Shteyngart, Gary 1972-
Shteyngart, Gary 1972-
PERSONAL: Born 1972, in Leningrad, USSR (now Russia); immigrated to Queens, NY, c. 1979. Education: Received degree in politics from Oberlin College.
CAREER: Novelist. Worked as writer for nonprofit organizations, including New York Association for New Americans.
The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (novel), Riverhead Books (New York, NY), 2002.
Absurdistan (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 2006.
SIDELIGHTS: Born in the former Soviet Union and transplanted to the United States when he was seven years old, Gary Shteyngart became a heralded new novelist when he poured his conflicted feelings about the old world and new into The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. The book follows the adventures of Vladimir Girshkin, the author’s alter ego, an immigrant to America who gets himself mixed up with organized crime and a circle of American expatriates in the invented European city of Prava. The humorous, cynical, fantastical story quickly went from being material for a graduate school application to a widely reviewed and praised publication. Several critics have noted links between the author’s style and that of Vladimir Nabo-kov.
Shteyngart came to Queens, New York, with his family in the late 1970s, a move that thrilled his parents and horrified him. He still remains nostalgic for his life in the Soviet Union, of which he said in the New York Times Magazine, “It only became horrible once you were an adult.” Hateful memories of his school days in the United States include being treated badly by fellow students and suffering from depression. Shteyngart also was uncomfortable at Oberlin College, where he wrote his senior thesis on the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Moldova, and Tajikistan. When he returned to New York, Shteyngart felt like an embarrassment to his parents, who had thrived in their professions since moving to the United States and dreamed that he would become a lawyer. He escaped by traveling in Europe, drinking copiously but still engaging in the experiences that would help shape his novel.
When Shteyngart once again returned to New York City he took a series of jobs writing for nonprofit organizations. He also began writing his novel, which was done in secret at work. In 1999, Shteyngart sent a draft to Chang-rae Lee, the Korean-American author of Native Speaker and the director of the creative writing program at Hunter College. Lee sent the manuscript and attached M.F.A. program application to an editor, which resulted in a publishing contract. Shteyngart subsequently began writing a second novel; he told the New York Times Magazine that it had the same theme as The Russian Debutante’s Handbook: “unhappy man flees.”
The autobiographical elements of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook are blended into a satire about Americans living in post-Communist Europe and commentary on the immigrant experience. Twenty-five-year-old Vladimir Girshkin, a Leningrad-born New Yorker, is unhappy with his meddling mother and Medicare-defrauding father, his flaky girlfriend who works at a sex club, and his job at the Emma Lazarus Immigrant Absorption Society. The young man gets into trouble after he helps Rybakov, a client with Russian mafia connections, fake American citizenship. When other problems force him to flee to Prava, Girshkin is befriended by Rybakov’s son, a gangster known as the Groundhog. Together they set up a pyramid scheme designed to fleece Americans with literary aspirations who have come to Prava hoping it will provide the kind of inspiration Ernest Hemingway found in Paris.
The quirky, comic novel was widely reviewed and frequently praised as a strong first novel. Favored elements include the dynamic central character, numerous literary and cultural allusions, and biting, antic humor. Criticisms have included concerns about the novel’s pacing, use of immigrant stereotypes, and lack of convincing background characters. More than one reviewer pointed out that Americans in Europe are perhaps an easy target for satire. Writing on the Pop-Matters Web site, Sarah Tan called the novel “a painfully clichéd caricature of modern immigrant mentality.” Tan saw evidence of great talent in The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, but nevertheless felt the characters are weak and the satirical intent too obscure.
Other reviewers strongly recommended the book. Critic Fritz Lanham commented in the Houston Chronicle that the author “modulates between sly and antic humor” in a story that is “often laugh-out-loud funny.” A Publishers Weekly writer remarked: “Although the satire on the expatriate American community is a little too easy, Sh-teyngart’s Vladimir remains an impressive piece of work, an amoral buffoon who energizes this remarkably mature work.” Noting that Shteyngart dramatically departs from the tradition of “solemn tales of wistful dislocation” in immigrant literature, Laura Miller commented for Salon.com that his is “a blisteringly funny, almost frighteningly energetic novel of adventure, perfidy, and even a car chase or two.”
In numerous instances, reviewers made favorable connections to other writers. Time contributor Lev Grossman noted that because Shteyngart’s protagonist is as much a point of the satire as his victims, “the result is a satisfying skewering all round, as funny and wicked as [Evelyn] Waugh.” Echoing a comparison to Nabokov made by Chang-rae Lee, a Kirkus Reviews critic called the book “ambitious, funny, intelligent, in love with irony and literary allusions, as if by a lighter Nabokov.” Flakmagazine Web site contributor Elizabeth Kiem suggested that the book resembles John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. In a review for the New York Times Book Review, contributor A.O. Scott likened Girshkin to several of Nabokov’s characters and summarized the work as an “eenergetic, ambitious first novel.” Scott judged that “Shteyngart’s playful, carnivalesque sensibility fits within a Russian satirical-fantastic tradition” that spans two centuries. At the same time, the critic explained: “The sturdy conventions of the traditional novel…. are blithely disregarded in favor of digressive, madcap inventiveness.”
Shteyngart’s follow-up novel is Absurdistan, the story of a young man from Russia who is desperate to gain admittance into the United States. He manages to get in, but once he leaves, he finds himself stuck in a strange no-man’s-land to which the title refers. Again Shteyngart addresses the issues of immigration and the difficulties inherent in leaving the former Soviet Union in an attempt to become an American. Yet despite the serious nature of much of his subject, he infuses every page with humor and satire, leaving many reviewers in agreement about his comedic talent. A reviewer for the Austinist Web site remarked: “While we were originally entertained and sucked in by the pop culture correlatives, we soon found that Absurdistan is a complex and enthralling commentary on the world we live in complete with bureaucratic negligence, corporate corruption, and easily-exploitable ethnic differences.” A Publishers Weekly reviewer called the book “a send up of American values abroad and a complex, sympathetic protagonist worthy of comparison to America’s enduring literary heroes.” Patrick Ness, writing for the London Guardian online, noted: “As with all of the very best satires, it’s only a matter of time, maybe even months, maybe even days, before we won’t be able to regard this as a satire at all.” Lev Grossman, in a review for Time, dubbed the book “profoundly funny, genuinely moving and wholly lovable.”
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Book, July-August, 2002, Kevin Greenberg, review of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, p. 78.
Houston Chronicle, June 23, 2002, Fritz Lanham, “Breaking away from the Huddled Masses,” review of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, p. 16.
Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 2002, review of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, p. 449.
New York Times Book Review, June 30, 2002, A.O.Scott, “In the Shadow of Stalin’s Foot,” p. 8.
New York Times Magazine, June 2, 2002, Daniel Zalewski, “From Russia with Tsoris,” pp. 54-57.
Publishers Weekly, April 29, 2002, review of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, p. 40; March 13, 2006, review of Absurdistan, p. 36.
Time, June 17, 2002, Lev Grossman, “Innocents Abroad: A Generation of Would-be Hemingways Went to Eastern Europe for Inspiration—and Found It,” p. 72; May 8, 2006, Lev Grossman, “From Russia with Love,” review of Absurdistan, p. 187.
Austinist,http://www.austinist.com/ (May 1, 2006), review of Absurdistan.
Flakmagazine,http://www.flakmag.com/ (July 21, 2007), Elizabeth Kiem, review of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.
Guardian (London, England), http://books.guardian.co.uk/ (June 9, 2007), Patrick Ness, review of Absurdistan.
PopMatters,http://www.popmatters.com/ (August 21, 2002), Sarah Tan, review of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.
Salon.com,http://www.salon.com/ (June 20, 2002), Laura Miller, review of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.*