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?