Cultural criticism ends in cultural stereotype dead-ends:
The Russian Debutante's Handbook: A Novel
by Gary Shteyngart
Shteyngart NY: Riverhead Books, 2002, 452 pp. hb
reviewed by pirao5 and [email protected]
Here is how NPR (National Public Radio) summed up this book: "The main character of the book, like Shteyngart, is a Russian-American Jew who emigrated to the United States as a child. In a New York Times Magazine cover article, Daniel Zalewski wrote, 'Gary Shteyngart has rewritten the classic immigrant narrative -- starring a sarcastic slacker instead of a grateful striver. And after all his parents have done for him!'"(1)
This book was a big hit because of its sardonic characterizations. Here we have no reason to doubt the existence of strange and funny characters that Shteyngart brings to life. The reviewer can confirm that the U.$.-side locales of the fiction are pretty accurate.
When petty-bourgeois people satire other petty- bourgeois or grand bourgeois people, there is every reason to laugh along. Unfortunately, in this book, the author participates in the shellacking of desperately poor and exploited people. He makes it socially acceptable for the world's economic elite to sneer at the starving.
There is nothing wrong in presenting the foibles of Amerikkkans. "Americans were too keen to invent their own troubles. To paraphrase an old Russian expression, they were wild with their own fat."(p. 312) It's true. While Russians are struggling to survive, Amerikkkans and bourgeoisified Russians are heading organizations like the Vegan Olympics.
Yes, the idea that an Amerikkkan of the middle- class dedicated herself to going to an ex-Soviet bloc country to blow up the foot of a socialist era statue when she hasn't a clue what is going on is funny. Had the book stayed at the level of Russians in the united $tates or Amerikkkans in the ex-Soviet bloc it would have been fine.
However, just as one example, a character like the author finds himself addressing communist party meetings, because of the whole plot to blow up the foot of a single socialist realist statue that is still standing after the first attempt to demolish it was not completely thorough.
"The self-proclaimed Guardians of the Foot were divided into several divisions. The feistiest grandmas were out in front, waving their high- concept placards ("Zionism= Onanism=AIDS")."(p. 314) Hence, Shteyngart expresses the obvious that the Brezhnev era workers had a dim impression of Jews, because of how they left the country to join the enemy camp. Later, there is even some notion that any ideology makes no sense in the Russian world now run by mafia-type characters.(p. 348)
With regard to the grandmas still trying to uphold communism somehow: "One could almost see them as brownnosing young pioneers back in the forties, plying their teachers with potato dumplings and copies of working-class president Jan Zhopka's love poems." (p. 314) ("Zhopka" is a vulgar Russian expression for "ass.") With anti-communist bromides like this, it's easy to justify killing off a whole generation the way Russia has.
The concluding pages are talking about how a Westernized character fools the communist grandmothers with so much nonsense. Asked about the price of sausage he says, "I think that the store owner responsible for charging forty crowns for those sausages should be shot!"(p. 440) How easy it is for the rich to sneer at the poor struggling to survive, but it's not funny. The "hero" manipulates the crowd into attacking his bourgeois rival who happens to charge into the room wearing an Armani suit just as denunciations of u.$. imperialism are in the air.
In another example, the ones spouting militant line do so only completely incongruously as Russian capitalists. "Your father and his capitalist cronies destroyed my nation. Yes, they fucked the peace-loving Soviet people right and proper."(p. 255) We won't even deny that there is a exaggerated kernel of truth in that characterization, since the great Russian nationalism of the Brezhnev era came from the mouths of the party capitalists. It's just that politics always comes in such incongruous places in this book.
Of course, since Shteyngart and his family is coming from the Brezhnev era in the Soviet Union, Brezhnev does have to take some blame that intellectuals found no better channel than this sort of completely sarcastic culture without purpose but entertainment of the self-critical bourgeoisie. We can just imagine Shteyngart if he had been 25 years older and in the Soviet Union. The book and a whole layer of intellectual life is an overreaction to the lack of grand purpose and struggle in the Brezhnev era referred to as "stagnation."
This book will diminish and contribute to anti- Semitism in strange ways. Western-oriented Russians will continue in their acceptance of Jews, and laugh along with the book, but proletarian and lumpen Russians will find themselves battered with yet more anti-Semitic prejudice thanks to this book attacking their class interests. Jews are making a big mistake to allow themselves as a small people to become associated with bourgeois politics that antagonize workers in powerful countries. Class struggle very often plays out as national struggle.
The class struggle comes out directly sometimes, as in the battle over a statue's foot, but it also comes out via national struggle. While pointing out that he is from ultra-bourgeois Scarsdale of Westchester New York, the main character Vladimir modeled on the author runs around associating gangsterism with entire nationalities. "I'm worried about. . . Well, Georgians, Kalshnikovs, violence. Stalin was a Georgian you know."(p. 113)
Had the book stayed at the level of mocking Russian nationalism and Jewish insularity, it would have been OK. It's not that Shteyngart is uncritical of his own background. He says quite openly that his mother did things like pick his best friend for him, a Jewish boy of course.(p. 231) (Such a practice does seem funny in the united $tates.)
He also tells us about his peculiar Jewish vs. Russian run-ins with Russian government officials, checking baggage for instance.(p. 175) The stench of great Russian nationalism is there, but unfortunately, Shteyngart gives it the perfect cover with his chapter "Starring Vladimir as Peter the Great" as proof.
Peter the Great had a progressive role in his day. In this day of imperialism though, there could hardly be anything more calculated to stir up Russian backwardness than to have Westernizers adopt the role of Peter the Great. The West had something progressive to bring in the day of Peter the Great. Today, Russian backwardness cannot be addressed or conquered by Western imperialism. Stalin's road remains much more relevant. Bringing the West to Russia directly is no less doomed to failure than bringing German culture to I$rael for copying as a solution to its predicaments.
What is missing from this book is any knowledge of the Russian proletariat--a class of people hungry for change. That may sound stereotypically funny referring to the ex-Soviet Union, but it is true. Shteyngart's world seems divided between lumpen Russia and communist grandmas out of touch with today. Lena, the only Russian womyn (the grandmas being from a non-Russian part of the ex-USSR) in the book is lumpen starting in a conservatory and ending in a brothel.(pp. 371-4) Vladimir identifies with the gangster class as pretty much mandatory for his generation. When we consider that Vladimir's vehicle for change is the gangster class bringing Russia to Westernization, it does not sound so funny to consider a youthful proletariat instead.
The Russian Maoist Party is an example of people looking for a way out of the Russian predicament but not falling on stereotyped ideas about Peter the Great being applicable today or that all Russians are gangsters. There is not a whiff of great nation chauvinism about the Russian Maoist Party. Shteyngart and similar intellectuals should take a look. Obviously Shteyngart is aware of problems and sees people wanting change. Instead of condemning the backward and out-of-touch, he should assist the Russian Maoist Party in providing an internationalist way forward. Grandma and the Russian proletariat needs to be re-educated, not frozen or starved.
When people look back on the ex-Soviet Union of the 1990s and the early 2000s, they will remember the freezing and starving elderly dying homeless or without proper medical care earned almost as if for being borne to the generation of communist parents under Stalin. Like Nero fiddling while Rome burned, the intellectuals pissed on everyone while impoverished grandmothers and grandfathers died without defense against capitalism. While dissident intellectuals clueless about political economy ran amok, the life expectancy for Russian men fell to 56 in the 1990s (2)--by lopping off the lives of millions of the elderly and driving young men to drink. That's a lower life expectancy than it was in 1955--by seven years.(3) Those grandmas of the 1940s generation knew something today's generation does not.
Smart-ass Shteyngart filled with bourgeois prejudices and inaccurate ideas of political economy does not mention anything like that. It's not really accurate to call Shteyngart a slacker, because he speaks as an intellectual at a time when questions of political economy and economic advancement were already settled by a previous generation completely ignorant of the topic which they seemed so certain of. Again we can thank Brezhnev-era "comrades" for completely poisoning the study of these topics with their false and formal teachings in schools used only to certify the next generation of corrupt officials. Anyone with a half a brain was bored or cynical and threw the baby (subject of political economy) out with the bath water (the corrupt and stagnant "party").
The past generation's level of economic understanding sees department store shelves full in the West and expresses gratitude for being in the West or smugglers getting them to the West, regardless of how those shelves were filled. When Russia adopts open free market capitalism and does not find itself in the same position as the West even 15 years later, this sort of naive political economist has no idea why and resorts to crude cultural stereotypes lumping Stalin and the gangsterism of a whole people together. The problem was his parent's generation, because Gary Shteyngart is too young to really have had a chance to alter any of the horrors before the USSR dissolved.
The cynicism seen in the book may easily stem from his family situation. His parents are typical grateful immigrants to the united $tates. They are the kind that mistake gratitude for scientific understanding--excellent fodder for neo-conservative movements. Gary Shteyngart of course has a more accurate view since he grew up in Amerikkkan schools and learned English. He has a better idea about the causes of Amerikkkan success than his parents do, but rather than insist on that, he falls victim to depression.(4) He and others like him need to push ahead with the differences between their generation and the past and re-study all the questions of economic development that his parents' generation had no clue regarding. Cultural stereotypes are a dead-end even if they make for marketable fiction.
Had his parent's generation of intellectuals applied a tenth as much of the wit that they applied to their culture of satirical fiction- writing and "dissidence" to subjects like political economy and medical statistics, there would still be a Soviet Union, one much better off. We can only hope that Gary Shteyngart will focus his future witticisms on the Russian emigres in the united $tates and Amerikkkans anywhere as befits someone who only lived in Russia the first seven years of life and has no real sense of political economy. With his next book possibly being about Baku, we fear the worst.