Tag: Gary Shteyngart

Circumscribed: Circumcision as Dismemberment in Shteyngart’s Absurdistan – Part I

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In Hebrew the word for circumcision is “brit.”  Brit is the same word used for “the covenant” between God and Man.   In fact, the first covenant between God and Man mentioned in the Torah is between Abraham and God.  When Abraham, at his late age in life, circumcises himself, God makes a covenant with him which becomes the foundation for all covenants in the Torah.  In fact, it is associated with the preservation of the Jewish people:

This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and thy descendants after thee, every male among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall be circumcised on the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every male throughout your generations (Genesis 17:10-12).

Like Abraham, Gary Steyngart’s main character Misha (from his second novel, Absurdistan) is also circumcised at a late age.  But while Abraham would refer back to his circumcision as the site of his greatest promise and the greatest joy, Misha looks at it as the source of his greatest suffering.  It is not his entry into the covenant so much as the sign of his mutilated masculinity (which really isn’t mutilated), his father’s mad obsession with Judaism, his hatred of Hasidim, and his membership in “pre-historic” tradition that he literally finds primitive in contrast to his more modern “multicultural” experiences.

Misha likens his circumcision to a wounded penis.  Although he fulfilled his father’s request by having a circumcision, he is very resentful. But instead of aiming this resentment at his father, he levels it on Hasidim and on Jewishness.  When he negatively describes his penis, his Jewishness is also being trashed.  It’s a world he would like to leave behind.  He’s more interested in living in New York with Rouenna, his Black-Latino lover who left him for someone else.  His love for her and New York is greater than his love of Judaism because, quite simply, he finds little to love in it (besides his father’s love for it).  The source of this problem, I am arguing, is his circumcision.

However, in an interview with Phawker.com Gary Shteyngart, when asked “Why did you decide to use the really kind of horrifying circumcision scene?” says that its not his circumcision that is the problem: it was Misha’s relationship with his father.  Misha’s father – and his “demand” that he be circumcises – is a part of what he calls his “awful” “ethnic circumstances”

The book does take a kind of skeptical attitude towards religion, Judaism, Christianity and even Islam sometimes comes in. The idea of the father wants this; the son doesn’t want this. This is the father imposing his will on the son and the results are not good. In some ways, it’s more about the relationship between the father and the son than it is about the actual act. In the scene leading up to it, is a long discussion between the father and the son about why he has to do this. In a way, a lot of the characters in this book are trapped in ethnic and religious circumstances that they didn’t call for. What’s so interesting about going around the world is that people are just trapped in these awful circumstances.

However, his relationship to these “awful” circumstances not only informs his father’s insistence on Jewishness; it also influences his negative description of the circumcision and, more importantly, his belief that he became a “holy fool” (a schlemiel) as a result of his first American experience of forced circumcision.  In other words, he had “been had” (as he says in the prologue) because he loves “too much” AND because of his “awful circumstances.”  And this makes him the holy-fool-who-agreed-to-a-circumcision.

In the second section chapter entitled “Dedications,” Misha likens himself to Prince Myshkin from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot:

Like the prince, I am something of a holy fool.  I am an innocent surrounded by schemers. I am a puppy deposited it a den of wolves…Like Prince Myshkin I am not perfect. (15)

However, when he looks more deeply into “how” he became such a holy fool, we readers learn that this cause and the life are so entirely different from Prince Myskin since Prince Myshkin wasn’t circumcized at a late age.  And while Prince Myshkin is a “holy fool,” Misha is something else:

How did I become such a holy fool? The answer lies rooted in my first American experience. (15)

His first American experience was the circumcision.  And this experience was set up by his father: he decided, in 1990, that: “his only child should study to become a normal prosperous American at Accidental College.” But before he went to the college, he would first have to get circumcised.

The description of what prefaced this decision is troubling.  And this casts a curious shadow over the circumcision.   Misha notes how, after his mother had died, he and his father were living together in a “tight, humid apartment in Lenningrad’s southern suburbs.”  And both were becoming something “other” : “neither of us could understand what the other was becoming.”

After writing this, we see what he has become: his penis or “khui.”  He tells us that “one day” when he was “masturbating furiously on the sofa, my legs splayed apart so I looked like an overweight flounder…Papa stumbled in upon me.”   His father tells him to “put it away” and has a “man-to-man” talk with him about his journey to America and the new life he will live:

“Mishka,” my papa said, “you’ll soon be in America, studying interesting subjects, sleeping with local Jewish girls, and enjoying the life of the young”(16).

After sharing a few deep moments with each other, the father asks that Misha do one thing for him.  Misha thinks he means losing weight, but it is something else, something more Jewish:

“Idiot,” Papa said…”You’ll never be an American.  You’ll always be a Jew.  How can you forget who you are?  You haven’t even left yet. Jew, Jew, Jew.”(17)

These last words have the ring of anger to them.  And they imply that his father doesn’t want his son to assimilate.  He wants his son to always think of himself as a Jew.  And to guarantee this, he gives him the “other reason” why “you’re going to America”(17):

“Once you land in New York, go to this address. Some Hasids will meet you there, and they will circumcise you”(17).

At this point, Misha flies into horrific reflections on what will happen to his penis (Khui).  In his mind, he had now developed a big penis and would no longer be picked on by his classmates who considered him a Jew-with-a-small-penis:

The pain was clouding my eyes, the pain of having the best part of me touched and handled and peeled like an orange.  Since becoming gigantic, I had gotten used to a kind of physical inviolability….No one dared touch me now.  Or wanted to touch me, for that matter.  “I’m eighteen years old,” I said.  “My khui will hurt terribly if they cut it now.  And I like my foreskin.  It flaps”(18).

But in the end, he bends to his father’s greatest desire for him.  He realizes that his father is no longer ashamed of being a Jew: he is a Baal Teshuva of sorts.  And Misha’s penis is the sacrifice, so to speak.

At the time, he forgets his terror because his love for his father is too great.  This love is wrapped up in several physical aspects of his father:

Some wags say that men spend their entire lives trying to return to their mother’s womb, but I am not one of those men.  The trickle of Papa’s deep vodka breath against my neck, the hairy obstinate arms pressing me into his carpet-thick chest, the animal smells of survival and decay – this is my womb.  (18)

In other words, when he is near his father he becomes like a child.   And this is what makes him a holy fool of sorts (almost like Abraham). The only question in his mind is “what is a Hasid?”

They are the one’s his father is giving his son over to; they are the gatekeepers of America.  Before Misha can experience America, he must have a Jewish experience: circumcision.  As I will show in the next blog, this is the experience that he must overcome if he is to be his own person.   Unlike Abraham, the circumcision is something he only does for his father and will be something he would rather leave behind.  It brings him more shame than good.   This revised – fictional -reading of circumcision is what I call “circumscription.”

To be continued….

“Russians Are Just a Bunch of Niggaz” – Introducing Multiculturalism to Shteyngart’s Absurdistan

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Every Gary Shteyngart novel addresses multiculturalism.   And they do so by way of articulating the complex relationships of the main characters – who are all Jewish-Russian-Americans – to Eastern Europeans, Latino-Americans, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Jewish-Americans, and Non-Jewish-Americans.  To be sure, Shteyngart portrays his main characters as former exchange-students who majored in “multiculturalism” in a mid-western college by the name of “Accidental College.”   In the first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Notebook, we are introduced to Vladmir, a twenty-five year old character whose post-college work is to help settle new Immigrants into the American experience.  He works at the Emma Lazarus Immigrant Absorption Society.

But what is most interesting about the novel is not to be found in the relationships Vladmir finds as the Absorption Society, so much as the relationships he forges when, in the face of a deal gone wrong, he flees America for Eastern Europe.  There he meets up with fellow Russians and Eastern Europeans and plots to rip off young-rebellious-American-students.  These relationships teach us how he navigates between one cultural identity and the other.  And this, more than anything, makes for one of the greatest novelties of Shteyngart’s fiction.    It shows us at least one possible way in which a Jewish-Russian-American-Immigrant can live in a growing multicultural, globalized, and Americanized society. This kind of fiction provides readers with an opportunity to, as the philosopher Richard Rorty might say, become more cosmopolitan and less xenophobic.  But Shteyngart’s fiction also shows us “how” prescient and rich this post-nationalist experience is or can be.  And it does this by way of a multi-cultured-schlemiel.

In contrast to The Russian Debutante’s Notebook, which focuses mainly on relationships between the main character, white-Americans, and Eastern Europeans, Absurdistan introduces a new relationship: namely, the relationship of the main character with an African-Latino-American- character named Rouenna.  The novel also introduces, as I pointed out in the last blog entry, an incorporation of rap and African-American culture into the schlemiel’s persona.     In the last entry I outlined how Misha, the main-character, and Alyosha-Bob, his sidekick, composed a rap at party at St. Petersburg and how, in response to the rap, they were chastised by Russians who saw this rapping as uncomely.  Misha and Alyosha-Bob are called out on being the “odd one’s out” (schlemiels in a negative sense); but instead of dealing with the situation, Misha calls his psychiatrist in New York, and, when he doesn’t reach him, he does what is most natural to him: he eats.  And this inability to “man-up,” informs, in at least one aspect, his comical Jewish-Russian-American identity.

But the cultural identification informs his identity as a multi-cultural-schlemiel.  To be sure, Misha’s character has all the makings of a “black-Jew.”   (In using this term, I’m playing on the motif that we find in the film The Hebrew Hammer (2003) – a movie that was out there for three years before Shteyngart’s novel was published. The film is based on a Jewish parody of the Blaxploitation genre; I hope to talk on this at greater length in the near future.)

He is large, loves rap, and he has an African-Latino-American girlfriend who lives in NYC, and his nickname is “snack daddy.”   (The name and character remind me of Rappers like the Notorious B.I.G.)

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And in my blog-entry on the prologue, I pointed out how he yearns to be back in NYC with her rather than Absurdistan (somewhere in Eastern Europe) with the “Mountain Jews.”

We meet Misha’s African-Latino-American girlfriend Rouenna in the first chapter.  And we meet her by way of a conversation; namely, between Lyuba – Misha’s young step-mother (who he sleeps with, after his father dies) – and Rouenna.

The differences between their way of speaking and thinking show us a cultural gap and how Shteyngart navigates it by way of a multicultural narrational style.  To begin with, Shteyngart casts Lyuba and her first attempts to speaks to Rouenna about an “orange towel” that she “thinks” is ugly:

She was having trouble with her tenses: “I think, I thought…I think, I thought…” I sink, I sought…I sink, I sought…(11)

In response, Rounna says:   “Damn, sugar…you’re hard-core.” But Lyuba doesn’t know this word and asks: “What it is ‘harcourt’?”  To this, Rouenna, instead of correcting her grammar, tells Lyuba that she is “hard-core” in her treatment of her housekeepers:

“Talking shit about servants.  Like they got dirty hands and all.” 

Lyuba retorts by saying that, before she met Misha’s father she too was “unfortunate.”  Misha gives more details to Rouenna about this and Rouenna, in response, says: “Is that right, sister?”  Lyuba then opens her arms and hugs Rouenna while Misha says that its “just an African-American expression.”  But then Rouenna adds yet another:

“Cause, as far as I can tell, Russians are just a bunch of niggaz”(11)

Lyuba – and Alyosha-Bob’s Russian girlfriend, Svetlana, who is also present – ask Rouenna and Misha what this means, and Rouenna says it is a “compliment.”  But neither of them get what this means and they get offended.  Rouenna tries to relax them by explaining:

All I’m saying is, you know…your men don’t got no jobs, everyone’s always doing drive-bys whenever they got beefs, the childrens got asthma, and y’all live in public housing.  (12)

This only leads to more confusion which is compounded when Rouenna calls them OG’s (Original Gangsters).  And this leads Svetlana to chastise Alyosha-Bob:

“It’s all your fault, she seethed in Russian, “With all your stupid rapping.  With that idiot ghetto tech.  No wonder people treat us like we’re animals”(12).

She then tells Alyosha-Bob that if he wants to be Russian – he is an American Jew – he will have to “think of what kind of image you want to project.”  And that this kind of “talk” doesn’t work to support the image that Russians need to project of themselves.

Since Svetlana and Alyosha-Bob are saying all this in Russian, Rouenna gets upset and tells them to “speak English already.”  But right about when this is about to spring into a fight, the scene is interrupted by an announcement that the police are coming.

I find this interruption telling because it situates a theme that Misha (aka “snack daddy”) will be dealing with throughout the novel; namely, his relationship (and not just Alyosha-Bob’s) with Rouenna’s African-Latino-American culture.  To be sure, her way of life and way of speaking are something he really respects and even emulates as a Russian-American-Jew.

This is all brought to the fore by what happens late in the novel when we see a Rouenna who goes to college, meets up with another character named “Shteynfarb” (who teaches at Hunter College and who, we learn, is a fellow Russian-American, was friends with Misha in “Accidental College,” and shared a “multiculturalism” major) and loses her slang. As this happens, things change dramatically and with it Misha’s Multicultural-Schlemiel-identity.

But for now she speaks in slang saying that “Russians are just a bunch of niggaz.”   And this kind of talk – though shunned by Svetlana – nurtures Misha’s image of the ideal-American identity, which informs his own Jewish-American identity (at least at the outset).  I hope to come back to this in a future blog entry since Shteyngart’s translation of her language, culture, and relationship to Misha’s Russian-Jewish-American identity into fiction shows us how Shteyngart, in this novel, negotiates Jewish-multicultural-identity vis-à-vis the schlemiel.

Shut yo mouf! Two Schlemiel-Rappers And A Microphone in Shteyngart’s Absurdistan

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Although I am not a wealthy 30 year-old overweight-Russia-Jew who is stuck in Russia and looks to get back to NYC,  I am very drawn to the antics, body, and blindspots of Gary Shteyngart’s Misha character in his novel Absurdistan. His nomadic-translations of American culture into his own way of life are endearing: they bring me – strangely enough – close to a similar comic experience I have had as an American-Jew.  My translations, though different, oddly enough find resonance in someone who is much different from me and where I am located: a Russian Jew who lives in the wake of a post-communist culture and during the upsurge of globalization and urban decay.  What I like most is that this translation is fictional and it is done in jest.  But this format works wonderfully to allow the reader to come into deep questions concerning the meaning of history and Jewish identity.

The novelty of  the Misha character hit me when, in the first chapter entitled “The Night in Question,” he describes a party he was at the night his father was killed.   His description of this evening and the party (in a comic Russian-American dialect) are witty and endearing.  But unlike poor schlemiels – who are down on their luck and are low on cash – this schlemiel is affluent:

On the night of June 15 in the catastrophic year 2001, I was getting plenty of respect from my friends in a restaurant called the Home of the Russian Fisherman on Krestovsky Island, one of the verdant islands caught in the delta of the Neva River…we are standing around the Spawning Salmon pontoon, yelling at our servants, drinking down carafes of green California Riesling, our Nokia mobliniki ringing with social urgency that comes only when the White Nights strangle the nighttime, when the inhabitants of our ruined city are kept permanently awake by the pink afterglow of the northern sun.  (4)

This affluence is situated in a decaying post-Communist culture (“our ruined city”).   For this reason, it is meaningless.  He becomes depressed when he realizes that he is the next generation.  And, like many of the people his age, he cannot and doesn’t want to relive the past and the dreams of his communist parents and culture.  His communist training, since youth, is now meaningless.  And he counts himself, along with all his friends, as failures:

Let me tell you something: without good friends, you might as well drown yourself in Russia.  After  decades of listening to the familial agitprop of our parents (“We will die for you! they sing), after surviving the criminal closeness of the Russian family…after the crass socialization foisted jupon us by our teachers and factory directors….all that’s left is that toast between two failed friends in some stinking outdoor beer kiosk.  (4)

He tells us that he is a “modest person” and doesn’t have many friends.  Of his friends, he notes one who is very close to him (a fellow schlemiel). His other failed friend is named Alyosha- Bob.  Like him, he is Jewish; and, like Misha, he is an odd Jew.  But he is not a Russian-Jew; rather, he is an American Jew who he met at “Accidental College”:

My best buddy in Russia is a former American I like to call Alyosha-Bob.  Born Robert Liptshitz in the northern reaches of New York State, this bald eagle (not a single hair on his dome by age twenty five) flew to St. Lenninsburg eight years ago and was transformed…into a successful Russian biznesman named Alyosha, the own of ExcessHollywood, a riotously profitable import-export business.  (5)

Alyosha’s face is odd (“pinched” with a “reddish goatee”).   Misha tells us that a “skinehead on the metro once described him as a gnussiy zhid, or a ‘vile looking Yid.”  His choice of terms to describe Alyosha tells us that Misha’s Jewish identity – in part – is connected to how his body is seen by anti-Semites.  This adds to what I noted yesterday regarding his own Jewish identity, which is connected to his body and even his weight. To be sure, he sees his body and Alyosha as sharing a similar kind of schlemiel-body.

But a schlemiel is not a schlemiel by virtue of his/her body; a schlemiel is a schlemiel also by virtue of what he or she does and how she does it.  For these schlemiels, rap is part-and-parcel of their schlemiel character and when done in this Russian post-communist context it comes across in an odd way.

After describing Alyosha Bob in terms of his schlemiel-body, Misha turns toward their “interesting hobby,” which they first engaged in while in university:

We think of ourselves as the Gentlemen Who Like to Rap.  Our oeuvre stretches from the old-school jams of Ice Cube, Ice-T, and Public Enemy to the sensuous rhythms of ghetto tech, a hybrid of Miami bass. (5).

(In this clip, notice how Jews are referred to and the odd confluence an anti-Semitic comment in this rap creates – vis-a-vis – this novel and Misha’s Jewish-identifications with African-American rap-music and culture.)

Using the rhetorical register of an American detective or a policeman (who would be interested in what happened the night his father was killed), Misha introduces the rap he and Alyosha made up.  “On the night in question, I got the action started with a Detroit ditty I enjoy on summer days.”  Misha begins:

Aw shit,

Heah I come

Shut yo mouf

And bite yo tongue.

And Alyosha-Bob adds the rejoinder:

Aw, girl,

You think you bad?

Let me see you

Bounce dat ass.

At the end of this rap, Misha notes that “some idiot” interrupts them and asks them “why they are singing like African exchange students?  You both look so cultured?”  Misha’s translation of these questions to the reader is telling because it shows he identifies anti-Semitism – directed against the Jewish body – with racism:

In other words, like vile-looking Yids. 

In Russia, the Jews are the blacks.  And Misha retorts by saying that if the Russian author Pushkin were around he would be doing rap.  The “idiot” calls Misha and Alyosha “children” and this quip hits Misha hard:

Children? Was he talking about us?  What would an Ice Cube or an Ice T do in this situation? (7)

But instead of taking a stand – in real life (or even in rap) – like these African-American rappers, Misha calls his “Park Avenue analyst, Dr. Levine” for help:

To tell him once again that I had been insulted and injured, once again I had been undermined by a fellow Russian.  (7)

In other words, let me translate: “I (Misha) am a schlemiel; I may tell you to “Shut yo mouf” but I have to “shut my mouf” because I’m too weak to stand up to you; however, I can (and will) speak to my analyst because I am wounded.”   But he comes back to reality when, in comic fashion, he eats some food; namely, sturgeon.  When he eats it, he tells us that he rocks back and forth “as if” he’s in prayer:  “My body fell into a rocking motion like the religious people when they’re deep in the thrall of their god”(8).  This eating, it seems, comes to his rescue when he fails.  In fact, there are lots of ways he can avoid dealing with this negative accusation against him, his comic actions, and, apparently, his Jewish body.

True, Misha feels like he is a man-child and the comment that he is a “child” and not a man (or a real rapper) seems to wound this wealthy, overweight, schlemiel.  And, ultimately, though he does manage to distract himself, he does, at the very least, come to the realization that he must leave his history and the Russian people:

I am not enamored of such people, I must say.  How is it possible to live outside history?  Who can claim immunity to it by dint of beauty and breeding?

He realizes that “you can’t ignore history altogether.”  And this history includes Russian history and Jewish history.  All of these meditations come to him in the wake of this insult directed at him by virtue of his rap with Alyosha-Bob.

But instead of attacking them with words or fists, he wants to understand who he is, who they are, and how he must deal with these different histories.  What he doesn’t understand, however, is how his reading of his body relates to this. And this, it seems, is one of his main blindspots at the outset of the novel.  Another blindspot in his identity is his relationship with his father who, that evening, he discovers was killed.  He learns of this in them midst of this odd party where he is “wounded” and finds solace in his psychiatrist and food.   With all his eating and talking, Misha, though wounded, can’t seem to shut his “mouf.”

And neither can the Jewish-rapper from Brooklyn otherwise known as Necro….

In the next blog, I will discuss how Misha’s Jewish khui (penis) – and his-late-in-life-circumcision – as well as his African-American girlfriend Rouenna – enters into this schlemiel-self-image.     

By Way of Bodily Introduction: The Jewish-Body in Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan – Take 1

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In an essay called “The Mouse than Never Roars: Jewish Masculinity in American Television,” Maurice Berger uses Jack Benny as one of a few illustrations of how the Jewish body appeared in the American public eye.  Calling him a schlemiel, Berger notes that Benny’s body and gestures appear effeminate and that Jews, initially, played on these stereotypes of the Jewish body to gain public attention.  However, as Berger notes, this changes over time as we see more and more masculine Jewish men on TV in the 60s and 70s.   The images Berger uses to illustrate these changes show us, on the one hand, a thin Jack Benny; and, on the other, more muscular and weighty characters in a variety of shows right up to the 1990s.  But this visual-genealogy of Jewish body images is by no means linear or definitive.  The Jewish body – in all its shapes and sizes – remains.

To be sure, we see many Jewish bodies in film and TV – over the last few decades – that are not masculine; such as the bodies of Woody Allen, Ben Stiller, and Larry David (to name only a few Jews who have less-masculine kinds of Jewish bodies in film).  And most of these bodies are thin.  They are not overweight. And if we look back, we can also find heavy schlemiel characters that differ greatly from the thin Jack Benny; for instance, schlemiels portrayed by Zero Mostel.

And lately we have seen something of a physical turn with characters like John Goodman, Seth Rogen, and Jonah Hill.  These characters show us that schlemiels need not be thin; they can also be overweight or heavy.   To be sure, their weight makes them more charming.  And, as we see with many schlemiels (whether in literature, film, or television), his/her charm has to do with the schlemiel’s body, its gestures, and its demeanor.

As a side note, I find many of the Cartoonish images of Robert Crumb employ this bodily charm.  Indeed, Crumb is fascinated with shapely people.  And while many of these images have erotic connotation, many others have a comic and sometimes a Jewish connotation.  One could plausibly argue that this weight often denotes, for Crumb, a shapely schlemiel as in this piece from his comic, The Snoid.

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In designing the main character for Absurdistan, it seems Shteyngart was acutely aware of this charm.  We see this in the opening lines of the first chapter where Misha, the main character, introduces himself:

I am Misha Borisovich Vainberg, age thirty, a grossly overweight man with small, deeply blue set eyes, a pretty, a pretty Jewish beak that brings to mind the most distinguished breed of parrot, and lips so delicate you would want to wipe them with the naked back of your hand. (3)

Here we see the Jewish body foregrounded.  We also see it in Shteyngart’s first novel.  But over there the focus is more on the main character’s “Jewish” hips and his Jewish “walk” (both pointed out by the main character’s Russian mother).  Here it is the nose (the “Jewish beak”); but in addition to this Misha also sees himself in terms of his weight.  To be sure, his weight is a topic of interest throughout the novel and, in Misha’s eyes, it (and not simply his Jewish features) makes him “the odd one out.”

But there is more to the story. His weight should also be read against the background of his affluence.  To be sure, Misha comes from a very wealthy family and his weight may be an expression of his wealth.  And how we view this wealth, his approach to himself, and to the world he lives – which could be unduly harsh – should be counterbalanced by his weight.  Indeed, his weight – and not his nose – brings out the schlemiel’s charm; and because of this, his weight (and his attitude toward it) becomes one of the main signs of his schlemielkeit. Reading the text against his body can yield some interesting insights.

First of all, in yesterday’s blog entry I pointed out how Misha – in the Prologue – sees Absurdistan as a book about “too much love” and about “being had.”  Read against his representations of his body – in the first chapter – these passages become more endearing.  He is a person who, we can imagine, may be self-conscious by virtue of his weight; given this supposition, his love and bad luck take on another shade. In addition, because Misha’s Jewishness is an issue in the Prologue, we can now see that his Jewishness is also altered by virtue of his weight.

To be sure, there are many folkloric images of heavy people.  They are at the core of this or that folk culture: they often signify joviality and life itself. In the prologue, he notes how he is “writing from” the land of “Mountain Jews” and he conjures up folk images by saying that the community is “pre-historic” (he even likens the community to a dinosaur – a large creature – and calls it, playing on the Jewish name, Haim and the word Heim in Yiddish (which means home), a Haimosaurus).

In a folkloric sense, this village full of diverse kinds of people who surround him and look to help him.  In fact, in a folkloric sense, he comically notes that they are “too hospitable.”  And when we realize that he is a heavy person (from the beginning of the first chapter) who is in need of help, which we see at the outset of the novel (the prologue), Misha’s schlemiel character takes on folkloric proportions. However, the first chapter (as opposed to the Prologue) is not located in a folkloric space; it’s located in the post-modern, post-communist, and globalized space of St. Petersburg.  And after making his “bodily” introduction, we are introduced to this post-city (which has nothing pre-historic or folkloric about it at all):

By the year 2001, our St. Lennisburg has taken on the appearance of a phantasmagoric third-world city, our neoclassical buildings sinking into the crap-choked canals, bizarre peasant huts fashioned out of corrugated metal and…worst of all, our intelligent, depressive citizenry has been replaced by a new race of mutants dressed in studied imitation of the West, young women in Lycra…men in fake black Calvin Klein jeans hanging limply around their caved-in asses. (3)

As you can see, this is not the world of folklore that Misha is describing.  And his way of speaking demonstrates – in contrast to much of the prologue – that he is an intelligent, observant person.  However, as the introduction goes on, we notice that his intelligence is also tainted by affluence and the very culture he can’t stand:

The good news is that when you’re an incorrigible fatso like me – 325 points at last count – and the son of the 1,238th richest man in Russia – all of St. Lenninsburg rushes to service you….You are blessed with the rarest treasure to be found in this mineral-rich land.  You are blessed with respect. (3)

In other words, he has a love/hate relationship with the city he was raised in.  He is spoiled by it and his schlemielkeit may also have to do with his affluence.  By being served like a prince and gaining weight, he becomes foolish.  However, at the same time, we see from the Prologue that his weight also has a folklorish aspect (which can be situated in an odd, Jewish context).    The contrast between these two spaces is brought about by way of how his body is situated.    His body seems to fit into both spaces, but, as I have shown, its meaning differs considerably. As I continue reflecting on the novel, I will –from time to time – come back to his (Jewish) body and its relation to his schlemielkeit.   The novelty of this reflection is that it looks to show how important the body and its odd relationship to the world are to schlemiel comedy in general and to this novel in particular.

Should Jews be Normal or Exceptional? Hannah Arendt and Gary Shteyngart’s Reading of the Schlemiel and Normality

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Judith Butler has, on many different occasions, pointed out that she is taking on the legacy of Hannah Arendt.  And by this she means Arendt’s legacy vis-à-vis her work on the political.  One of the terms Butler uses in her political vocabulary – which also pops up in her work on sexuality – is “normalization.”  When used by Butler, this term has the most negative connotations imaginable.  If anything, she wants to keep this or that regime, political movement, or discourse in check by making sure that it is not normalized.  Hetero-normativity or any normativity for that matter is problematic for her.  But if one were to critically look into one of the most important essays of her predecessor – namely “The Jew as Pariah” – he or she would notice that at the end of the essay Arendt imagines a movement away from the schlemiel/pariah (the outsider) to the insider.  She points out that Kafka – and she herself – dreamt of living a “normal” life (and that his novels illustrate this fact).  This “normal” life isn’t the life of the “parvenu” which, as she points out in her essay, is in tension with the pariah.  Rather, by normality Arendt believed Jews should – at some point – stop being “exceptional” pariahs.  But what does this mean?  Does it imply that Jews will just be like everyone else?  Is the goal normality?  And what would Butler say about that?

Since Arendt doesn’t properly explain what she means by normality, we can only surmise that she associated the schlemiel (as Zionists did) with Diaspora.  (After all, she did write articles for a Zionist Newspaper in Germany for many years and it is plausible to suppose that her writing and thinking was deeply affected by her journalistic engagement.)   A writer who provides a good contemporary illustration – albeit in fiction – of the transition from the “exceptional” schlemiel to the “normal” man is Gary Shteyngart.  As I pointed out at the beginning of this blog series, Shteyngart ends his debut novel The Russian Debutante’s Notebook with what I call a “dad ending.”  It, like Arendt’s ending, is dad/bad because it effaces the “exceptional” aspect of Jewishness (embodied in the schlemiel) in the name of being an American; that is, normal.   To be sure, Arendt never specifies where one will become normal (she doesn’t mention Israel); however, she hints at America when she says that Charlie Chaplin’s “Great Dictator” (for her, the last schlemiel in the “hidden tradition” of the pariah/schlemiel) is replaced by Superman.  (And that replacement happens in America, not in Israel and not in Europe.)  That said, I’d like to look at how Shteyngart’s “dad ending”(which happens in America), reflect on whether it is the best ending, and show how it addresses a problem that Arendt left hanging in her essay.

As I pointed out in yesterday’s blog entry, Vladmir starts thinking about living a “normal” life by way of an American woman he meets in Prava named Morgan.   She uses the most simple terms to describe the world, which for her is divided into “good” and “bad” people.  She tells Vladmir is good, however, at first, he doesn’t believe it.

The narrator points out that –for all intents and purposes – Vladmir is too sophisticated for this; he is “postmoral”:

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 the more time he spends thinking about it, he realizes that, in going from a schlemiel to a bad man he has chosen to live an exceptional and abnormal life.    He is a pariah on the run and he wonders if he should remain this way:

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)

In the wake of her gesture,  he thinks seriously about normality:

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)

Like Arendt, Vladmir wants to live in the world.  And Morgan is the way into it: not his family, not his new work as a criminal, and not his previous life as a schlemiel.    But his decision to leave is not so clear; in a way, it has to be made for him.

When Morgan meets his boss (The Groundhog) and his boss’s girlfriend at an American restaurant he created, things start changing more dramatically.   Playing on the exceptional kitsch that touches all that the Groundhog does, we learn from the narrator that the name of the restaurant is Road 66 (not Route 66).    After hearing The Groundhog’s story as to how he met his girlfriend – by way of an experience he had at a brothel wherein he heard he grunting and was deeply touched – Morgan, in the most damning terms, tells Vladmir that this man is bad and that Vladmir is caught up in this intrigue:

“He met his girlfriend at a whorehouse!” she was shouting as if that had been the most egregious news of the evening.  “He’s a fucking gangster…And you! And YOU!”(395)

He retorts by pointing out that she has been seeing a political activist named Tomas. To be sure, Morgan has a soft spot for the political and, with Tomas, was planning to blow up a political area in Prava called “The Foot.”  But as the novel comes to an end, she just wants to get it done and leave the country.  Paralleling this, Vladmir also wants to leave.  They both want to return to America.

The straw that breaks Vladmir’s back and spurs him to leave in a flurry is associated with the figure of Skinheads.  Before taking Morgan for dinner with The Groundhog, Vladmir, on an evening out with his American friends, is accosted by a group of Skinheads who take him for a “Turk.” They beat the hell out of him; however, there is little reflection on what this means in terms of the country he has chosen to live in.  The Skinheads return after Vladmir takes Morgan out to Road 66. But this time they are sent by “The Groundhog.”  They are sent because, apparently, Rybakov didn’t get his American citizenship and Vladmir is found to be a traitor.

After being badly beaten, Vladmir goes off to the Hospital.  Meanwhile, the final plan to blow up “the foot” and to get Vladmir out of the country is underway.  The end of the novel is full of action and suspense.  And, like the section of the novel on Jordi and the chase (which was the event that made Vladmir more “masculine” and prompted him to leave America for Europe and a life of crime), this section is intense.  This flight, like that one, is transformational.

The last words of the novel – prior to the Epilogue –end with Vladmir in flight:

He ran – there was not even the time to lie to himself that he would be back.  And lies had always been important to our Vladmir, like childhood friends with whom one never loses an understanding.  (469)

These last words also indicate that Vladmir’s life has been a life of lies.  In contrast, the Epilogue suggests that now, in America, he will live an honest and normal life.  We meet him on his birthday. But in contrast to the first birthday – which the novel begins with – he is not a schlemiel.  In other words, he is not exceptional.  He is normal.  He is married to Morgan, they both have normal jobs (he works for her father), and they have a child on the way.

In America everything is normal:

This is America, where the morning paper lands on the doorstep at precisely 7:30 A.M. – not the whooly dominion (in Prava) Vladmir once ruled.  So he’ll open his eyes and unlock the door.  He’ll put in his ten-hour workday.  He’ll chat up the secretarial pool, etc (476)

In America, he is “free of the fear and madness of…Eastern lands”(476).  Although he carries his memories of being “exceptional” with him, at least – the narrator tells us – he can console himself with the thought that his child will be an American, not an immigrant:

An American in America.  That’s Vladmir Girshkin’s son. (476)

I call this a “dad ending” because that is what it is.  He ends the novel as a dad (rather than a schlemiel or a “bad” man); but it is – ultimately – a bad, Hollywood ending.   Given what was put forth in the first ¾ of the novel; it is odd.  The rush to normality should evoke questions in the reader regarding Vladmir’s identity.  Too much of what he was seems to have been left in the past; his birthday epilogue suggests that he has exchanged the exceptional for the normal; the schlemiel for the everyman.

Over the last decade or so, this formula has been used by Woody Allen,  Judd Apatow, and a few other screenwriters and filmmakers to illustrate a shift away from the schlemiel.  Its odd that Allen started doing this – with his film Anything Else (2003)– around the same time Shteyngart published his debut novel 2002.

Like Arendt, Allen, Shteyngart, and Apatow are all interested in leaving the schlemiel behind – or at least putting him through a process in which he/she goes from being a schlemiel to a normal individual.  Do they illustrate what Arendt claimed Kafka’s novels all point to: a desire for a normal life?  And is this life the “world” that she wanted to be in tune with?

I wonder about Arendt’s turn to the normal, just as I wonder about Shtyengart’s (Apatow and Allen’s turn).  They seem to be taking a German-Jewish reading of the schlemiel to heart. The Eastern European reading of the schlemiel, in contrast, looks to keep the exceptional nature of the schlemiel at the forefront. The reason for this has to do with the fact that they didn’t think a happy ending – with the schlemiel transforming – was the point of this character.  In truth, it has to do with challenging the “status quo” not becoming it.

Although Arendt may have envisioned a world where no one was exceptional and all lived a normal life (and that world may have been in America), the fact remains that she saw normality as the goal.  She had no vision of a perpetual revolt that would be spurred by way of the schlemiel.  For her, it had a historical purpose.  But, apparently, when Jews were given the opportunity to participate in history and politics, its role ended.   Arendt is unclear on this note.  However, she does suggest it in her reading of the schlemiel since it is displaced, in her view, by Superman and has less weight in Kafka’s imagination than the “normal” life.

The question, in all of this, is what is so “exceptional” about the schlemiel.  Arendt uses this term and so does Shteyngart.  And they both define the schlemiel in terms of what they think is exceptional.  And the long and short of it is that what they find exceptional is exile.  They have no need for it, but, in truth, when will it ever end?   Can American Jews end this chapter of history and simply pat themselves on the back?  Perhaps it would be better if there were no epilogue….

The answers to all of these questions, hinge on how we interpret the exceptional nature of the schlemiel: what it is and whether or not it is necessary or desired…today.

Dad Endings: On the Transformation of Vladmir Girshkin from Schlemiel to Bad-Man to Dad-Man – Part II

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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?

Dad Endings: On the Transformation of Vladmir Girshkin from Schlemiel to Bad-Man to Dad-Man – Part I

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What many scholars of Hannah Arendt miss (perhaps because they don’t want to see it) is the fact that “The Jew as Pariah” ends on the note of normality.  Although Arendt devotes much of the essay to discussing the schlemiel (as Pariah), she ends her essay with a discussion of Kafka.  Unlike Heinrich Heine and Charlie Chaplin, who both were committed to the schlemiel, Arendt claims that Kafka was not.  In fact, unlike her readings of Heine and Chaplin, she makes a biographical reading of Kafka’s work and claims that the secret of all of Kafka’s novels (with the exception of Amerika) is the desire for normality.  In other words, at the end of the day Arendt thinks that Kafka, like herself, rejected the schlemiel in the name of normality.  To be sure, she saw the “exceptional” status of the schlemiel (and its constant challenge to the status quo) to ultimately be a problem and normality to be the solution.  With a historical view prominent in her mind – a view that has much resonance with Zionism – Arendt believed that the schlemiel served a historical purpose but it was not the goal so much as a means to a different end.

Since it moves from the schlemiel to, at the end very end, becoming “normal,” the latter half of Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Notebook, echoes Arendt’s reading of the schlemiel.   To get there, however, Shteyngart adds an extra stage in which the schlemiel becomes a bad-man before he becomes a “dad-man” (that is, a normal American).  I find that the trajectory mapped out by Shtyengart’s novel sheds light on Arendt’s map of the schlemiel’s transformation.  And the light it shines on her model discloses what I have thought all along about it; namely, that her reading of the schlemiel is a bad ending to what she calls a “hidden tradition.”  For in losing the schlemiel, Jews also may lose what is distinctive and “exceptional” about Jewishness.  At the end of Shteyngart’s novel, the loss, however, is not so much about the loss of Jewishness as the beginning of a new, normal life in America as an American father and husband; not as a Russian-American and not as a Jewish-American.  And this, I hold, is a “dad ending.”

But before we can get to this “dad ending” and to the normal life, Shteyngart shows us that Vladmir, the main character, must go through the experience of being “exceptional” (in the powerful and “bad” sense).  To this end, Shteyngart begins the process of transformation by way of an exceptional event: namely, the attempted rape by a powerful drug dealer in Miami named Jordi.  As I pointed out in the last blog-entry, this event prompted Vladmir to become more masculine.  In the midst of his flight, the narrator and the character reflect how Vladmir will no longer be a victim.  He realizes that all of his life, before that point, was about making him a 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)

As I pointed out, he, like the Israeli cab driver who speeds him out of harms way, would associate the schlemiel with the victim.  In the wake of this, he decides to take Rybakov’s advice and flee to Prava in Eastern Europe.  There, Vladmir would meet up with Rybakov’s son “the Groundhog.”  There, Vladmir would become the victimizer rather than the victim.  There, Vladmir will become an exceptional leader (a P.T. Barnum and a V.I. Lenin – the two characters that the narrator associates with Vladmir at the very outset of the novel).

When he arrives in Prava, Vladmir is greeted by an entourage:

Small-arms fire exploded outside.

A dozen car alarms engaged.

A detachment of men, each with a small Kalashnikov at hip level, swiftly parted the Americans into two screaming herds.

The requisite red carpet was rolled out between them.

A convoy of BMWs and armor-plated Range Rovers was assembled in protective formation. 

A crepe banner bearing the curious legend PRAVNAINVEST #1 FINANCIAL CONCERN WELCOME THE GIRSHKIN was unfurled. (188)

Following this grand welcome, Vladmir is introduced to his “new benefactor” (“The Groundhog”).   Although there are many comic moments in this display of power, the comedy is based on the feeling and expression of power. And even the narrator’s descriptions try to make light of it all by paying close attention to the aesthetic aspects of this display in honor of Vladmir:

In an impressive piece of postmodern choreography, twelve car doors were opened simultaneously by twelve lanky Stolovians….Inside, the sober German interiors were violated beyond comprehension with Jersey-style zebra-striped seats and wooly cupholders. (190).

As Valdmir takes this all in, he realizes the opportunity he has to do something he never has done: become a leader.  However, here, he would be the leader of a crime ring (with, of course, the oversight of his benefactor: The Groundhog).  Vladmir takes all of this on when he is asked to speak at the “Biznesmenski” lunch.

At this lunch, Vladmir takes on the role of leading The Groundhog and all of his underlings to greater economic success:

I propose that I single-handedly infiltrate the American community in Prava. Despite my fluent Russian and my tolerance of drink, I can easily double as a first-rate American.  My credentials are impeccable.  I have attended one of the premier liberal-minded colleges in the States and have a profound appreciation for the dress, manners, and outlook of the disaffected young American set.  (201)

They all applaud his plan to rip-off young “disaffected” Americans who come to post-Communist Eastern Europe (in general, and Prava in particular) as a way of rebelling against their parents and wealthy upbringing.  When asked what he needs to accomplish this, he tells them he needs a “certain amount of money per week for drinks, drugs, taxis, whatever it takes to ingratiate myself in the community”(201).  He estimates this will amount to an initial $6000 and, following this,  $2000 a week.  They agree and, floating on this success (a success that we saw at the end of his “curious arc of dreams” – but with a major difference), he gets to work.

To get things underway, Vladmir goes to the area where Americans hang out and there he stumbles across a poet by the name of Perry Cohen.  He introduces himself to Perry as a “novelist-poet-investor.”  And, as he in the midst of talking to Perry, he concocts his scheme to get money from them and to run.

In the next blog entry, I will discuss Vladmir’s relationship with the American community in Prava and how, once he gets to know them, it takes a turn.  Following this, I will 1) show how close Arendt and Shteyngart are in their reading of the schlemiel and its “end”and 2) look into the meaning of Shteyngart’s “dad ending” and how it compares to Arendt’s ending.    

 

Fleeing America for Eastern Europe and the Schlemiel for Masculinity

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Historically, one will find that one of the founding ideas behind this or that revolution or political movement is the idea that a nation, people, or sex, etc needs to rise up and assert that it will no longer be a victim or slave to this or that system, ideology, or people.  When this movement of “liberation” happens, certain traits that are deemed to have caused this victimhood will be targeted for elimination.  For many of the first Zionists who wanted a new state and for many Jews of Germany who wanted to be accepted as equals, the traits that they found most problematic, the traits that kept them from the state or acceptance could be found in the schlemiel.  For many Jews, the schlemiel represented the parts of the Jewish people that they wanted to leave behind: these parts were, in their view, too “feminine” and too open to victimhood.  Jews, they believed, needed to stand up and reject these traits.  Independence and equality were contingent on rejecting them.  And the “new Jew” or the assimilated German-Jew would be more independent and masculine than the “old Jew” or the “ghetto Jew,” which found its caricature in the schlemiel.  This reading, I would like to stress, differed considerably from the Eastern European reading of the schlemiel.

As I pointed out in yesterday’s blog entry, the reading of the schlemiel as a victim re-emerges in Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Notebook.  Vladmir, throughout the beginning of the novel plays the schlemiel.  But never once does he or the narrator refer to Vladmir as a “victim.”  And, as readers, we enjoy the dreamy meditations and happenings that we see Vladmir drift in and out of throughout the novel.  His foolishness is charming.  However, the dreams at the end of his story arc, the dreams of money, lead him into a near rape experience.  And this shifts his perspective on himself; the narrator is the one who notes this change:

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)

This implies that the whole novel up to this point is about a character who was “preparing himself for victimhood.”  But now, in the wake of this near-rape experience, Vladmir punches his pursuant (Jordi) and flees the hotel.  And this flight, I aver, is a flight from the feminine to the masculine.  It is also a flight from America to Eastern Europe where Vladmir will now lead a life of crime with a group of other men.  But, as I noted before, his flight, at a certain point, ends; and his transformation is partial.

The tone, writing style, and content of the novel change dramatically as he flees the hotel.  When he leaves, he flags down a taxi that is driven by an Israeli named Ben-Ari (which in Hebrew means “son of a lion”).  Shteyngart’s decision to have a masculine Israeli named Ari pick Ivan up is not by any means arbitrary.  To be sure, it fits into the anti-victimhood theme that he is playing on (after all, as I mentioned above, the concept of the “new Jew” emerged out of the Zionist idea and was embodied, to some extent, in the Sabra ideal).

Ari’s introduction underscores this masculine theme:

The cabdriver, some kind of Middle Eastern pituitary giant…asked if Vladmir’s girlfriend had kicked his ass.  His nameplate read Ben-Ari, or Son of a Lion…(156)

In response to Ben-Ari’s question, Vladmir acts as if he is masculine, enjoys it when he says the word “bitch,” and “commands” Ben-Ari to flee to the airport:

“And I’m leaving the bitch for good,” Vladmir said (given the events of the last hour, it was oddly comforting to appropriate that word – “bitch”).  “To the Fort Lauderdale airport!” he commanded. (156)

As the drive goes on, Vladmir gets a crash course in masculinity by the Israeli cab driver who challenges him to pay the price he has specified or drop him off while compelling him to tell the truth about this or that crime Vladmir may have committed to drive him into this desperate situation.  At a certain point, Vladmir realizes that Jordi, a drug dealer, may be one step ahead of him and will be waiting for him at the airport. This is confirmed when he sees the cab surrounded by the Peach Caddys that, he assumes, are Jordis.  Seeing this, he orders Ben-Ari to change course and go to New York.

This bold move is costly and Ben-Ari makes him pay top dollar for it.  The narrator emphasizes Ben-Ari’s masculine reaction to hearing the news that he must change course:

“Damn!” the Lion shouted.  He hit the wheel in masculine fashion. “Damn, whore, fuck,” he said. (162)

When deciding what to do, we also see “the lion’s” masculinity.  Vladmir gives him the Rolex that Rybakov gave him plus $5,900 dollars.  In other words, all the money he had acquired in “gifts” from Rybakov and the underlings of “The Groundhog” were handed over to Ben-Ari.  His dream of accumulating more money has been smashed.

When they arrive in New York City, his dream is further smashed.  Vladmir ordered Ben-Ari to drop him off at Fran’s house thinking it would be safe.  But when he gets within view of the front door of their apartment building, he notices that Jordi is there waiting. Before Vladmir flees, we see him patting Fran’s father on the back.  At this point, Vladmir makes the snap decision that he must leave the USA for Eastern Europe.  He must join Rybakov’s son “The Groundhog” and his crime ring in Prava.  He wants to leave his victimhood behind and in Prava he looks to be a leader.

When he comes to these realizations, he reflects on how he was an victimized schlemiel and how, unlike the past (and unlike the schlemiel), he has learned from his failures.  He is ready to leave and ready for a change into someone more masculine:

He had failed once again, but this time he had come away all the wiser.  The boundaries, the contours of victimization at the hands of Mother, Girlfriend, and this dough-bellied adopted land of his, were all to clear. He would never suffer like that again.  In fact, he would never be an immigrant agin, nevermore a man who couldn’t measure up to the natives.  From this day forward, he was Vladmir the Expatriate, a title that signified luxury, choice, decadence, frou-frou colonialism.  Or, rather, Vladmir the Repatriate, in his case signifying a homecoming, a foreknowledge, a making amends with history. (179)

There, in Prava, he would be “at home.”  And there he would reclaim some kind of masculinity which he had lost when he left Russia to become an American.  He leaves the immigrant-becoming-American schlemiel experience, which, in his view, made him a victim and a failure.

Faced with this realization, Vladmir flees American for Eastern Europe and the schlemiel for masculinity.  But, as I have suggested before, this flight and its attendant transformation may be incomplete.  Will he be able to leave the schlemiel behind? Can we trust the narrator and subscribe to the same kind of narrative that German Jews and the first Zionists subscribed to when they wished to leave the schlemiel behind by calling the schlemiel a victim?  Can we challenge the narrator and see the schlemiel as something or someone other than a victim?

The answers to these questions, as well as the “curious arc” of Vladmir’s flight and dreams, show us a new kind of schlemiel; one that speaks to our times in a complex and nuanced manner.

…..to be continued….

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

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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…..

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

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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….