From Russia, with Anxiety
by Lynne Sharon Schwartz
Little Failure: A memoir
2014, pp. 368, $27
The title, Little Failure, is of course ironic. By now, after Gary Shteyngart’s three best-selling comic novels, many travel articles and dozens of interviews—in which he rarely gives a straight answer—his Russian Jewish immigrant parents must have forgiven him for not becoming the lawyer or accountant they envisioned. Or have they? Failurch-ka was his mother’s fusion epithet for him even after he graduated summa cum laude from Oberlin College, which Shteyngart calls “an academy for shy people in Ohio.” (How he managed to win honors is a mystery, since he reports having spent most of his four years there drunk and stoned.) An even earlier family nickname was Snotty: Frequent asthma attacks were only one of the childhood agonies he depicts vividly and hilariously in his new memoir, a hilarity that will come as no surprise to his readers.
Shteyngart’s parents, along with six-year-old Igor—his name before it was Americanized and anagrammed, more or less—left the Soviet Union in 1979 as part of a grain bargain, according to the author, made with then-President Jimmy Carter: “The USSR will allow many of its Jews to leave. Russia gets the grain it needs to run; America gets the Jews it needs to run; all in all an excellent trade deal.” Although in spirit, the parents don ’t quite leave Russia, they settle first in an apartment in Kew Gardens, Queens, and soon, as they do better financially, in a house in Little Neck. Their blunt and pragmatic child-rearing techniques would hardly pass muster with the latest American fads: “He who doesn’t hit, doesn’t love. Or… he hits, therefore he loves…. If you want to make someone love you, a child, say, you should hit him well.”
Nor would their decision to have young Gary circumcised, in an attempt to revi-talize their dormant Judaism. The adult Gary is forbearing in retrospect, despite the pain and humiliation he endured: “It is hard to question the choices my parents made during the long and strange days of immigration, and I think they mostly did all right given the circumstances…” Yet when he recalls that particular decision he can only “ask the pertinent question, What the fuck?”
As a boy, Gary is close to his parents and craves their love. His father is his best friend. One of the most touching passages in Little Failure is the recollection of the two of them playing hide and seek in Leningrad’s Moscow Square, in the shadow of an enormous statue of Lenin and near the Chesme Church. As an adult, seeing a photo of that church while browsing in a bookstore, Shteyngart suffers a panic attack; not until 300 pages later, when the family visits Russia, will we—and he—find out its source and connection to those blithe hide and seek games.
His parents are a quarrelsome couple, loud and fierce, and Gary’s dread through-out his childhood is the threatened razvod, the divorce that never takes place. Indeed, the parents appear to reconcile after he leaves for Oberlin, making him wonder whether “they were always better off without me. I was never a part of the family romance. I was only an impediment to it.”
Shteyngart’s energetic memoir follows the arc of most immigrant stories. The newcomer arrives, bewildered and apprehensive, burdened with baggage from home. Soon he acquires new baggage, in the style of the new land, until there comes a point when he can no longer carry it all. He must leave some behind or else find a more accommodating container in which new and old can mingle. For Shteyngart, that container is his novels, with their antic blend of Russian and American characters, oligarchs coming to grief and young American immigrants falling in love. He calls his first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (which he refers to in interviews as The Russian Debutante’s Handjob), “a catalog of the styles and mores of a particular era as recorded by an outsider fast becoming an insider.”
Each of his previous books—the others are Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story—is marked by outrageous, irreverent, wild humor, a humor that, however dazzling, feels desperate and compulsive at times. And desperate it was in the eight years Shteyngart spent as an outcast in the Solomon Schechter School of Queens (SSSQ), a Jewish institution that in his unsparing portrayal sounds like hell.
To survive at SSSQ, where he was brutally mocked and knocked around by his schoolmates for his poor English and Soviet origins, plus his general oddness, he became the class clown, humor, as he puts it, “being the last resort of the besieged Jew, especially when he is placed among his own kind.” He also gained marginal acceptance by reading aloud installments of his science fiction novel-in-progress, influenced by his father’s ongoing space opera, The Planet of the Yids, as well as by Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. He is still enamored of his juvenilia. The passages quoting his boyhood fiction and computer game innovations are the only parts of this captivating tale that risk tedium. Thankfully, they’re brief.
When he was 15, he recalls, “my father stops hitting me,” and apologizes for that final blow: “What I want to say is, …Don’t you love me anymore?… Without his hands upon me, the family romance is over. Just like my asthma is over. Now I am supposed to be the man. To learn to hit and earn and make others fear me.”
Like other contemporary memoirs, Little Failure travels from disorder and early sorrow to, if not happiness, a tenuous stability and acceptance of one’s lot and opportunities. There are the obligatory accounts of family history: moving and grievous stories of grandparents, great-aunts and uncles, some killed on the battlefield, one a suicide, all victims in one way or another of the disastrous Soviet regime. And all of it still living in the narrator: “The past is not simply redeemable for a better future. Every moment I have ever experienced as a child is as important as every moment I am experiencing now, or will experience ever.”
After rereading his novels and discovering how often he “approached a certain truth only to turn away from it, only to… laugh at it and then scurry back to safety,” he promises himself that in this memoir, “The laughter would be intermittent. There would be no safety.” And he succeeds valiantly in living up to the second part of this atypically sober vow. There is no safety in his narrative. He never hides from the face in the mirror; he even offers that face in a number of photos showing himself and his family from youth on up.
Ultimately he is saved from a morass of ambivalence by psychoanalysis and by an older friend, a TV writer he calls John, who provides encouragement, advice, kindness and, perhaps most important, money. The protégé’s response is to exploit and abuse his benefactor’s goodwill, leading John to announce, in a film he’s making about Shteyngart, “I’ve never ceased to be amazed by Gary’s intolerance, mean-spiritedness and selfishness.”
It is only in the section about John that the author’s remarkable rigor of vision blurs. John is presented as too saintly to be believed. Is it the prospect of a successful film that makes him so generous? His faith in Shteyngart’s talent must have been prodigious to withstand the assaults of frantic behavior.
As far as the vow to keep the laughter intermittent, that is only partly achieved by this Sacha Baron Cohen of literature. Like many natural comics, Shteyngart can’t resist his own wit. It erupts everywhere, like bubbles from a warm seltzer bottle. The better part of valor for the reader is to yield to the obsessive humor. Why even try to resist the memory of his mother charging him 20 dollars for a care package (including the Saran Wrap) of chicken Kiev cutlets? Or his parents’ short-lived joy at receiving a check for one million dollars from the Publishers Clearing House addressed to “S. Shitgart”? Or the teenaged and briefly Republican Gary (all Russian immigrants are Republicans, he tells us) attending a George H.W. Bush victory party for volunteers, hoping to meet girls, and being mistaken for a waiter?
The book ends with Shteyngart at about 40 and married (although we learn next to nothing about this event), visiting St. Petersburg with his parents. It is a trip laden with intimate history and revelations that illuminate all that has gone before, and it pierces the heart. Last of all is the Mourner’s Kaddish, recited in a sunny Russian cemetery: Shteyngart dutifully reads the Hebrew words that are “gibberish” to the three of them. The scene is a potent mixture of the tenderness and drollery that have informed the whole story, whose final word, in four languages, is “Amen.”
Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s most recent novel is Two-Part Inventions. Her essay collection, This Is Where We Came In, will be published in March.