whole exercise pointless.   If he could survive Soviet kindergarten hobbling Jewishly from humiliation to humiliation to humiliation, then he could surly survive the scrutiny of some Midwestern clown. (246).

When he meets a girl named Morgan, however, this all changes.  In her, he sees someone like himself; someone who is simple and awkward and whose body and appearance are…different.  He can pick on her, but it is not out of spite and jealousy (as it is for Cohen and his ground):

Vladmir had but one thought: Why was her hair past shoulder length, given the present-day urban conventions that demanded shortness, brevity?  Was she, perhaps, a stranger to hipness?  Questions, questions. (265)

As we learn later, what makes Morgan so special is the fact that, unlike her fellow Americans, she is not exceptional nor does she look to be.  She is normal.  And this, at first, troubles Vladmir who the narrator sees, at the outset of the novel, as a cross between P.T. Barnum and V.I. Lenin.

When Morgan says that she “likes him” because he is a “good person,” Valdmir is troubled by this as it challenges his whole revenge project of going from victim to victimizer.  The narrator, to be sure, doesn’t think Vladmir is “good”:

Was Vladmir a good person? No.  But he mistreated others only because the world had mistreated him.  Modern justice for the postmorality set. (308)

But Vladmir, in a schlemiel moment, remembers how he used to be good…before he met Rybakov.  He used to be good when he is was a schlemiel:

Why couldn’t she make this easy for him?  Weren’t his lies and evasions valid enough?  And yet, here she was, Morgan Jenson, a tender but unsettling project, reminding Vladmir of someone he used to be before Mr. Rybakov stumbled into his life…A soft and unsurefooted Vladmir…Mother’s Little Failure.  The man on the run.  (310)

But there is more to the story.  Instead of going back to being a schlemiel, Morgan is simply going to prompt him towards the normal life.  Part VI of the book, entitled “The Trouble With Morgan” goes right to this theme immediately.

By way of Morgan, Vladmir is able to reflect on himself as a Jewish-Russian-American immigrant.  He gets down on himself to a great degree and sees his body against hers while thinking that her body is more “plausible than his, the body of a woman who approached the earth on equal terms”(316).  In contrast, Vladmir sees himself as abnormal: he can’t relate to the “earth on equal terms.”  Rather, like “Fran, Challah, Mohter, Dr. Girshkin, Mr Rybakov,” he had “invested into building a refuge from the world”(316).  In contrast, Morgan has “nothing in particular to run from.”  She has a world; he doesn’t.

These above-mentioned descriptions are uncanny because sound so-much like Arendt’s – regarding the Pariah/schlemiel’s relation to the world.  Like Arendt, Vladmir (and the narrator) take on the project of becoming normal.  The narrator makes this theme explicit:

Normalcy. What they were doing was inherently normal and right.  The tent (which they were sharing one day) was a special zone in which desire existed as a normal urge…This idea, as clear as the lake glistening outside their tent, cared Vladmir almost to the point of impotence.  (317)

The tendency toward “normality” that Vladmir is feeling by way of Morgan will prompt him to go from being a “bad-man” to being normal.  And in the Epilogue, it will prompt him to go through the final phase: from being a bad-man to a dad-man.

In the next blog entry, I will take a look into this “final transformation” and into the implications of this “dad-ending.”  This ending – and the process that leads up to it – gives us a fresh vantage point that can be used in our reading of Hannah Arendt’s periodization of the schlemiel.   When one turns to normality, as she and Vladmir do, is Jewishness (and not just the schlemiel) lost in the process?

Dad Endings: On the Transformation of Vladmir Girshkin from Schlemiel to Bad-Man to Dad-Man – Part I

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What many scholars of Hannah Arendt miss (perhaps because they don’t want to see it) is the fact that “The Jew as Pariah” ends on the note of normality.  Although Arendt devotes much of the essay to discussing the schlemiel (as Pariah), she ends her essay with a discussion of Kafka.  Unlike Heinrich Heine and Charlie Chaplin, who both were committed to the schlemiel, Arendt claims that Kafka was not.  In fact, unlike her readings of Heine and Chaplin, she makes a biographical reading of Kafka’s work and claims that the secret of all of Kafka’s novels (with the exception of Amerika) is the desire for normality.  In other words, at the end of the day Arendt thinks that Kafka, like herself, rejected the schlemiel in the name of normality.  To be sure, she saw the “exceptional” status of the schlemiel (and its constant challenge to the status quo) to ultimately be a problem and normality to be the solution.  With a historical view prominent in her mind – a view that has much resonance with Zionism – Arendt believed that the schlemiel served a historical purpose but it was not the goal so much as a means to a different end.

Since it moves from the schlemiel to, at the end very end, becoming “normal,” the latter half of Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Notebook, echoes Arendt’s reading of the schlemiel.   To get there, however, Shteyngart adds an extra stage in which the schlemiel becomes a bad-man before he becomes a “dad-man” (that is, a normal American).  I find that the trajectory mapped out by Shtyengart’s novel sheds light on Arendt’s map of the schlemiel’s transformation.  And the light it shines on her model discloses what I have thought all along about it; namely, that her reading of the schlemiel is a bad ending to what she calls a “hidden tradition.”  For in losing the schlemiel, Jews also may lose what is distinctive and “exceptional” about Jewishness.  At the end of Shteyngart’s novel, the loss, however, is not so much about the loss of Jewishness as the beginning of a new, normal life in America as an American father and husband; not as a Russian-American and not as a Jewish-American.  And this, I hold, is a “dad ending.”

But before we can get to this “dad ending” and to the normal life, Shteyngart shows us that Vladmir, the main character, must go through the experience of being “exceptional” (in the powerful and “bad” sense).  To this end, Shteyngart begins the process of transformation by way of an exceptional event: namely, the attempted rape by a powerful drug dealer in Miami named Jordi.  As I pointed out in the last blog-entry, this event prompted Vladmir to become more masculine.  In the midst of his flight, the narrator and the character reflect how Vladmir will no longer be a victim.  He realizes that all of his life, before that point, was about making him a victim:

Everything had changed. His body had been handled by a man whose intent was to hurt….How meager the insults of his childhood by comparison to what had just happened.  All the miserable years of adolescence, the daily drubbing at the hands of parents and peers, had been no more than a dress rehearsal; all those years, it turned out, young Vladmir had been preparing himself for victimhood.  (155)

As I pointed out, he, like the Israeli cab driver who speeds him out of harms way, would associate the schlemiel with the victim.  In the wake of this, he decides to take Rybakov’s advice and flee to Prava in Eastern Europe.  There, Vladmir would meet up with Rybakov’s son “the Groundhog.”  There, Vladmir would become the victimizer rather than the victim.  There, Vladmir will become an exceptional leader (a P.T. Barnum and a V.I. Lenin – the two characters that the narrator associates with Vladmir at the very outset of the novel).

When he arrives in Prava, Vladmir is greeted by an entourage:

Small-arms fire exploded outside.

A dozen car alarms engaged.

A detachment of men, each with a small Kalashnikov at hip level, swiftly parted the Americans into two screaming herds.

The requisite red carpet was rolled out between them.

A convoy of BMWs and armor-plated Range Rovers was assembled in protective formation. 

A crepe banner bearing the curious legend PRAVNAINVEST #1 FINANCIAL CONCERN WELCOME THE GIRSHKIN was unfurled. (188)

Following this grand welcome, Vladmir is introduced to his “new benefactor” (“The Groundhog”).   Although there are many comic moments in this display of power, the comedy is based on the feeling and expression of power. And even the narrator’s descriptions try to make light of it all by paying close attention to the aesthetic aspects of this display in honor of Vladmir:

In an impressive piece of postmodern choreography, twelve car doors were opened simultaneously by twelve lanky Stolovians….Inside, the sober German interiors were violated beyond comprehension with Jersey-style zebra-striped seats and wooly cupholders. (190).

As Valdmir takes this all in, he realizes the opportunity he has to do something he never has done: become a leader.  However, here, he would be the leader of a crime ring (with, of course, the oversight of his benefactor: The Groundhog).  Vladmir takes all of this on when he is asked to speak at the “Biznesmenski” lunch.

At this lunch, Vladmir takes on the role of leading The Groundhog and all of his underlings to greater economic success:

I propose that I single-handedly infiltrate the American community in Prava. Despite my fluent Russian and my tolerance of drink, I can easily double as a first-rate American.  My credentials are impeccable.  I have attended one of the premier liberal-minded colleges in the States and have a profound appreciation for the dress, manners, and outlook of the disaffected young American set.  (201)

They all applaud his plan to rip-off young “disaffected” Americans who come to post-Communist Eastern Europe (in general, and Prava in particular) as a way of rebelling against their parents and wealthy upbringing.  When asked what he needs to accomplish this, he tells them he needs a “certain amount of money per week for drinks, drugs, taxis, whatever it takes to ingratiate myself in the community”(201).  He estimates this will amount to an initial $6000 and, following this,  $2000 a week.  They agree and, floating on this success (a success that we saw at the end of his “curious arc of dreams” – but with a major difference), he gets to work.

To get things underway, Vladmir goes to the area where Americans hang out and there he stumbles across a poet by the name of Perry Cohen.  He introduces himself to Perry as a “novelist-poet-investor.”  And, as he in the midst of talking to Perry, he concocts his scheme to get money from them and to run.

In the next blog entry, I will discuss Vladmir’s relationship with the American community in Prava and how, once he gets to know them, it takes a turn.  Following this, I will 1) show how close Arendt and Shteyngart are in their reading of the schlemiel and its “end”and 2) look into the meaning of Shteyngart’s “dad ending” and how it compares to Arendt’s ending.