Questions and Topics for Discussion
Vladimir Girshkin—twenty-five-year-old Russian immigrant, “Little Failure” according to his high-achieving mother, unhappy lover to fat dungeon mistress Challah (his “little Challah bread”), and lowly clerk at the bureaucratic Emma Lazarus Immigrant Absorption Society—is about to have his first break. When the unlikely figure of a wealthy but psychotic old Russian war hero appears and introduces Vladimir to his best friend, who just happens to be a small electric fan, Vladimir has little inkling that he is about to embark on an adventure of unrelenting lunacy—one that overturns his assumptions about what it means to be an immigrant in America.
The Russian Debutante’s Handbook takes us from New York City’s Lower East Side to the hip frontier wilderness of Prava—the Eastern European Paris of the ’90s—whose grand and glorious beauty is marred only by the shadow of the looming statue of Stalin’s foot. There, with the encouragement of the Groundhog, a murderous (but fun-loving) Russian mafioso, Vladimir infiltrates the American ex-pat community with the hope of defrauding his young middle-class compatriots by launching a pyramid scheme that’s as stupid as it is brilliant. Things go swimmingly at first, but nothing is quite as it seems in Prava, and Vladimir learns that in order to reinvent himself, he must first discover who he really is.
ABOUT GARY SHTEYNGART
Gary Shteyngart was born in Leningrad, USSR, in 1972, and came to the United States seven years later. He won the Stephen Crane First Fiction Award and was listed by Book Magazine as one of the Top Ten debuts of 2002 for his novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONSAssimilation is a major theme in The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. Discuss Vladimir’s various attempts to assimilate. Which one is most successful and why?
Vladimir retains a distinct self-identification as a poor Russian Jew, despite his mother’s success in America and the many opportunities available to him as an American citizen. Discuss his ennui as a manifestation of successful Americanization.
Rybakov is also attempting to assimilate in his way. Discuss the humor inherant in the Fan Man’s chief impetus toward citizenship being the legitimization of his opinions.
How does Vladimir’s mother’s intense desire for her son’s success backfire? Why does her pressure on him to assimilate also backfire?
Vladimir doesn’t seem to care much about money in his days at the Emma Lazarus Society. How does his affair with Frannie change that? What is the newfound appeal of material success?
Vladimir shows himself to be remarkably adaptable. What is the crucial difference between adaptation and assimilation?
History is an important character in this novel. How does it differently effect the lives of Rybakov? Kostya? Perry Cohen?
How is the destruction of the Foot symbolic of both Prava’s escape from history and Vladimir’s?
What does Vladimir learn about appearances from Morgan? Discuss the irony of this All-American girl’s desire to immerse herself in Prava and its politics, and flee the bland , affluent normalcy so many immigrants seek.
Do you believe that Vladimir has assimilated at the end–that his life in Cleveland as an accountant with a wife and baby on the way has finally Americanized him? Or does Vladimir’s nostalgia for his past status as an outcast reveal something more complex about the makeup of our souls?