From Russia with Lox

May 20, 2006 | ,

By Gary Shteyngart
Random House. 333 pages. $32.95.

Memoirs of a Muse
By Lara Vapnyar
Random House. 212 pages. $32.95.

The end of the Cold War may have been neither as sudden nor as gruesome as the end of the Second World War, but for the conflict’s losers, and particularly residents of the former Soviet Union, it was no picnic. Some found themselves stuck at home, disempowered by oligarchs and jeopardized by civil unrest, while others — many of them Jewish — optimistically hopped planes to places like Newark or Toronto, only to discover that mechanical engineering degrees and intimacy with Pushkin entitled them to nothing better in North America than driving a taxi. New novels by Gary Shteyngart and Lara Vapnyar, young writers born in the Soviet Union and now based in New York City, offer guided tours of the fleeting exuberance and enduring frustrations of such post-Soviet adventures.

Shteyngart’s global perspective, and his unerring sense for the ridiculous, leap out from his title. A remarkable work of satire, Absurdistan deliriously describes one semi-fictional Caucasian republic’s slide into madness, as observed by the charmingly naive Misha Vainberg, who weighs in at 325 pounds and who, as the son of Russia’s 1,238th-richest entrepreneur, is neurotic about everything except money.

A “deeply secular Jew” and proud holder of a degree in multicultural studies from a Midwestern U.S. college, Misha travels to the Republic of Absurdisvan? — Shteyngart’s comic take on Azerbaijan — in hopes that a Belgian diplomat will sell him the passport he needs to placate U.S. immigration officials. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has forbidden his return to New York — the restaurants and women of which he misses dearly, particularly his Harlem-bred girlfriend, Rouenna — for the silly reason that his recently deceased father happened to bump off an Oklahoma businessman.

In Svani City, Misha finds himself first welcomed by philo-Semitic panhandlers (“The Jewish people have a long and peaceful history in our land,” he is told ad absurdum), then embroiled in civil war (or what is made to appear as such for CNN’s cameras) and, inevitably, high as a kite on local hallucinogens as the city implodes.

Shteyngart displayed his facility for literary burlesque in his popular debut, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, and earned comparisons to such masters as Joseph Heller and Mordecai Richler. Here he piles on caricatures, stereotypes and blasphemies, parodying everything from rap music and Holocaust memorials to Zagat’s reviews. The author is not above a healthy dose of self-flagellation, either, which is effected in the person of “Jerry Shteynfarb,” a despicable alter ego who exploits his “dubious Russian credentials” to peddle a self-pitying novel about immigration — much like Shteyngart’s first book. “The Americans, naturally, lapped it up,” Misha complains.

Weasel that he is, Shteynfarb takes advantage of Misha’s absence and moves in on his girlfriend, while the enormous Russian ends up marooned in a godforsaken nook of the Caucasus with a tribe of “so-called Mountain Jews,” a surprisingly informed sect of nomads whose rabbi seems to be “getting a little lost in the head.” Not to worry, they tell Misha: “We sent for a new one from Canada. Twenty-eight years old. Fresh as a radish.”

Lara Vapnyar’s slim, less exuberant novel, Memoirs of a Muse, follows a Russian-Jewish girl’s coming of age in the Soviet Union, and her emigration and encounter with America as emblemized by her relationship with a successful Jewish novelist in New York.

Vapnyar’s narrator, Tanya, intertwines her own story with that of Apollinaria Suslova, lover of Dostoyevsky and inspiration for many of his heroines; Tanya understands herself as likewise fulfilling the role of the muse, until she realizes that her own writer is no Dostoyevsky. The writer, Mark Shneider, comes off as poorly as Shteyngart’s odious Shteynfarb; he is a superficial, self-obsessed pervert, and when Tanya learns to read English, she discovers his novels are not very good, either: “I wonder if Mark was aware of how bad his books were,” she asks herself.

At stake in Tanya and Mark’s relationship, of course, are the often rocky relations between immigrants and native-born Yankees. In this sense — and in its language, which is occasionally stilted — Memoirs of a Muse recalls the novels of Russian Jewish women from the first decades of the 20th century, such as Mary Antin and Anzia Yezierska. In the end, Tanya — like Sonya Vrunsky, one of Yezierska’s plucky heroines — breaks off her relationship with her American lover in favour of a gentleman who shares her background, which suggests that despite some improvements in travel and in the formalities involved, immigrants today experience much the same mix of desire and ambivalence that was common during the immigration boom of a century ago.

Not everything in Vapnyar’s novel smacks of the early 1900s, though. One element of the attraction between the native-born and the immigrant, only hinted at in prior works, is made explicit in Memoirs: the American’s desire for an exotic sexual partner. Schneider commands Tanya to fabricate tales of her youthful erotic escapades; “Details! Details! Be evocative!” he begs, until Tanya finally realizes that she is simply “his tool to get off.” In its frankness about the sexual dynamics of immigration, Vapnyar’s otherwise sedate novel resembles Shteyngart’s, which features a handful of hilariously international seductions, including one in which the bereaved Misha finds himself, as he remarks in characteristic deadpan, “khui-deep inside my father’s young wife.”

Rampant lust notwithstanding, both Shteyngart’s and Vapnyar’s protagonists end up ensconced in, or coveting, traditional American domesticity. On the patio of the “two-storey New Jersey house” she shares with her microbiologist husband, Tanya says, “I look forward to my husband coming home from work, and he feels the same way about me.” Misha, meanwhile, concludes his story with his fantasy of doing laundry with Rouenna, somewhere in his promised land of New York: “You pass me a rolled-up ball of baby socks, warm to the touch,” he dreams.

These young novelists ultimately return to the suburban American dream that a couple of generations of writers, themselves children or grandchildren of immigrants — Mordecai Richler and Philip Roth leap to mind — have been set on demolishing. And this makes sense. Unlike the Russian Jews of the early 1900s, Shteyngart and Vapnyar’s generation fled not pogroms, but low salaries, bread lines and rusty Ladas. For them, the luxuries of suburbia are not yet stifling. In recompense for their heartache and frustration, and for better or worse, what the West offers them is a chance to earn and shop like the rest of us.

[Originally published in The Globe and Mail.]