‘Little Failure’ Is Big Success by Ex-Right-Wing Soviet Jew Who Went to Oberlin, Therapy
Gary Shteyngart’s new memoir is a touching meditation on the origins, nature, and limits of humor
For Gary Shteyngart, a photograph of a church in his native city, seen in a book at the Strand, is his petite madeleine—with the small difference that instead of a rush of childhood reminiscences it brings on a panic attack. To a great extent, Shteyngart’s memoir Little Failure, dedicated to the writer’s therapist, is driven by the psychoanalytical question of why a picture of a church commemorating the Battle of the Chesme in 1770 in St. Petersburg: Architecture of the Tsars would have caused that initial meltdown nearly two decades ago. The puzzle is resolved in the book’s final pages when Shteyngart returns, with his parents, to the scene of the initial childhood trauma not far from where his family lived before immigrating to the United States in the late 1970s. After three novels full of hijinks and antics by a series of male protagonists, all of them resembling different aspects of Shteyngart himself, Little Failure takes a new turn by focusing on the writer directly. It is written in an honest prose through which one laughs, while occasionally holding back tears.
Literary autobiographies by Russian exiles are a nostalgic business. “I’ve returned to St. Petersburg to be carried away by a Nabokovian torrent of memory for a country that no longer exists,” begins one of Shteyngart’s sentences. This, of course, isn’t the kind of sentence that Vladimir Nabokov would have written himself, as he mourned the loss of his childhood city and country while making clear that returning was not an option. But Nabokov’s aristocratic Petersburg is not Shteyngart’s Leningrad as the writer tells us of a childhood spent with parents who grew up and lost many of their relatives during WWII, in a grim housing project flanking a gargantuan statue of Lenin, and with asthma treated not with steroidal inhalers but with bruise-inflicting suction cups. And so the sentence begun with what could be initially mistaken for Nabokovian sappiness ends by describing the narrator as “desperate to find out if the metro still has the comforting smell of rubber, electricity, and unwashed humanity”—true memories that aren’t that pretty.
If a memoir by a writer is to include an early manifestation of the future author’s genius, Shteyngart’s is set in that gray bloc of Soviet apartments where, with the encouragement of his grandmother, he wrote his first novel at the age of 5. Inspired by both Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf’s children’s book The Wonderful Adventures of Nils about a boy’s travels with a flock of wild geese, and the slogans touting Soviet achievements around the city, the emergent novel, Lenin and His Magical Goose, turned Lenin into a superhero who set out to conquer Finland by bombarding it with cheese. Thus, Shteyngart’s first experiment in satirical writing.
Shteyngart established satire as his strong suit in his first three novels (The Russian Debutante’s Handbook in 2002, Absurdistan in 2006, and Super Sad True Love Story in 2010), but Little Failure is a touching meditation on the origins, nature—and, surprisingly, the limits—of this humor. Teased by his fellow classmates at the Solomon Schechter School of Queens, who called him a “stinky Russian bear,” little immigrant Gary takes a cue from a substitute English teacher who, on one occasion, “laughed at herself and escaped unscathed.” Gary manages to move the goalpost of what is acceptably funny from the fact of his Russianness to his ability to tell stories. Thus, he goes from being an “unclubbable fruitcake” to a “tolerated eccentric.” From this recalibration emerges “The Gnorrah,” his parody of the Torah circulated widely at the school, satirizing the school’s “religious experience, the rote memorization of texts, the aggressive shouting of blessings and counterblessings before and after lunch, the ornery rabbi who claims the Jews brought on the Holocaust by their overconsumption of delicious pork products.” Naturally, the kids eat it up.
During the pot-filled college years at Oberlin, Shteyngart discovers that, unlike in Hebrew school, being from Russia and speaking in class “as an immigrant from a developing country crushed by American imperialism” (just as speaking as a member of any other real or imagined minority) can be a source of empowerment. He writes that among the offspring of wealthy liberal elite, “the things I say in class are no longer meant to be funny or satiric or ironic; they’re meant to celebrate my own importance, forged in the crucible of our collective importance.” Yet, while discussing “the travails of that mysterious but glorious working class we’ve heard so much about” with a group of classmates “with its combined $1,642,800 of annual tuition and fees,” Shteyngart finds himself forgetting about his grandpa Isaac, “an honest-to-goodness common worker” in the Soviet Union—and the fact that he, by extension, is a common worker’s grandson.
Yet, this laughter has a price, we learn in Little Failure. “On so many occasions in my novels I have approached a certain truth only to turn away from it, only to point my finger and laugh at it and then scurry back to safety,” writes Shteyngart near the conclusion of his memoir. The safety is humor itself, humor learned in Hebrew school to be “the resort of the besieged Jew, especially when he is placed among his own kind.” The antics of Vladimir Girshkin and Misha Vainberg in Shteyngart’s first two novels had already given way to Lenny Abramov’s profound sadness in his last. In the process of writing Little Failure, Shteyngart continues, “I promised myself I would not point the finger. My laughter would be intermittent. There would be no safety.”
And, intermittently, Shteyngart does laugh—nervously, when his father gives his girlfriend a cucumber from his vegetable garden saying, “I am big. My son is small”; snootily, inside a tastelessly posh restaurant in Manhattan at his mother and other Russian women “in their piquant suburban outfits, so much flesh on a freezing December night”; with a touch of sadness, at his beloved grandmother who, informed by a Soviet news program of the shortage of soap in America while emigrating from Leningrad in 1979, “has flown in three kilograms” of the stuff; and on many other occasions.
At the start of the book, Shteyngart assures us that, unless he says otherwise, he is “completely in love with everyone around [him] for the rest of this book.” Because of that, his laughter isn’t vicious, and his newly professed love for everyone presents him with an opportunity to examine the laughter of yore. He recounts and justifies the distancing from his parents that took place on the eve of the publication of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. In retrospect, however, he speculates:
I’ve published a book that mocks, gently, but sometimes not so gently, a set of parents that are not entirely dissimilar from my own. What does it feel like to pick up a book, or an article in a Jewish newspaper, and not fully understand the subtlety, the irony, the satire of the world depicted therein? What does it feel like to be unable to respond in the language with which that mockery is issued?
Here Shteyngart is able not only to empathize with his parents who are so different from him but also to sympathize with them by hinting at unexpected similarities. Like little Gary in Hebrew school speaking Russian to himself away from kids whose language he couldn’t fully understand, like Gary whose “Oh, hi there” would sound like “Okhy Hyzer, possibly the name of a Turkish politician” before he lost his Russian accent at age 14, his parents’ linguistic aptitude was similarly insufficient to understand the nuances of humor. Here, Shteyngart is cognizant of the potentially destructive nature of the laughter he has produced in a language he has mastered far better than his parents.
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