We recently caught up with MOTEV, who just finished Gary Shteyngart's The Russian Debutante's Handbook for her reading group. (She's actually in two book groups – Group A and Group B, which is only slightly important to know in what follows.)
TEV: So what did you think of the Shtyengart?
MOTEV: (suspicious) Am I on the record?
TEV: Your son is a blogger. You're always on the record.
MOTEV: (resigned sigh) I enjoyed it. I had so much fun with that book, with all its shortcomings - which it does have. It's a long time since I read a book laughing out loud. He's tremendously talented - he just grabbed too much. He's trying to pull together America and post-Berlin Wall Europe at the end of the millennium. It was a courageous attempt. And there are passages that take your breath away. The only sensible thing I found to say about Auschwitz, I found in two sentences in this book. So I'm waiting to see what he comes up with next.
MOTEV: His sense of the absurd is definitely Russian-tainted – He reminded me of Bulgakov and Gogol and the American people in Group A, they had trouble with this book. Out of sixteen four of us liked it.
MOTEV: Yes, right. But I said you need to have a sense of the absurd.
TEV: It's usually the other way around with you – you're the one who doesn't like it.
MOTEV: I knew this group would have trouble with it. The facilitator was talking about deconstruction and the novel … which was stretching this book a little too far. He was trying to give a madcap almost cartoon-like – but better than cartoon-like – picture of America and the immigrant America, and the ones who live there wanting to become American, and when you realize you can't become American, and then you go to Europe but you feel American.
TEV: OK, I'm confused.
MOTEV: (plowing ahead) It smells very strongly autobiographical. Almost making fun of the fact that the novel starts when he's 25 and ends when he's 30 – like the famous five-year plans of the Stalin area. It's about how do you plan your life, how do you become American, how do you become an adult? With a tremendous amount of Eastern Europe and Mafia thrown in. One character, an ex-apparatchik and spy is out of work after the fall of the wall, and they hook up and go into business. It is so Hungary and so Czech –
TEV: (startled) Did you just say "hook up?"
MOTEV: (defensive) Yes. Why is it wrong?
TEV: No. It's unusually hip of you.
MOTEV: OK I'll get a new fixture. But now I'm on with my son. (We were confused until we realized that she had begun talking to the electrician without advising us.) Mark, you're not quoting me there, are you? I'll kill you.
TEV: Um, maybe just a little.
MOTEV: And another thing. No more unauthorized photos – you're violating my privacy.
TEV: So just authorize the one I used. It's the only one I have anyway.
MOTEV: I never threatened to disown you but if there's one more picture of me out there in the world, on the internet, that's what I'll do. It can only be an authorized picture.
TEV: But [a MOTEV friend] said she loved it.
MOTEV: Well what does she know?
TEV: So what's next?
MOTEV: Group B is starting Waiting for the Barbarians, and the next on Group B is Gunter Grass' Crabwalk, which I already read and just have to refresh for the discussion.
TEV: Sounds good.
MOTEV: Well, I thought the book was fun. And after it I wanted to read Arthur Phillips Prague to see how the two writers treat the same time period. And Everything is Illuminated, too. But then I decided that's a bit too much of the same subject for me.
TEV: Gotcha. OK, we'll talk soon. Bye.