Idiots Abroad: The Dubious Lessons of Recent American Expat Fiction

Eliot Borenstein, New York University

Given the number of prematurely world-weary young men and women who followed the lure of easy money, cheap alcohol, and even cheaper sex to the geopolitical discount bins of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, it only stands to reason that this particular "lost generation" has begun to memorialize itself in novels and stories. In the past two years, an unprecedented number of books have been printed that are devoted either in full or in part to the experience of North American expatriates in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine: John Beckman'sThe Winter Zoo, Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything's Illuminated, Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, Paul Greenberg's Leaving Katya, Arthur Phillipps' Prague, and Gary Shteyngart's The Russian Debutante's Handbook. These six novels already form a significant body of literature, allowing us to examine the role that the post-socialist world has begun to play in the North American literary imaginary.

Two provisional conclusions suggest themselves immediately: first, as is so often the case in travel fiction, the countries visited serve primarily as a backdrop for the (more often than not) autobiographical narrator's inner journey of self-discovery. Travel may broaden the mind, but it narrows the vision, facilitating an obsessive, adolescent narrative navel-gazing. The heroes are caught in the classic, postcolonial bind of seeing the "natives" as allegorical representations of their own inner demons, reinforcing a growing post-Cold War triumphalist solipsism. Second, these hapless missionaries of Western consumer culture bear a remarkable resemblance to their counterparts in the imaginaries of the post-socialist "natives" themselves. Though they may not be as nakedly cynical as the Western despoilers who populate post-Soviet potboilers, they are indulging in the very activities that define their caricatured counterparts: drinking, pillaging, and whoring (the fact that all the authors mentioned here are male is certainly worth noting). The subtler segment of these "Boys of '89" seem painfully aware of the irony of their situation, but this awareness only deepens their narcissism and enhances their alienation.