A Curious Arc: On the “Partial” Transformation of Gary Shteyngart’s Vladmir – Part I


Sometimes schlemiels can go through transformations in the self-same novel, movie, short-story, or comic strip.  We see this, for instance, in several Woody Allen films such as Anything Else (2003), Hollywood Ending (2002), Whatever Works (2009) and Midnight in Paris (2011); we also see this in Judd Apatow’s films Knocked Up (2007) and Super Bad (2007).  However, sometimes a schlemiel may seem to go through a transformation.  In such a scenario, this or that trait of the schlemiel may remain buried only to resurface as a tic, habit, gesture, or memory.   We see this with the main character of Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.   The schlemiel who goes through something of a transformation is Vladmir Girshkin, the main character.  But this transition – what I, playing on Shteyngart, call a “curious arc” –  is riddled with remnants of his old-schlemiel-self which bubble up to the surface.

I have written a few blog entries on Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.  In these blog entries, I read Vladmir as the “immigrant-becoming-American schlemiel,” as a partner in a comic duo with another character called Rybakov, and as the son of a Jewish mother.    All of these entries address the question as to why we readers might call Vladmir a schlemiel.  But there are a few other instances I’d like to include before showing how Vladmir moves from being a schlemiel to a schemer of sorts.

Already in the novel, one can see that Vladmir is not a typical schlemiel in the sense that he is very successful with women.  He leaves his Jewish girlfriend “Challah” (as in the bread Jews eat on the Sabbath) for a “high-class” gentile named Fran.  She goes to Columbia University, loves things Russian (read exotic), is a hipster, lives the easy life of a New Yorker who has money to spend on “organic toothbrushes” and vegan cuisine, and has parents who are both professors at CUNY.  Her life is easy and when Vladmir enters it he sees an American life he was never familiar with.  In this, to be sure, we see something of a foreshadowing of his transition in his “upward mobility.”  But this movement is fraught with elements of schlemiel-keit.

To begin with, the group of individuals that Fran hangs out with – as well as her parents – are living in a dream bubble of affluence.  Her father has embarked on a “humor studies” project (we see, after his transformation, that Vladmir finds this to be ridiculous), her mother (unlike his) lives a life that has no economic worries whatsoever, and Fran’s friends have leisure time to spend lots of money on food, drinks, and travel. They also have a taste for Russian things, and, for them, Vladmir is the “real thing.”

Vladmir soaks all of this in and feels as if he has “made it.”  But this is an illusion.  Although he moves in with Fran’s family and doesn’t have to pay for room and board, he still works in the Emma Lazurus Society Immigrant Absorption Agency.  And, more importantly, he runs up a huge bill on his credit card because he takes his new found friends for food and drinks on a daily basis.

When he wakes up to this economic crisis, he scrambles to figure out how he can get money so as to pay off his bills and maintain the image of affluence.  This prompts him to do two things that – unbeknownst to him – will lead to his transition from a schlemiel to a schemer of sorts.

First of all, he contacts Rybakov (“the fan man”) who, earlier in the novel, is shown to be a criminal with a sense of humor. And, as I pointed out in one of my blog posts on the novel, Rybakov wants to become an American citizen and has already made offers to bribe Vladmir for it.  Although Vladmir remembers his parents’ admonitions to stay away from criminals, he caves in as a result of his economic crisis.  Vladmir proceeds to call Rybakov and accepts an invitation to join him on a boat ride (on the SS Breshnev) through the harbor.

On the trip, he meets Rybakov’s Serbian bodyguard, Vladko, who carries guns and is dead serious about everything:

A hatch opened, and from the lower deck there emerged, a preternaturally tall, round chested, pink-eyed, near-naked young man, as substantial as anything Serbian myth ever produced. (114)

Together, they travel through the harbor and meet up with a boat of international criminals.  Before they meet up, the narrator reflects on how Vladmir’s American dreams have changed over time:

All in all, Vladmir’s American dreams formed a curious arc.  During adolescence he dreamed of acceptance. In his brief days at college, he dreamed of love.  After college, he dreamed a rather improbable dialectic of love and acceptance.  And now, with love and acceptance finally in the bag, he dreamed of money. What fresh tortures would await him next? (116)

This “curious arc” leads him into trouble and it sends him out of his schlemiel-dreams into harsh reality.   Before meeting up with a sketchy group of criminals in the harbor (a meeting arranged by Rybakov), Vladmir starts feeling his “fear gland” kick in.  (He starts realizing, for the first time, that fear and money go together.)  Not knowing what is ahead of him, he is besides-himself when he hears Vladko ask, indifferently, “What gun do I bring?”

Although Rybakov couches everything in comedy, the fact of the matter is that the undercurrent of his comedy is fear.  And this hits Vladmir who “pretends to play along.”  When he meets the criminals, one of things we notice (as we also see with Vladko) is that their bodies, in contrast to Vladmir’s schlemiel-ish body (his mother says he has hips and walks like a Jew, etc), are intimidating (119).  This contrast, I believe, outlines a distinction which is at the forefront of the novel; namely between the more feminine schlemiel character that Vladmir plays, and the more aggressive male character played by these criminals and others.  Vladmir, as the novel goes on, becomes more masculine.

These criminals give Vladmir a gift from Rybakov’s son “Groudhog”:  “fifty cartons of Dunhill cigarettes” and a “Rolex watch.”   After receiving this gift (which has strings attached; strings that Vladmir doesn’t see), he calculates how much money he can get from all these stolen goods in hope that he can pay off his credit card and the rent money he owes to his previous girlfriend, Challah.  The narrator articulates Vladmir’s naivite:

Bravo! Yes, Vladmir was ready to learn from these people. Maybe he could even introduce them to Fran.  He did a little bow again.  How can I repay your kindness? Indeed.  (121)

Following this, Rybakov has all of the criminals say their “favorite” things about Rybakov.  What ensues is comical, but, as I noted above, it’s undercurrent is fear.  But Vladmir doesn’t get it:  “He had been delighted to just listen to them”(124).

Rybakov also gives him money.

Following this, Vladmir goes back to work and learns that Rybakov has been awarded citizenship.  Inspired by this winning streak, Vladmir starts to dream about getting more money.  He ends up calling his friend Baobab and, knowing that Baobab has his ways of getting money, asks him for a favor.  (Baobab, it must be noted is also a schlemiel; he is the “odd one out” who dresses oddly, follows obscure bands, and often fails with women.)   Baobab tells Valadmir that he has enrolled at CUNY to learn Humor studies with Fran’s father.  Vladmir notes he isn’t funny, but Baobab retorts:

“Real humor is not supposed to be funny,” Baobab said, “It’s supposed to be tragic like the Marx Brothers.  And I’ve found a great professor, Joseph Ruocco. Have you heard of him?  He’s going to be my advisor.  He’s both funny and sad…No, I’m sticking with this Ruocco guy. I’m sticking with reality.”(138)

As we can see from his retort, Baobab doesn’t know that he’s being a schlemiel: he misunderstands the Marx Brothers while truly thinking he is “sticking with reality” vis-à-vis his new career choice.   Regardless, Baobab gives Vladmir a tip which, when followed up, transforms Vladmir from a schlemiel into a schemer and sends him from America to post-Communist Eastern Europe.

I will continue this blog-entry in tomorrow’s blog….

Girshkin and Rybakov: Gary Shteyngart’s Comic Duo


There’s nothing quite like a comic duo or what Neil Simon, at one time, called an “odd couple.”  To be sure, it always helps a comic routine when one comedian plays off another.  By witnessing one comedian play off another, the audience gets some kind of “contact buzz.”  One need only think of Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, Laverne and Shirley, or Neil Simon’s odd couple – Felix Unger and Oscar Madison – to know what I’m talking about.  If you want a more contemporary example, think of the film Dumb and Dumber (1994) with Harry (Jeff Daniels) and Lloyd (Jim Carey) or the 2008  film Step Brothers  which starred Will Farrell (as Brennan Huff) and John C. Reilly (as Dale Doback).

And what would Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm be without their endless procession of different comic pairs in all sorts of interesting combinations and situations?

Literature also has its host of comic pairs. Don Quixote had Sancho Panza and Don Quixote and its Yiddish brother, Mendel Mocher Sforim’s, Benjamin the III, which also had a comic pair.  Even Samuel Beckett made sure to have a comic pair in his classic play Waiting for Godot.   In these comic pairs, there is often a schlemiel and a shlimzael or, otherwise, two schlemiels or fools.  And, although each pair may seem formulaic, there is something that we can learn from their comic pairings.  To be sure, we can, by way of comic amplification, be confronted with tensions that are existential, cultural, historical, or political.  Some tensions, however, are more urgent than others.  In Waiting for Godot, an existential tension is foregrounded while in Don Quixote or Benjamin the III a historical tension is.  Some of these tensions can arguably be called timeless while others are timely.

In Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, which I blogged on for the first time yesterday, we have a comic pair which introduces a “timely” tension: this pair amplifies the tensions that may or may not exist between immigrants as they make their way in America.  And it does this by way of a subtle, comic relationship which is fraught with many gaps and blindspots. In their playful relationship, we are prompted to give the schlemiel and his comic foil our full attention.   From the outset, the comic tension in terms of a number of oppositions: old/young; citizen/non-citizen; man-child/man.

As I pointed out in yesterday’s blog entry, Vladmir is portrayed as a schlemiel. He is the “unlikely” schlemiel hero.  He is half P.T. Barnum, half Lenin.  The Barnum part is the most prominent.

The narrator tells us that on the day we meet him, Vladmir is 25.  And of these years, half of them were spent in Russia; the even half (12 years). The odd half (13 years) is spent in the USA.  This odd half makes the difference when we meet, for the first time, Vladmir’s comic companion: the “fan man,” a man named Rybakov.

We first meet Rybakov by way of an altercation in the Emma Lazarus Immigration Absorption Society’s Manhattan Office.  He screams out in Russian and calls out Vladmir’s last name. This totally takes Vladmir by surprise:

Suddenly, Vladmir heard the frenzied croaking of an elderly Russian out in the reception room: “Opa! Opa! Tovarisch Girshkin! Ai! Ai! Ai!” (5)

In response to this, Vladmir let’s his Lenin-part take over: “It was time to act. Vladmir braced himself against the desk and stood up.”  But this “act” is comically deflated by the narrator.  What we see in this deflation is a tension between a man and a man-child, between P.T. Barnum and Lenin. Vladmir looks big, but he’s really small:

All alone in the back office, with no point of reference other than the kindergarten-sized chairs and desks that comprised the furniture, he suddenly felt himself remarkably tall.   A twenty-five-year-old man in an oxford shirt gone yellow under the armpits, frayed slacks with the cuffs comically coming undone…he dwarfed his surroundings like the line skyscraper built in Queens…But it was true: Vladmir was short. (5)

This dialectical tension between being a man and a child is played out in his meeting with Rybakov.  When he sees Rybakov harassing the guard, he shouts in Russian and asserts a categorical rule that must be obeyed: “Nyet! Nyet! Nyet!…We never do that to the guard.”

After hearing this, Rybakov (“the madman”) turns to face Vladmir and shouts “Girshkin!…It’s you!”  Like Vladmir, Rybakov is a “man of small stature,” but he is more aggressive than Vladmir.  He wears a jacket bearing the weight of many “Soviet war medals.”  And, when he sees Vladmir, he tosses the guard to the side.

Vladmir, upon seeing this, says aggressively: “What do you want from me?” But, in response, Rybakov repeats this question in a quizzical manner and adds “My God, what haughtiness!” And with this gesture, he lifts his crutch and gives Vladmir a “practice jab: On guard!”

This leads to an exchange that shows how Vladmir can also be a “man.”  But this doesn’t last long since he is disarmed by Rybakov’s madness and humor.  This comes across when Rybakov talks about his “fans.”  He has “two.”  Humored by this, Vladmir jokingly (and endearingly) says, “The fan said come over.” And then he realizes that this man is not a threat to him: “Right then, on the spot, Vladmir recognized that this wasn’t a problem client. This was a fun client.  A loop-de-loop client.  The kind of client that turned on your morning switch and kept you brisk and agitated all day”(7).

This moment of realization is a, so to speak, “schlemiel moment”; it is a moment of innocence and trust which makes Vladmir into a man-child of sorts.  And this happens, quite simply, because Vladmir is entertained.  To add to all the entertainment, Rybakov tells Vladmir that he is “psychotic” and Rybakov’s gestures that accompany this declaration are, to be sure, endearing:

His enormous eyebrows twitched in confirmation, and he smiled with false modesty, like a kind who brings in his father the astronaut on career day. (7)

Rybakov then tells a charming story about how he wrote a letter to the President and sent it to the New York Times.  Rybakov produces the letter, reads it, and talks about it.  Hearing this, Vladmir can’t help but think of this man as the most innocent idiot he has ever met.  And then he makes the big mistake; he identifies with him. This prompts him to start feeling sorry for their poor condition.  They are all immigrant-losers.  The narrator amplifies this effect by comparing Vladmir’s world, inside the immigration office (the world of the “poor huddled masses”), to the world outside the office, in the financial district:

Outside the nonexistent windows of the back office, the canyons of the financial district were awash with rationalism and dull commercial hope: suburban secretaries explored bargains on cosmetics and hose; Ivy Leaguers swallowed entire pieces of yellow tail in one satisfied gulp.  But here it was just Vladmir the twenty-five-year old and the poor huddled masses yearning to breathe free. (9)

Coming out of this misty recollection, Vladmir, like a child watching a clown, hears Rybakov speaking about his fans that go “krik krak” and “trikka trikka.”  Noticing this, Rybakov starts treating him like a child and calls him a “little goose”: “Oh, I know who you are, little goose.”

Surprised by this comment, Vladmir is reminded of how, when he was a child (“a diminutive, unsteady creature”), he was called a “little goose.”  This puts Vladmir into a childish state of mind and he becomes childlike.  Rybakov runs with it:

“The Fan sang an epic song for me the other night, said Rybakov.  “It was called “The Tale of Vladmir Girshkin and Yelena Petrovna, His Mama.” “Mother,” Vladmir whispered.  He didn’t know what to say.  That word, when spoken in the company of Russian men, was sacred in itself. (9)

At this point, Rybakov discloses the fact that he knows something about Vladmir’s mother and this wakes him up a little.  But, in the end, “the fan man” has the last word and the last gesture which reduces Vladmir to the status of a man-child:

The Fan Man reached over and pinched Vladmir’s nose between thumb and forefinger, a familiar Russian gesture reserved for small children.   “I’m psychotic,” the Fan Man explained. “But I’m no idiot.” (11)

In this end, Vladmir, the “unlikely hero,” comes across as the “idiot” not Rybakov.  This gesture and these words convey to us a subtle tension between these two.  Vladmir is the younger and the more inexperienced one; Vladmir is a US citizen, but Rybakov is not.  Without Vladmir’s help, Rybakov cannot be a citizen.   And, as we learn later in the novel, Rybakov has something Vladmir doesn’t: money (and lots of it).

The comic relationship between them, with all of its tensions, is first given to readers by way of a subtle sense of how easily Vladmir, with his big heart, can become like a child in Rybakov’s (or anyone’s hands).  The fact that he can go from shouting to cooing in front of Rybakov is a central aspect of Shteygart’s schlemiel and of many schlemiels (such as Saul Bellow’s) whose hearts can lead them into trouble.  Rybakov, as I hope to show, is that trouble.  And what he has to offer Vladmir is easy money.  With that offer comes the American dream and, also, a lot of other things a schlemiel doesn’t know about since, of course, the schlemiel doesn’t understand the meaning of money or, for that matter, evil.

As in many schlemiel comedies, it takes a comic duo to bring out, on the one hand, the schlemiel’s innocence and, on the other, the fact that there are some things that a schlemiel simply cannot see in front of him with his own two eyes.

Instead of being a tall and powerful Vladmir, perhaps he’s really just an innocent little Girshkin.