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.”
Q & A With Russian Jewish Author Gary Shteyngart
Gary Shteyngart is a literary clown with a frown. His biting satire comments on a multi-cultural America in need of self-examination and reassessment.
“Absurdistan” (Random House, $24.95), his extraordinary new novel, takes us on a no-holds-barred journey from post-communist Russia to a mythical former Soviet Union state he calls Absurdistan, with stop-offs in between to his beloved New York City. This Jewish Russian American writer invites us along for the ride. I caught up with Shteyngart earlier this summer in his Manhattan apartment. Shteyngart emigrated from the former U.S.S.R. with his family when he was 7 years old and grew up in Little Neck, N.Y. He currently resides in Manhattan.
Jewish Journal: Would you call yourself a Jewish atheist?
Gary Shteyngart: I would call myself more of a Jewish agnostic. I’m one of these people who would be very happy if there was a god. It doesn’t matter if it is a Jewish God or a Sufi god, or a Christian god. Do I believe it? I’m more than slightly doubtful.
JJ: How important is being Jewish in your writing?
GS: I would say that I am a Russian Jew, or even a Soviet Jew. We are, in our sensibility, a very specific kind of Jew. We lived in a totalitarian system for 70 years where a lot was lost. Jewish humor interests me the most, and Soviet Jewish humor is Jewish humor taken to the max. It’s Jewish humor from the edge of the grave. What’s amazing to me is how Jewish humor has completely permeated this country. I have Korean friends in L.A. who are using Yiddishisms when trying to be funny. Jewish humor is everywhere.
JJ: How would you describe your work? I like the term Jewish burlesque.
GS: There are many different kinds of fiction. There is a kind of restrained style of fiction, and then there is the kind that likes to run around and bare its chest, have a drink and talk to girls. That’s the kind of fiction I write. But there’s room for both.
JJ: When did you know when you were a writer?
GS: Very early on, when I was in Hebrew school. I wrote a take-off of the Torah. I call it the Gnorah and Exodus was Sexodus. I think I wanted to rebel against the very rigid way we were being taught. Most of us needed an outlet, and I tried to supply it. I showed it around, and it was a way to make friends and meet girls. After that, I started to write stories.
JJ: How often did you get into trouble?
GS: I visited the principal quite a lot. In Russia I was interested in orthodoxy, communism, Lenin, Brezhnev or whoever was in charge. In America, I was interested in Reagan, and Bush One. I guess I always have been fascinated by authority and, at the same time, contemptuous of it. In Hebrew school, we were presented with the ultimate authority, God. I remember the Russian kids would sneak pork kielbasa into the school bathroom, and when the rabbi found us he would be incensed and say, “This is what made the Holocaust.
JJ: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about where we are going?
GS: As a Russian Jew, I am hard-wired to be pessimistic. Pessimism is what I do best. When I wrote my first book, “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook” , it was during the Clinton years, and I was very hopeful. The Soviet Union had fallen, and I thought Russia would rejoin the league of normal nations, but that hasn’t happened. I’m not sure which government, the Russian or ours, has let me down more. I guess there is a confluence of idiocy taking place in the world.
JJ: Where do you think we are headed?
GS: I think we are entering a post-literate age where people are reading less. Reading a novel requires a lot of time and further time for contemplation. I may be na?ve, but I connect literacy with democracy and being informed. I’m worried about our current state of affairs.
The irony is that people may be reading less, but they are writing more. Everyone wants to express themself, but there is a kind of lack of empathy for other people and cultures.
JJ: It’s sort of like one big blog.
GS: Exactly. And in the blog, the person writing is their own hero, or in the video game they want to be the center of action.
JJ: You describe Manhattan as being the world on an island.
GS: I’m worried that Manhattan’s quirky landscape is fading away. I’m worried that Manhattan is becoming an island of millionaires. Where I live on the Lower East Side, you still have a mixed neighborhood. We have the three H’s: the Hassids, the hipsters and the Hispanics. I spend half my day walking around the city. One of the greatest moments of my life was when I started Stuyvesant High School and discovered Manhattan. I looked beyond my Russian and Jewish roots and saw the enormity of life.
JJ: Have you spent any time in Los Angeles, and what is your reaction to it?
GS: I’m absolutely intrigued by Los Angeles and at one point considered living there. I don’t know how to drive a car to save my life and thought better of it. I think in many ways, for better or worse, L.A. is the model for what a future city might look like.
JJ: Final comments on “Absurdistan”?
GS: When I start writing, I write from the perspective of one character. Misha just came to me one day as this big, hulking guy. What I wanted to do with Misha is bring together America and Russia, these two hulking countries. What I love about Misha is his consumerism. He eats his way through the world. He eats sturgeon; he eats women; he eats political ideas; anything that comes along. I wanted to create someone that was much larger than myself and larger than any of the people I know. That was how “Absurdistan” came together.
JJ: What’s next?
GS: Next is a quieter book. I want to calm down a bit, because I feel like I am singing in the same register for too many times in a row. I want to do something more contemplative and more paced. One thing I’m considering is actually writing about other immigrant groups. The Korean American community in L.A. is fascinating, and I’ll probably spend some time in Los Angeles researching my next novel.
Harry Wiland, with partner Dale Bell, was co-executive producer/director/writer of “And Thou Shalt Honor,” a PBS special on elder care and family caregiving. He is currently co-producing and directing “Edens Lost and Found,” a PBS series on urban restoration that will air in early 2007. Wiland and Bell also wrote the companion book (Chelsea Green Publishing), available at