Born loving Stalin, raised to revere Roth
The key to Gary Shteyngart’s best-selling novels can be found in the title of his second book: “Absurdistan.” His genius manifests in the making of imaginary people and places that are slightly cracked versions of the real world, and he brings a wry and ironic sense of humor to the parallel universe he creates in his fictional works, which also include “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook” and “Super Sad True Love Story.”
We meet a very different Shteyngart, however, in “Little Failure,” a rich and deeply affecting midlife memoir by a 41-year-old man whose childhood and adolescence would seem Dickensian if they were not also, at moments, laugh-out-loud funny.
Shteyngart was born in 1972 and raised in Leningrad by a highly educated Jewish couple whose lives were (and are) haunted by history. “In addition to the Millers and the Stone Horns, the other surnames to track in this family drama are Stalin and Hitler,” writes Shteyngart. “As I march my relatives onto the pages of this book, please remember that I am also marching them toward their graves and that they will most likely meet their ends in some of the worst ways imaginable.”
Then, too, little Igor Shteyngart — as he was known before the family reached America in 1979 — suffered not only from the shortcomings of Soviet medicine, which offered no treatment for his childhood asthma except the medieval practice of cupping, but also from parenting that was smothering when it was not openly abusive. “Here we are, a tribe of wounded narcissists, begging to be heard,” he observes. Yet it is hard to comprehend the nicknames his parents bestowed upon their asthma-afflicted child: “Snotty,” “Weakling” and, of course, “Little Failure.”
The new memoir might be appropriately titled “The Americanization of Igor Shteyngart.” He offers a kind of postmodern version of the Jewish immigrant saga, full of black humor, as, at 7, he struggles to lose his Russian accent and acquire a wardrobe of blue jeans and OP shirts, attending a Jewish day school where being a Russian immigrant makes him an outcast and object of relentless bullying. It is, however, his wit and his writing that finally gain him the admiration and friendship of his schoolmates. Eventually, he attends Oberlin College and then Hunter College, where he earned his MFA, and enters the ranks of the literati. Significantly, his father is quick to point out that Shteyngart ranks only 30th on a list of important New York writers he’d found on the Internet.
Such parental bruises are found throughout the pages of “Little Failure.” Among the many revelations in his brutally self-disclosing book, Shteyngart acknowledges his long course of psychoanalysis, which casts a curious light on the thoroughly Oedipal relationship between father and son in the Shteyngart family. On one occasion, Shteyngart’s father hands a homegrown cucumber to his son’s girlfriend (now his wife): “Here is something to remember me by,” he says. “I am big — my son is small.”
Yet the frictions between parents and son are more than a matter of his father’s anatomical one-upmanship. “My parents have not read my latest book, but they know the name of the blogger in Samara or Vologda or Astrakhan or Yaroslavl who says I will soon be forgotten,” he writes. Like Philip Roth, Shteyngart is warned by his father: “Just don’t write like a self-hating Jew.” The root of the father-son competition, as it turns out, is Shteyngart’s father’s own failed ambition to become an opera singer rather than a mechanical engineer: “I burn with a black envy toward you,” he says. “I should have been an artist as well.”