Review: Gary Shteyngart's memoir funny, sad, if not quite free
Editor's Note: Gary Shteyngart will visit Charleston for two events, a "Not By the Book Talk" and signing at the Charleston Library Society, 164 King St., noon Friday (tickets can be purchased at http://shteyngart.bpt.me), and a free conversation sponsored by the College of Charleston, 2:30-4 p.m. Friday at Wells Fargo Auditorium, 5 Liberty St.
BY LARRY KRASNOFF
Special to The Post and Courier
LITTLE FAILURE: A Memoir. By Gary Shteyngart. Random House. 368 pages. $27.
In a recent PBS documentary, Philip Roth described preparing his parents for the publication of "Portnoy's Complaint." He brought them to Manhattan from his childhood home in Newark, took them to lunch, and explained that they would soon be deluged with attention from people assuming they were the overbearing parents portrayed in the novel. Afterwards he sent them on a cruise to escape the unwanted publicity. Eventually Roth learned that his father had filled one of his suitcases with copies of the book, and spent the cruise happily autographing them for other passengers.
In his new memoir, Gary Shteyngart describes bringing his own parents to Manhattan from his childhood home in Queens, after having published three commercially and critically successful comic novels. They go to the revolving restaurant on top of the Marriott in Times Square; this dinner, Shteyngart explains, is his mother's "dream" birthday present - "plus a $200 gift certificate to T.J. Maxx." At the meal, his mother announces that she has just read that her son's books will soon be forgotten.
Jewish-American literature is often described as immigrant literature, but it is important to understand that its most famous authors - Bellow, Malamud, and Roth - were not immigrants. Their parents were. That difference was the source of their energy and, especially in Roth's case, comedy. Having worked and saved and worried to give their Jewish children the chance to succeed in a new and foreign world, the parents were woefully unprepared for the freedom and happiness that America actually had to offer. Roth mocked them mercilessly for it, but what he was mocking was always the product of their love. It is no surprise that they only loved him in return.
Gary Shteyngart (born Igor, in Brezhnev's Leningrad, in 1972) is an immigrant, though. He came here in 1979, his family among the Soviet Jews allowed to emigrate under a pact negotiated by President Jimmy Carter in exchange for American grain. He had what looks like a conventional New York Jewish education - a Solomon Schecter day school, Stuyvesant High, then on to Oberlin College - but the bulk of this memoir is devoted to explaining how out of place he felt among comfortable, liberal Jews, two or more generations removed from the immigrant experience. The dominant emotion of the young Gary's life is fear: fear that his classmates will never like him, fear that he will never experience the freedom and happiness that America so obviously has to offer.
That difference is the source of the energy and comedy of Shteyngart's fiction. Vladimir Girshkin, the scheming yet hapless protagonist of the first and perhaps still funniest novel, "The Russian Debutante's Handbook," memorably describes himself as a "beta immigrant." As an American, Vladimir is hopelessly post-Soviet, and when he travels to the East, he is American enough to satirize just what is dysfunctional about the post-Soviet world he carries within himself.
Neither Vladimir's fictional nor Shteyngart's actual Russian parents could prepare their sons for the success they envisioned in America. (Gary was supposed to become a lawyer.) Shteyngart mocks them mercilessly for it, but what he is mocking is always the product of their bringing him here from the Soviet Union. It is no surprise that they only abuse him in return. "Little Failure" (failurchka) is his mother's own nickname for her only child, a Russian diminutive attached to a very American epithet. When Shteyngart's first novel is published, readers assume his parents are the ones portrayed in the book. Unlike Herman Roth, they sign no autographs. Instead they cut off contact with their son.
It was, Shteyngart explains, a great relief. In the end, this is a memoir of overcoming abuse, the story of how a hesitant, asthmatic boy stopped sabotaging himself with alcohol and pot, how he stopped using his parents' expectations against himself and turned them into fuel for comic fiction. Shteyngart finds self-discipline through psychoanalysis, that venerable New York Jewish institution that was already being mocked when Roth used it as the frame for Portnoy.
Shteyngart is hesitant to expound upon what is now an unfashionable practice; the parts of this book that describe his adult life, and especially his experience in therapy, are underwritten. But in this very emphasis on childhood, his debt to psychoanalysis is clear. What was it like to be a 7-year-old boy who came from Leningrad to Queens in 1979? The answer is very exactingly described in this memoir, and it is often hilarious.
But it is also sad. Post-Soviet Gary is a boy who cannot act without thinking first and last about how others will perceive him, how they will recognize him as too Russian to be American, and too American to be Russian. Post-psychoanalytic Gary is a man who has recognized that this is what it will always mean to be an immigrant. Except for his parents, the other people in this memoir are not quite real, because they are not immigrants, and exist only to humiliate or validate Gary.
Roth finally asked his father how his mother had reacted after their pre-Portnoy lunch, in the privacy of their ride home. She wept, came the answer: "He suffers from delusions of grandeur." It is a good joke, because we know that Roth's book was every bit as successful as he presumed it would be. That gave him the confidence to raise his middle finger to the criticisms of Portnoy, and eventually to produce works like "The Ghost Writer" and "Sabbath's Theater," some of the bravest and freest writing in recent American fiction.
For all his energy and wit, Shteyngart is yet to produce anything of quite that caliber. His parents will not be telling him that he suffers from delusions of smallness because, to them, his smallness is no delusion. He has proven them wrong many times over, but proving it to his readers is a very different thing from proving it to himself. The question for Shteyngart is whether he now has the confidence to write freely about how he sees the world, or whether he will always be writing about others perceiving him as post-Soviet. There is comedy and truth in that self-description, but not yet freedom, because you are not free if you cannot judge without worrying first and last about how others will judge you. The young Gary Shteyngart's life is funny, but it is also frightening. If you read this memoir, you will understand why.
Reviewer Larry Krasnoff is professor of philosophy and associate director of Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston.