The key to Gary Shteyngart’s best-selling novels can be found in the title of his second book: “Absurdistan.” His genius manifests in the making of imaginary people and places that are slightly cracked versions of the real world, and he brings a wry and ironic sense of humor to the parallel universe he creates in his fictional works, which also include “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook” and “Super Sad True Love Story.”
We meet a very different Shteyngart, however, in “Little Failure,” a rich and deeply affecting midlife memoir by a 41-year-old man whose childhood and adolescence would seem Dickensian if they were not also, at moments, laugh-out-loud funny.
Shteyngart was born in 1972 and raised in Leningrad by a highly educated Jewish couple whose lives were (and are) haunted by history. “In addition to the Millers and the Stone Horns, the other surnames to track in this family drama are Stalin and Hitler,” writes Shteyngart. “As I march my relatives onto the pages of this book, please remember that I am also marching them toward their graves and that they will most likely meet their ends in some of the worst ways imaginable.”
Then, too, little Igor Shteyngart — as he was known before the family reached America in 1979 — suffered not only from the shortcomings of Soviet medicine, which offered no treatment for his childhood asthma except the medieval practice of cupping, but also from parenting that was smothering when it was not openly abusive. “Here we are, a tribe of wounded narcissists, begging to be heard,” he observes. Yet it is hard to comprehend the nicknames his parents bestowed upon their asthma-afflicted child: “Snotty,” “Weakling” and, of course, “Little Failure.”
The new memoir might be appropriately titled “The Americanization of Igor Shteyngart.” He offers a kind of postmodern version of the Jewish immigrant saga, full of black humor, as, at 7, he struggles to lose his Russian accent and acquire a wardrobe of blue jeans and OP shirts, attending a Jewish day school where being a Russian immigrant makes him an outcast and object of relentless bullying. It is, however, his wit and his writing that finally gain him the admiration and friendship of his schoolmates. Eventually, he attends Oberlin College and then Hunter College, where he earned his MFA, and enters the ranks of the literati. Significantly, his father is quick to point out that Shteyngart ranks only 30th on a list of important New York writers he’d found on the Internet.
Such parental bruises are found throughout the pages of “Little Failure.” Among the many revelations in his brutally self-disclosing book, Shteyngart acknowledges his long course of psychoanalysis, which casts a curious light on the thoroughly Oedipal relationship between father and son in the Shteyngart family. On one occasion, Shteyngart’s father hands a homegrown cucumber to his son’s girlfriend (now his wife): “Here is something to remember me by,” he says. “I am big — my son is small.”
Yet the frictions between parents and son are more than a matter of his father’s anatomical one-upmanship. “My parents have not read my latest book, but they know the name of the blogger in Samara or Vologda or Astrakhan or Yaroslavl who says I will soon be forgotten,” he writes. Like Philip Roth, Shteyngart is warned by his father: “Just don’t write like a self-hating Jew.” The root of the father-son competition, as it turns out, is Shteyngart’s father’s own failed ambition to become an opera singer rather than a mechanical engineer: “I burn with a black envy toward you,” he says. “I should have been an artist as well.”
Shteyngart’s mother, too, engages in a Soviet version of tough love. Where his father routinely cuffed him across the neck, his mother was kinder and gentler: “I only really beat you up once, and I was so sad afterward,” she tells him. Still, when he graduates from college and is living on his own, she prepares “Kiev-style” chicken cutlets for his sustenance, but she charges him $1.40 in cash for each one. “ ‘When you have to pay for everything, you will know that life is hard,’ my mother says the night she sells me a stack of butter-stuffed poultry and a roll of Saran Wrap for twenty dollars even.”
Despite all this, “Little Failure” is, surprisingly, not a bitter indictment of his parents. Quite the contrary. Even as he reveals their shortcomings, Shteyngart describes his mother and father with compassion and charity, crediting them with good intentions and showing us the extenuating circumstances of their lives in Soviet Russia, where Hitler and Stalin were not merely bogeymen but real and present dangers. Indeed, the book ends on a scene of reunion and reminiscence in Russia so poignant that it brings tears to the reader’s eyes.
Shteyngart’s father once said of his own parents: “They loved me like devils.” When I remarked on this comment to Shteyngart during an interview for the Jewish Journal (see below), he was quick to reassure me that the Russian idiom means only that his grandparents loved their son a lot. But it’s also true that love can be both expressed and experienced with a kind of demonic fury. In that sense, too, Shteyngart clearly loves his mother and father like a devil. An established artist now, with a Korean-American wife and a newborn son named Johnny, he is prepared to be the kind of father that he wanted for himself.
My hope for his parents, and for Gary Shteyngart himself, is that they will read the interview that follows.
Jonathan Kirsch: As you disclose in “Little Failure,” you have already achieved a place in the literary firmament as measured on the Internet. When your mother tells you: “Sometimes I think I do not know you,” your response is: “I have written close to twelve hundred pages of fiction; even if the fictional parts were not entirely autobiographical, shouldn’t they have served as at least a partial explanation for who I am?” What do you expect the readers of your novels to find surprising in your memoir?
Gary Shteyngart: “Little Failure” is almost like a cooking lesson. You have the finished product; now I take you through the ingredients. You’re wondering how much paprika I used; I will show you just the right spicing. After you read the memoir, you can go back to the novels and read them on two levels. On one level, you can enjoy them — or, hopefully, enjoy them — or hate them, for what they are, and, on another level, you can see how they came into being.
JK: I found passing references to Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Proust, Nabokov, Saul Bellow, Raymond Carver and Aharon Appelfeld in your memoir, but I did not come away with a strong sense of who your literary role models might be, apart from your childhood favorite Selma Lagerlöf, whose “The Wonderful Adventures of Nils” inspired your first youthful effort, “Lenin and His Magical Goose.” Putting aside the science fiction that was your passion in adolescence and Orwell’s “1984,” who did you read in order to become a writer? Who do you read now?
GS: It begins with Nils, and then it goes to the Soviet edition of “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn” — or “Guckleberry” Finn, as the name is pronounced in Russia. The glory of [Mark] Twain is found in his use of the vernacular, but I read them in Russian with an introduction by some Soviet party hack decrying racism in Missouri. But I still fell in love with Twain. The second stage would be Chekhov and the Russian writers. The next stage would be the American-Jewish writers whose humor influenced me so much: Saul Bellow’s “Herzog” and “Henderson the Rain King,” Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint” and “Goodbye, Columbus,” and [Canadian-Jewish novelist] Mordecai Richler — “Barney’s Version,” I think, is his crowning achievement. And, currently, the whole immigrant gang: Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Diaz and my own mentor, Chang-rae Lee.”
JK: You acknowledge in “Little Failure” that fiction is susceptible to what you call “the MFA cliché” that would mark a novel as inferior. Do you regard creative writing programs as the ideal incubation chamber for the writing of fiction?
GS: The best incubation chamber was being sent to fight in the Spanish Civil War, but it is very hard to join a civil war these days. I have an MFA and teach in an MFA program. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle — we are now in the MFA era. Every writer in The New Yorker’s list of the top 20 writers under 40 has an MFA or has studied at the graduate level. It’s almost like something you have to have to enter the conversation. And it depends on the instructor. When I teach, I care about one thing above all — the original voice of the author. If you can convince me that only you can write what you’re writing, you’re home free. Hopefully, I like to think I am doing good by teaching in an MFA program.
JK: You tell about a TV interviewer who, when you tell him that you are from the Soviet Union, responds by asking: “What is that?” As you reprise the events and personages who figure so importantly in history in the pages of “Little Failure,” I wondered if your own under-40 readership will fully understand the historical memory that weighed so heavily on you as a child growing up in Russia?
GS: The problem goes back to a much greater question we can ask: Is the decline of the reading of serious fiction a partial response to the decline of the humanities and the liberal arts in education? There’s this gigantic bias against using the four years [of college] to learn something that may be helpful beyond earning money, and that affects a person’s knowledge base. I know I am limiting my audience by trotting out Brezhnev in almost every book, but American Jews seem to know better.
JK: You courageously disclose that you have undergone a course of psychoanalysis, which may explain why you chose in your book to focus on the more harrowing encounters between you and your father. How has psychoanalysis affected your work as a writer?
GS: There’s no bravery involved — everyone does it in New York. In fact, my analyst’s waiting room is often filled with anxious writers. But it was a boon to me in writing the memoir, which required what I call “publishing it in the air.” I’d see it above the couch like a rainbow, and I’d take out my iPhone during the session and type it down. Traditional Freudian analysts get upset at the intrusion of technology, but I thought it was important not to forget before I wrote it down.
JK: You write that your mother “looks half-Jewish, which, given the place and time, is too Jewish by half.” Later, you disclose that the half of her that is Jewish means that you are Jewish, too, according to Jewish law. And you describe how your mother tried to make a torte Napoleon that was kosher for Pesach by using matzah instead of pastry flour, but the incident takes place after your arrival in America. What was your level of Jewish observance in Russia?
GS: Zero. My father took it much more seriously than my mother. A lot of Soviet Jews were made much more Zionist or Jewish after the Six-Day War because they were impressed by the Israeli victory and because they began to feel much more anti-Semitism. They countered the anti-Semitism in several ways — by celebrating the Jewish holidays, by marching outside the synagogues and by emigrating.
JK: Like many of your readers, you and I have roughly the same background with the significant difference that my relations managed to leave Russia several decades before yours. Do you see any similarities between Jews in America who descended from subjects of the czar and Jews in America who descended from victims of Stalin? Any differences?
GS: The main similarity is the humor, the absurdist humor by which we have truly survived. Larry David, for example, is a very sophisticated kvetcher, and I take him seriously as an artist. This comes out of the Pale of Settlement and hundreds of years of being the punching bag of Europe. The suffering of the Soviet Jews was much more raw, and we emerged as very different animals. In many ways, there are as many differences between American Jews and Soviet Jews as there are between American Jews and Israelis.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His latest book, “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris,” was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award in biography and was selected as a book of the year by the Washington Post.