‘Little Failure’ Is Big Success by Ex-Right-Wing Soviet Jew Who Went to Oberlin, Therapy
Gary Shteyngart’s new memoir is a touching meditation on the origins, nature, and limits of humor
For Gary Shteyngart, a photograph of a church in his native city, seen in a book at the Strand, is his petite madeleine—with the small difference that instead of a rush of childhood reminiscences it brings on a panic attack. To a great extent, Shteyngart’s memoir Little Failure, dedicated to the writer’s therapist, is driven by the psychoanalytical question of why a picture of a church commemorating the Battle of the Chesme in 1770 in St. Petersburg: Architecture of the Tsars would have caused that initial meltdown nearly two decades ago. The puzzle is resolved in the book’s final pages when Shteyngart returns, with his parents, to the scene of the initial childhood trauma not far from where his family lived before immigrating to the United States in the late 1970s. After three novels full of hijinks and antics by a series of male protagonists, all of them resembling different aspects of Shteyngart himself, Little Failure takes a new turn by focusing on the writer directly. It is written in an honest prose through which one laughs, while occasionally holding back tears.
Literary autobiographies by Russian exiles are a nostalgic business. “I’ve returned to St. Petersburg to be carried away by a Nabokovian torrent of memory for a country that no longer exists,” begins one of Shteyngart’s sentences. This, of course, isn’t the kind of sentence that Vladimir Nabokov would have written himself, as he mourned the loss of his childhood city and country while making clear that returning was not an option. But Nabokov’s aristocratic Petersburg is not Shteyngart’s Leningrad as the writer tells us of a childhood spent with parents who grew up and lost many of their relatives during WWII, in a grim housing project flanking a gargantuan statue of Lenin, and with asthma treated not with steroidal inhalers but with bruise-inflicting suction cups. And so the sentence begun with what could be initially mistaken for Nabokovian sappiness ends by describing the narrator as “desperate to find out if the metro still has the comforting smell of rubber, electricity, and unwashed humanity”—true memories that aren’t that pretty.
If a memoir by a writer is to include an early manifestation of the future author’s genius, Shteyngart’s is set in that gray bloc of Soviet apartments where, with the encouragement of his grandmother, he wrote his first novel at the age of 5. Inspired by both Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf’s children’s book The Wonderful Adventures of Nils about a boy’s travels with a flock of wild geese, and the slogans touting Soviet achievements around the city, the emergent novel, Lenin and His Magical Goose, turned Lenin into a superhero who set out to conquer Finland by bombarding it with cheese. Thus, Shteyngart’s first experiment in satirical writing.
Shteyngart established satire as his strong suit in his first three novels (The Russian Debutante’s Handbook in 2002, Absurdistan in 2006, and Super Sad True Love Story in 2010), but Little Failure is a touching meditation on the origins, nature—and, surprisingly, the limits—of this humor. Teased by his fellow classmates at the Solomon Schechter School of Queens, who called him a “stinky Russian bear,” little immigrant Gary takes a cue from a substitute English teacher who, on one occasion, “laughed at herself and escaped unscathed.” Gary manages to move the goalpost of what is acceptably funny from the fact of his Russianness to his ability to tell stories. Thus, he goes from being an “unclubbable fruitcake” to a “tolerated eccentric.” From this recalibration emerges “The Gnorrah,” his parody of the Torah circulated widely at the school, satirizing the school’s “religious experience, the rote memorization of texts, the aggressive shouting of blessings and counterblessings before and after lunch, the ornery rabbi who claims the Jews brought on the Holocaust by their overconsumption of delicious pork products.” Naturally, the kids eat it up.
During the pot-filled college years at Oberlin, Shteyngart discovers that, unlike in Hebrew school, being from Russia and speaking in class “as an immigrant from a developing country crushed by American imperialism” (just as speaking as a member of any other real or imagined minority) can be a source of empowerment. He writes that among the offspring of wealthy liberal elite, “the things I say in class are no longer meant to be funny or satiric or ironic; they’re meant to celebrate my own importance, forged in the crucible of our collective importance.” Yet, while discussing “the travails of that mysterious but glorious working class we’ve heard so much about” with a group of classmates “with its combined $1,642,800 of annual tuition and fees,” Shteyngart finds himself forgetting about his grandpa Isaac, “an honest-to-goodness common worker” in the Soviet Union—and the fact that he, by extension, is a common worker’s grandson.
Yet, this laughter has a price, we learn in Little Failure. “On so many occasions in my novels I have approached a certain truth only to turn away from it, only to point my finger and laugh at it and then scurry back to safety,” writes Shteyngart near the conclusion of his memoir. The safety is humor itself, humor learned in Hebrew school to be “the resort of the besieged Jew, especially when he is placed among his own kind.” The antics of Vladimir Girshkin and Misha Vainberg in Shteyngart’s first two novels had already given way to Lenny Abramov’s profound sadness in his last. In the process of writing Little Failure, Shteyngart continues, “I promised myself I would not point the finger. My laughter would be intermittent. There would be no safety.”
And, intermittently, Shteyngart does laugh—nervously, when his father gives his girlfriend a cucumber from his vegetable garden saying, “I am big. My son is small”; snootily, inside a tastelessly posh restaurant in Manhattan at his mother and other Russian women “in their piquant suburban outfits, so much flesh on a freezing December night”; with a touch of sadness, at his beloved grandmother who, informed by a Soviet news program of the shortage of soap in America while emigrating from Leningrad in 1979, “has flown in three kilograms” of the stuff; and on many other occasions.
At the start of the book, Shteyngart assures us that, unless he says otherwise, he is “completely in love with everyone around [him] for the rest of this book.” Because of that, his laughter isn’t vicious, and his newly professed love for everyone presents him with an opportunity to examine the laughter of yore. He recounts and justifies the distancing from his parents that took place on the eve of the publication of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. In retrospect, however, he speculates:
I’ve published a book that mocks, gently, but sometimes not so gently, a set of parents that are not entirely dissimilar from my own. What does it feel like to pick up a book, or an article in a Jewish newspaper, and not fully understand the subtlety, the irony, the satire of the world depicted therein? What does it feel like to be unable to respond in the language with which that mockery is issued?
Here Shteyngart is able not only to empathize with his parents who are so different from him but also to sympathize with them by hinting at unexpected similarities. Like little Gary in Hebrew school speaking Russian to himself away from kids whose language he couldn’t fully understand, like Gary whose “Oh, hi there” would sound like “Okhy Hyzer, possibly the name of a Turkish politician” before he lost his Russian accent at age 14, his parents’ linguistic aptitude was similarly insufficient to understand the nuances of humor. Here, Shteyngart is cognizant of the potentially destructive nature of the laughter he has produced in a language he has mastered far better than his parents.
And yet, in recognizing the consequences of his humor comes a crucial distinction. Having learned the art of understanding while in analysis, Shteyngart learns to separate the humor that comes from working through pain from the humor that conceals it. Hearing his parents casually mock each other’s shortcomings, he comments: “That’s how they talk. This is how I never learned to talk. Not in Russian. Not in English. The supposedly funny banter with a twist of the knife. That’s what I have my novels for.”
Having exchanged Soviet slogans for the realization that he was raised on a lie, Shteyngart experienced later childhood years as an encounter with American Republicanism. There is Shteyngart’s father, arguing for Reagan over Carter in his “adventurous Republican English” with two Jewish neighbors in Queens. Then, there are Gary’s parents bickering as they divvy up the imaginary $10 million bonanza from the infamous Publishers Clearing House, his mother complaining that only $5 million netto could be obtained because “those welfare queens will get our other five million, like President Reagan said.” Then there is little Gary, in the attic, closing his eyes and feeling “the power of ownership” of a newly purchased apartment, praying “over the intense Republicanism that is the birthright of every Soviet Jew in the time of Reagan.” And then there is Gary in middle school subscribing to National Review—which arrives with complimentary posters from the NRA.
From his parents’ conservatism and his mother’s praying, palms clasped Catholic-style, to “the God of Good Health and Steady Raises,” emerges the idea of what constitutes success in the new country. Gary heads to Stuyvesant High School shortly after seeing Oliver Stone’s Wall Street with his parents, “and the lessons were clear. Don’t trust outsiders. Don’t get caught. Focus on wealth creation.” After his clowning in middle school, Gary begins high school “a serious, hardworking Republican boy bound for Harvard, Yale, or in the worst scenario, Princeton.” When Gary deceives his mother on his first day at Stuyvesant and follows his new black friend to Central Park instead of heading home to do homework, he tells his parents that he had been studying with a different—invented—friend who “will steadfastly see me through Wharton, and with luck we will crunch numbers at the same brokerage house in time for Dan Quayle’s first presidential term in 1996.” By 1996, of course, Shteyngart would graduate from Oberlin, but his summa cum laude wouldn’t stop his mother from calling him Failurchka, in a combination of English and Russian—or, Little Failure.
Still in high school, with a middling GPA and a sense of having failed his parents, comes the onset of Gary’s disappointment with Republicanism. He works at George H.W. Bush’s New York election headquarters in 1988, relying on his own story and on the way the story of Soviet Jews has played itself out in the conservative imagination as he canvasses potential voters: “I clutch the receiver with shaking hands, whispering to suburban housewives about the twin evils of taxes and Soviets. ‘Let me tell you, Mrs. Sacciatelli, I grew up in the USSR, and you just cannot trust these people.’ ” At the election-night party, Gary expects an “evening of arrogant clowning, of being pressed to the bosom of my fellow conservatives while dancing a Protestant hora over the grave of American liberalism.” Most of all, he expects to get laid—and as two girls approach, his expectations rise, only to be deflated as he realizes that, in his cheap polyester suit, he’s been mistaken for a waiter.
A child of immigrants, Shteyngart is a stranger at the Republicans’ party. When he realizes that his foreignness is one with the foreignness of many of his classmates, he feels his casual racism—typical of many Russian Jews—begin to ebb. In retrospect, Shteyngart realizes that his immigrant parents’ extreme conservatism is a product of their own fear of failure and weakness, their desire to be more accepted in their new environment. Noticing that his father has been watching a fear-mongering right-wing film about immigration, he speculates what the right-wing producers would have thought of this “Social Security-collecting Osama bin Laden-looking Semite sitting on a couch in an ethnic Queens neighborhood, his dining room stinking of immigrant fish, his house flanked by a Korean family on one side, an Indian clan on another.” When his parents admonish him that he writes like a “self-hating Jew,” or warn him that a vaccination would give him autism, Shteyngart learns not to argue back but to reflect: “How can I not hear the pain in that? His pain? Her pain? How can I not publicize that pain?”
At the end of each of his first three novels, Shteyngart left his protagonists in unexpected places, their travels in imaginary cityscapes seemingly finished and their inner conflicts seemingly resolved. Yet, as Vladimir Girshkin capped off his wild adventures in Prava, the East European “Paris of the 1990s,” by following his American girlfriend to a very real Ohio, the readers were left wondering whether he could really have settled there. Misha Vainberg, escaping the tumult of Absurdistan for the Bronx and the woman of his dreams did so, ominously, on September 10, 2001; though Misha didn’t know the significance of the date in the novel’s final pages, Shteyngart left us craving a subsequent installment that would deal with the landscape of a post-9/11 America. In that novel, in which the dystopia was shockingly familiar, Lenny Abramov survived the USA’s collapse and escaped to Italy—his super sad true love story over and his eulogy for “a country that had destructed so suddenly, spectacularly, irreversibly” perceptive of the relentless march of the security state in the early 21st-century America.
Gary Shteyngart, the character of Little Failure who appears to be the culmination and the resolution of Girshkin, Vainberg, and Abramov, ends the book with his therapy successful and with the source of his childhood trauma uncovered. He finds his peace—peace with managed distance from his parents, peace with his parents’ childhood traumas resulting from their own Soviet history, peace with his famous novels, in which the hilarious yet touchingly sad antics of his protagonists echoed his own struggles. But in finding this peace, Shteyngart may no longer continue to be a fitting object of his own satire: At the book’s conclusion, one may be struck by an uncanny feeling that the Shteyngart we know may be no more. And so, with the publication of Little Failure—the first openly professed memoir of its kind, coming after a decade of thinly and not so thinly veiled autobiographies by Shteyngart and other highly successful Soviet-born North American Jewish writers—we might be in store for new ways of telling the Russian Jewish story that reach beyond the writer’s own self.
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