Gary Steyngart is an obviously talented writer, as this debut novel proves. Let me be more precise: Shteyngart is gifted with words and imagery and phrasing, but less so when it comes to plot and pacing and characterization. Vladimir Girshkin, our erstwhile hero, is a walking contradiction -- a thoroughly unpleasant and unsympathetic character who will undoubtedly frustrate most readers by consistently acting in inconsistent and unpredictable fashion. The rest of the characters we encounter merely fumble through the proceedings as cardboard cutout-stereotypes; others (luckier ones?) simply disappear without a trace (sadly, it is the more interesting characters who vanish, leaving us with the dross).
Again, Shteyngart has a real flair for language, and there are some moments that will inspire true laughter in most readers. But at 470+ pages, this book is simply too long for its own good; Shteyngart can't sustain the hilarity, the plot wanders, the focus blurs, and at...
I have had a similar upbringing as the author. I came to New York when I was young from Russia, and had a similar kind of education and I have to say the author gets the whole thing down right. Not only is he a great writer he has the kind of comic timing that only a good comedian has. The jokes come fast and furious and you just speed through the novel on the humor alone. Not everyone can get this comedy I'm sure but for those who have an open mind this is a trip worth taking (see for example the funny false naturalization ceremony for immigrants, the bonfire of Soviet clothes, etc.) This is the beginning of a great talent worth watching. The last few pages are an intersting way to finish the book because they show us just how sad the hero's story is beneath the laughter.
I read this for the section dealing with expatriates in Prague-- here called "Prava." If you spent any time there in the nineties, you'll see a lot of in-jokes and satire that may cause you to chuckle-- the Prague Post here named Prava-dence, Cafe Radost called Joy, and so on.
But in truth that section is not what the book is "about" (nor is there a lot of detail about it)-- it's a comic/dark fantasy coming-of-age that takes on America, Russia, Central Europe-- none of it terribly deeply. It's sort of a Russian Philip Roth-- Girshkin's ruminations on women and sex take up a lot of the book and they are remarkably unerotic; sex seems to be all animal smells and bodily fulids.
The story of an American/Russian boy (Like the author, the protagonist moved to America as a child) who for complicated reasons ends up in Central Europe as an entrepreneurial mafioso is episodic, wordy, intermittently funny but ultimately oddly uninvolving.
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