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


In the beginning of an extraordinary piece of fiction entitled “A Heroic Death,” the 19th century Parisian poet Charles Baudelaire noted that fools have a curious way of getting themselves in trouble.  For Baudelaire, the reason for this has to do with the fact that fools don’t often think about the consequences of their actions.  They are most likely more interested in a feeling, dream, or imagining that goes hand-in-hand with an intriguing action.  Baudelaire’s observation resonates well with what happens to Vladmir in The Russian Debutante’s Notebook.   Like Baudelaire’s fool, Vladmir dreams a lot about and his situation and, as a result of these dreams, he gets thrown into a crisis.  But unlike many fools who go on in their foolishness despite what happens to them, Vladmir goes through what I call a “partial transformation.”

In yesterday’s blog entry, I cited the passage where the narrator describes the changing dreams of Vladmir.  All of them, taken together, form a “curious arc”:

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)

As one can see, Vladmir’s newest dream about money is what gets him in trouble.  This is foreshadowed by the question at the end of the passage: “What fresh tortures would await him next?”

This passage is the preface to Vladmir’s meeting with Rybakov, his Serbian Bodyguard, and the criminal underlings of Rybakov’s son (“The Groundhog”).  After receiving “gifts” from the “groundhog” (which includes “fifty cartons of Dunhill cigarettes” and a “Rolex”) and some money from Rybakov, Vladmir’s wants more.  And, as I noted in yesterday’s blog, he goes to Baobab.

The narrator provides a sketch of Baobab which gives the reader the impression that he doesn’t properly think through things; he’s a schlemiel.  Nonetheless, Vladmir, in his desperation for money, which he can use to pay off his credit card debt and the rent he owes to his ex-girlfriend Challah, he takes Baobab’s tip.

The tip requires Vladmir to go down to Miami and pose as the son of a man named Jordi.  The masquerade is meant to fool a college admissions officer into granting Jordi’s son admission into the college; apparently, the son’s grades and intelligence are the problem and Vladmir is the solution.  When Vladmir expresses worry that he may get caught, Baobab assures him:

“The place is so gargantuan the interviewer will never see the kid again.  Trust me, it’s foolproof, and I don’t even think it’s terribly illegal.  Impersonating a high school kid: not exactly the crime of the century, just a lame thing to do.  But for twenty thousand…”(139)

When Vladmir arrives in Florida, he is picked up by Jordi who is driving a “peach Caddy.”  When we first meet Jordi, we see a man of Spanish (Catalan) descent who “neither sounded nor resembled the drug dealer out of central casting, which Vladmir was expecting with some dread”(141).  To be sure, Vladmir feels relieved by this appearance and trusts Jordy who looks like a “middle-aged Jew with a textile business.”  In other words, Vladmir feels “as if” Jordy is a fellow Jew although he is not.   This imagining takes on greater power the more time he spends with Jordi.

Strangely enough, Vladmir finds nothing peculiar when Jordi tells him that plans have changed:  “My secretary screwed up our reservations, the cow,” he said. “Would you mind splitting the room with me”(144).  Jokingly, Jordi says that it will be like a “slumber party.”  In the innocent and trusting manner of a schlemiel, Vladmir gets excited about the “slumber party.”

Following this, Jordi and Vladmir start drinking.  Jordi asks Vladmir to shave off his goatee and to go outside and get a tan (so as to look more like his son).  Vladmir does so and starts seeing himself as other (namely, as a man-child).  While he is out tanning, he remembers his mother and his childhood.  He starts crying.  At this point, he is at the height of vulnerability.  After his crying, tanning, and drinking, he returns to the hotel room to find Jordi sprawled out on the bed “watching a show about a modeling agency, grunting along as the feeble bon mots flew and negligees slithered on the ground”(148).

This scene becomes more and more sexualized and Vladmir, in his innocence, doesn’t “get it.”  After a day of heavy drinking, Vladmir starts feeling the alcohol:

The sun had long since disappeared when Vladmir felt the full giddy nausea of champagne drunkenness and ordered himself to stop.  He sat down hard on his bed near the balcony and felt it sway a little in all directions.  Something was askew, and it wasn’t just the physical universe reeling from booze. (150)

He can’t quite put his finger on it.  But Jordi helps him out when he says, flat out:

“Hey, correct me if I am wrong,” Jordi said, swinging his feet between the two beds, his trunks tight with the outline of his shaft, twisted and constrained by the elastic, “but you fooled around with Baobab before, right?  I mean, you’ve been with other boys.”(151)

The narrator’s description of Vladmir’s vision and astonishment is akin to a primal scene of horror.  This scene, I aver, marks a major turning point in the novel and in Vladmir’s life.  From this point, Vladmir takes a leap and transforms from a schlemiel into a (partial) “man” on the run.

Vladmir followed the single horrific spot of wetness along the inseam of Jordi’s trunks.  “Who, us? He said, Jumping off the bed, so unsure of the fact that he had spoken the he repeated himself. “Who, us?” (151)

The modulation of “Who, us” – repetitively -works on several levels and evinces a loss of identity and meaning.  Following this moment of loss, Vladmir insists that he is not interested; and when Jordi approaches him and grabs him, he punches him in the face.  This punch transforms him and is the very thing that will send him out of the country and back to Eastern Europe.  Before reflecting on it, the narrator recalls a memory Vladmir has of Fran, about how she was going “to make him into a human being, an indigenous citizen of the world”(152).  This reflection prior to his reflection on the punch makes it explicit that the narrator equates this punch with becoming a “human being” a “citizen of the world.”  The irony, however, is that one doesn’t become a “human being” by virtue of being a gentle cosmopolitan so much as by way of being a “man” who defends himself when being raped:

He had never hit a person before in his life, or heard the crunch of knuckle bone ramming cartilage…Vladmir ran. (153)

To emphasize the shift from the life of a schlemiel to the life of a man on the run, the narrator gives detailed descriptions of Vladmir’s passionate flight from Jordi, the drug dealer.  The “fear gland” kicks in and takes over.   And the story starts shifting into the masculine mode.  To enunciate this change and make it explicit, the following chapter (chapter 16) is entitled “Getting in Wrong” and the first words, “Everything had changed,” mark the transformation I mentioned at the beginning of this blog entry.

To bring this into relief, the narrator makes something of a reading of the schlemiel equating Vladmir-as-Schlemiel with Vladmir-as-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)

Although this seems to be a death-toll for the schlemiel and the beginning of something new, I would like to suggest that what happens here is the shedding of one aspect of this character.  It is, as I will show in the next few blogs, a partial transformation.

What I find so interesting about Shteygart’s project is the fact that, for him, the schlemiel’s masculinity is one of his main concerns.  On the one hand, he finds the passivity and masochistic “victimhood” of the character to be deplorable; yet, on the other hand, and as I will show, he doesn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Shteyngart is looking to strike a balance between the masculine and the feminine and the basis for making such a balance is contingent on how we interpret the comings and goings of Immigrant-Becoming-American-Schlemiel.  As a part of this becoming, Shteyngart decided that Vladmir should have a shocking experience that challenges the schlemiel’s more effeminate and dreamy nature.  The question is whether becoming an American – for Shteygart -implies becoming more masculine.

Strangely enough, however, he doesn’t become masculine in America.  The process starts in America, but it takes full form in Eastern Europe.  I hope to bring out the irony of this process and to show how the transformation out of the schlemiel into something more masculine may seem full but is actually partial.

And, more importantly, this transformation is spurred by the fact that Vladmir, a schlemiel, ends up getting himself into trouble by virtue of the “curious arc” of his dreams.  This trouble spurs his transformation and, because his life changes as a result, he shares less with the traditional schlemiel and more with Woody Allen’s most recent schlemiels.  But he differs from them too, for his transformation is ultimately partial.

….to be continued…..

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.