‘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
And yet, in recognizing the consequences of his humor comes a crucial distinction. Having learned the art of understanding while in analysis, Shteyngart learns to separate the humor that comes from working through pain from the humor that conceals it. Hearing his parents casually mock each other’s shortcomings, he comments: “That’s how they talk. This is how I never learned to talk. Not in Russian. Not in English. The supposedly funny banter with a twist of the knife. That’s what I have my novels for.”
Having exchanged Soviet slogans for the realization that he was raised on a lie, Shteyngart experienced later childhood years as an encounter with American Republicanism. There is Shteyngart’s father, arguing for Reagan over Carter in his “adventurous Republican English” with two Jewish neighbors in Queens. Then, there are Gary’s parents bickering as they divvy up the imaginary $10 million bonanza from the infamous Publishers Clearing House, his mother complaining that only $5 million netto could be obtained because “those welfare queens will get our other five million, like President Reagan said.” Then there is little Gary, in the attic, closing his eyes and feeling “the power of ownership” of a newly purchased apartment, praying “over the intense Republicanism that is the birthright of every Soviet Jew in the time of Reagan.” And then there is Gary in middle school subscribing to National Review—which arrives with complimentary posters from the NRA.
From his parents’ conservatism and his mother’s praying, palms clasped Catholic-style, to “the God of Good Health and Steady Raises,” emerges the idea of what constitutes success in the new country. Gary heads to Stuyvesant High School shortly after seeing Oliver Stone’s Wall Street with his parents, “and the lessons were clear. Don’t trust outsiders. Don’t get caught. Focus on wealth creation.” After his clowning in middle school, Gary begins high school “a serious, hardworking Republican boy bound for Harvard, Yale, or in the worst scenario, Princeton.” When Gary deceives his mother on his first day at Stuyvesant and follows his new black friend to Central Park instead of heading home to do homework, he tells his parents that he had been studying with a different—invented—friend who “will steadfastly see me through Wharton, and with luck we will crunch numbers at the same brokerage house in time for Dan Quayle’s first presidential term in 1996.” By 1996, of course, Shteyngart would graduate from Oberlin, but his summa cum laude wouldn’t stop his mother from calling him Failurchka, in a combination of English and Russian—or, Little Failure.
Still in high school, with a middling GPA and a sense of having failed his parents, comes the onset of Gary’s disappointment with Republicanism. He works at George H.W. Bush’s New York election headquarters in 1988, relying on his own story and on the way the story of Soviet Jews has played itself out in the conservative imagination as he canvasses potential voters: “I clutch the receiver with shaking hands, whispering to suburban housewives about the twin evils of taxes and Soviets. ‘Let me tell you, Mrs. Sacciatelli, I grew up in the USSR, and you just cannot trust these people.’ ” At the election-night party, Gary expects an “evening of arrogant clowning, of being pressed to the bosom of my fellow conservatives while dancing a Protestant hora over the grave of American liberalism.” Most of all, he expects to get laid—and as two girls approach, his expectations rise, only to be deflated as he realizes that, in his cheap polyester suit, he’s been mistaken for a waiter.
A child of immigrants, Shteyngart is a stranger at the Republicans’ party. When he realizes that his foreignness is one with the foreignness of many of his classmates, he feels his casual racism—typical of many Russian Jews—begin to ebb. In retrospect, Shteyngart realizes that his immigrant parents’ extreme conservatism is a product of their own fear of failure and weakness, their desire to be more accepted in their new environment. Noticing that his father has been watching a fear-mongering right-wing film about immigration, he speculates what the right-wing producers would have thought of this “Social Security-collecting Osama bin Laden-looking Semite sitting on a couch in an ethnic Queens neighborhood, his dining room stinking of immigrant fish, his house flanked by a Korean family on one side, an Indian clan on another.” When his parents admonish him that he writes like a “self-hating Jew,” or warn him that a vaccination would give him autism, Shteyngart learns not to argue back but to reflect: “How can I not hear the pain in that? His pain? Her pain? How can I not publicize that pain?”
At the end of each of his first three novels, Shteyngart left his protagonists in unexpected places, their travels in imaginary cityscapes seemingly finished and their inner conflicts seemingly resolved. Yet, as Vladimir Girshkin capped off his wild adventures in Prava, the East European “Paris of the 1990s,” by following his American girlfriend to a very real Ohio, the readers were left wondering whether he could really have settled there. Misha Vainberg, escaping the tumult of Absurdistan for the Bronx and the woman of his dreams did so, ominously, on September 10, 2001; though Misha didn’t know the significance of the date in the novel’s final pages, Shteyngart left us craving a subsequent installment that would deal with the landscape of a post-9/11 America. In that novel, in which the dystopia was shockingly familiar, Lenny Abramov survived the USA’s collapse and escaped to Italy—his super sad true love story over and his eulogy for “a country that had destructed so suddenly, spectacularly, irreversibly” perceptive of the relentless march of the security state in the early 21st-century America.
Gary Shteyngart, the character of Little Failure who appears to be the culmination and the resolution of Girshkin, Vainberg, and Abramov, ends the book with his therapy successful and with the source of his childhood trauma uncovered. He finds his peace—peace with managed distance from his parents, peace with his parents’ childhood traumas resulting from their own Soviet history, peace with his famous novels, in which the hilarious yet touchingly sad antics of his protagonists echoed his own struggles. But in finding this peace, Shteyngart may no longer continue to be a fitting object of his own satire: At the book’s conclusion, one may be struck by an uncanny feeling that the Shteyngart we know may be no more. And so, with the publication of Little Failure—the first openly professed memoir of its kind, coming after a decade of thinly and not so thinly veiled autobiographies by Shteyngart and other highly successful Soviet-born North American Jewish writers—we might be in store for new ways of telling the Russian Jewish story that reach beyond the writer’s own self.
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