Those like me who read with delight Gary Shteyngart’s 2002 debut novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, could safely assume the book had biographical and familial roots. Now we see how deep those roots are in Shteyngart’s pre-midlife memoir, Little Failure (Random House, $27). The hero of Handbook was a neurotic Russian Jewish immigrant half-trying to reconnect with his half-forgotten native culture. The author of Little Failure is a neurotic Russian Jewish immigrant who shares the same ambivalence about the Soviet-era homeland that shaped his family.
Why, in his late 20s, is the unpublished writer such a truculent, nervous wreck, prone to binge drinking and panic attacks? A dozen years later, that’s the question the now-successful author assigns himself in Little Failure, which is as much a recovery tale as a career assessment. (Since Handbook, he’s written the novels Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story and contributed often to GQ and The New Yorker.)
Memoirs are necessarily retrospective, burrowing into the past. Shteyngart does that, and he finally returns to St. Petersburg—remembered as Leningrad when he left as a child—with his parents. Still, as befits a guy who’s active on Facebook and Twitter, who’s written about wearing Google Glasses, who’s created a hilarious YouTube video for the book (starring James Franco, Rashida Jones, and other boldface names), Little Failure is forward-looking and optimistic, as all immigrants have to be. That it’s so funny is an additional bonus.
“Grain Jews” are what Shteyngart calls his family and other refugees allowed to leave the U.S.S.R. in exchange for the U.S. offer of food aid from our mighty silo surpluses. (President Carter, an ex-farmer, was looking after his fellow farmers.) Before then, however, little Gary had no desire to leave Russia. He loved Soviet jets, broken toys, and space heroes; he relished the tales of World War II, yet was too young to understand how much of his family perished then (and were still pariahs in the U.S.S.R.). Being Jewish—or worse, American, “the enemy”—would interfere with all that, would be a betrayal. An only child, Shteyngart was sheltered from that knowledge by his parents, who refused to tell him where a journey from Vienna to Rome would ultimately lead. (He was 7 when they arrived in the U.S. in 1979.)
Unlike native-born chroniclers of the Jewish-American experience (Woody Allen, Philip Roth, etc.), young Shteyngart can’t simply fall back on the inherited Yiddish shtick of Hester Street or The Goldbergs. His mind instead leaps forward, to science fiction and the forbidden trash of ’80s TV and movies (sometimes described in rather more detail than needed). His challenge isn’t to become less Jewish, it’s to become more American, and also to lose that debilitating accent. In one memorable episode, as a teen, he abandons a family vacation to return home to gorge on Doritos and 240 hours of TV. Writing decades later, he’s proud of it, as he should be: One has to betray one’s family to create oneself.
During that fraught process, the author loses not just his nationality but his name: Gary is the Americanized handle his parents derived from Igor, to ease the introductions on Queens playgrounds. He also endures a succession of nicknames: Snotty and Failurchka (in childhood), Gary Gnu (when new to America), Scary Gary (during his hard-partying Oberlin years). In Shteyngart’s basically chronological account, young Gary discovers the value of storytelling, how humor can rescue him from the untouchable caste at Hebrew school. Later he embraces Ayn Rand and George H.W. Bush (the politics of his parents) before flipping to carefree stoner mode in high school.
“On most days, I have my head so far up my family’s ass I can taste yesterday’s borscht,” Shteyngart writes of the smothering closeness of family, made all the more acute by his being an only child. (“A tribe of wounded narcissists,” he calls his clan.) His parents often quarrel, and he worries they’ll divorce. Though the term is never used, there’s a classic inferiority complex at work on this young man, who in high school is pointedly told, “You try too hard.” Later, in an acting class led by Louise Lasser (one of Woody Allen’s exes), she berates him, “You’re fake and manipulative.” From such lacerations is laughter born, or a thousand sessions on the shrink’s couch, or both.
Shteyngart gets us up to the publication of Handbook (and his intermittent sobriety), but not much further. That he’s now married outside the faith and is a new father is omitted—perhaps such material is being saved for a future memoir. The truth is that he might have waited longer to publish Little Failure, which feels short on life experience, however entertainingly written.
Why now? Why cover only the struggle up to his first success and not beyond? Though Shteyngart doesn’t say it, the book is very much a gift to his parents, who have far outlived the old Soviet actuarial tables, he notes. “Just don’t write like a self-hating Jew,” says his father, an engineer who had to learn English in his 30s, in a rare bit of career advice to his son. Certainly there’s no self-hatred in Little Failure, though plenty of self-mockery. No amount of bungling, deprivation, and misunderstanding can overcome the good-humor of this buoyant striver’s account.
TOWN HALL 1119 Eighth Ave., 652-4255, townhallseattle.org. $30 (admits two, includes book). 7:30 p.m., Mon., Jan. 13.