Gary Shteyngart may not have deliberated before making his recent dismissive statements about Canadian literature – for which he has since apologized – but when it comes to himself, he thinks long and hard. The great serendipity of his decades-long and intrusive self-examination, as chronicled in his memoir, Little Failure, is that it has proven cathartic as well as provided him with funny and substantive material for his fiction. The strengths of each of his three novels (The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Absurdistan, and Super Sad True Love Story) tend to derive from Shteyngart’s satirical treatment of the foibles of Russian Jewish immigrants in the U.S., people such as himself and his parents. Little Failure, which depicts the author’s life in both of his countries – “Coming to America after a childhood spent in the Soviet Union is equivalent to stumbling off a monochromatic cliff and landing in a pool of pure Technicolor” – finds him foraging for story-worthy gems encrusted in his past.
It takes Shteyngart a while to apprehend his heritage with anything other than shame. Arriving in the U.S. in 1979 (following an agreement between America and the Soviet Union to allow Jews to emigrate), he is not quite seven years old and breathless with excitement (as well as severe asthma). He also doesn’t speak English or Hebrew, and knows precious little about Judaism, serious handicaps at his Hebrew day school in Queens, New York City. But the enterprising and science-fiction-loving Gary (formerly Igor) Shteyngart of Leningrad (today St. Petersburg) devises an ingenious means to distract his classmates’ attention from their plans to crucify the “Red Gerbil” in their midst: storytelling.
Readers will root for the young Shteyngart-cum-Scheherazade, but may cringe (as he himself does today) at his self-effacement and his quest for redemption through association with power. “I am moving the children away from my Russianness and toward storytelling,” he observes. “And toward the ideology of strength and Republicanism, which is life around the Shteyngart dinner table.”
Later, Shteyngart drops his sycophantic reverence for right-wing America. But he continues to attempt to ingratiate himself with his peers. At Oberlin, a liberal arts college in Ohio, he obediently hews to his new environment’s leftist orientation. (By this time, he has also become a drunk and a pothead, though these traits go well beyond the etiquette required by his social circle.) Whatever the setting, the only constant through all these years of self-hatred, smarmy conformism and desperate yearning for more sensitivity and affection from his parents (all of which Shteyngart depicts with brutal honesty and an almost masochistic relish) remains a passion for writing. This makes for the most fascinating aspect of Little Failure.
At Oberlin, Shteyngart begins to realize that his personal history, all the way back to Leningrad, can enrich his fiction. He duly gets to work: “I’m flooding myself with memory, melancholy and true. Every memory I repressed … is coming back to me.” This lengthy journey of personal rediscovery later benefits from therapy, a creative writing program at Hunter College, and visits to Russia. A trip in 2011 proves particularly significant, as he convinces his parents to join him (his father hasn’t gone back since they left in 1979); the experience, worthy of a Sam Shepard play, marks the culmination of the author’s coming to terms with the fact that he cannot – and should never have tried to – escape his family or his origins.
Reading this memoir, most of whose chapters were first excerpted in magazines such as The New Yorker, The Threepenny Review, and GQ, one discovers that several elements of Shteyngart’s fiction come from the author’s own life, from a protagonist’s hybrid Russo-Jewish-American cultural identity (all three novels), to a mother dubbing her son “Failurchka,” an English-Russian neologism for “Little Failure” (The Russian Debutante’s Handbook), to a botched circumcision (Absurdistan), to a Russian Jewish immigrant father who espouses right-wing American and Zionist views (Super Sad True Love Story).
Indeed, with the publication of Little Failure, Shteyngart has reached a critical juncture in his career as a writer. He has penned three novels that draw heavily on his experiences as a Russian-American Jew, and followed them up with a memoir that delves yet deeper into the subject. To continue mining the same material would signal a disappointing lack of ambition on Shteyngart’s part. Of course, the author will continue to unspool the coil of fears and neuroses wound so tightly within him, and this is a healthy, if self-absorbed, undertaking. But here’s hoping that his next literary endeavour will strive to disentangle the no less complex web of identity ensnaring a completely different protagonist.
Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Beirut.