“The past is haunting us,” Gary Shteyngart writes in his new memoir, the ironically titled Little Failure (Random House, 368 pp., $27). I’ll take this as a cue to turn to Mr. Shteyngart’s first published words, the ones that introduced him to a reading public by way of his alter ego, Vladimir Girshkin, protagonist of his 2002 novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook: “The story of Vladimir Girshkin—part P.T. Barnum, part V.I. Lenin, the man who would conquer half of Europe (albeit the wrong half)—begins the way so many other things begin.”
The description of Vladimir suffices for Mr. Shteyngart as a writer. He is both barking ringleader and political agitator, capable of lambasting the world he lives in—and even himself for enjoying it—while still sensing a kind of gallows humor in being alive. His European readership is, well, not exactly half of the continent, but at 41, he is still kind of young. Russian Debutante’s Handbook starts as a bildungsroman about a childish hero and quickly becomes a transatlantic crime novel featuring Eastern European gangsters, arms trafficking and an imminent revolution that threatens to collapse the story altogether. In his most recent novel, Super Sad True Love Story (2010), set in the near future, Lenny Abramovic is a cultural outcast who loves printed books (“bound media artifacts”) and is clumsy with his äppärät, a nearly sentient iPhone that broadcasts a user’s credit rating, attractiveness, income and savings, which everyone is so hopelessly distracted by that either China or Venezuela (who knows, who cares?) manages a successful ground invasion of the U.S. The “late” in late capitalism, Mr. Shteyngart’s most durable topic, takes on the word’s other meaning in his hands—as in “deceased,” as in it’s killing us if we aren’t dead already. “To write a book set in the present, circa 2013,” he wrote gloomily in an otherwise hilarious piece last year about Google Glass in The New Yorker, “is to write about the distant past.”
His own story begins the way so many others do in America: as a young immigrant trying to reconcile his past—burdened as it is with totalitarian regimes and a careful rationing of luxuries (food, etc.)—with the relative ease of his present. His memoir opens by channeling that other Vladimir in his Nabokovian admission that the past is never just the past, that it is, to borrow the word from the subtitle of Speak, Memory, destined, or doomed, to be revisited. We open in 1996 on the recent college graduate Gary (née Igor) Shteyngart at the Strand Book Annex near Wall Street, holding in his hands St. Petersburg: The Architecture of the Tzars, looking at a photograph of Chesme Church and suffering the first tinge of the misfired synapse explosions signaling a major panic attack, or as Mr. Shteyngart describes it, “the substitution of a slightly different film from the one you’ve been watching.” Leaving behind the fate of the author, we jump back in time, to Mr. Shteyngart’s birth certificate, July 5, 1972, when St. Petersburg was still Leningrad and Russia was “the great motherland.”
A small and sickly child—his main ailment was asthma attacks—he grew up quite literally in the shadow of the statue of Lenin in Moscow Square. He was unusually precocious, having written a 100-page novel before he was potty trained: “This was supposed to read like a Cold War spy novel,” he writes, “but the James Bond in question, me, can’t make kaka.” When his parents announce that the family will be going to America, in part because it will be easier to treat their son’s asthma in the States, he believes the family is “going to the enemy.” That is, until he realizes his prized Tupolev-154 is not, in fact, the fastest plane in the world but really just a Soviet piece of junk, after which he can only conclude, “We are the enemy.”
The Shteyngarts settle in Queens. In America, his father beats him while his mother, when incensed, simply cuts off communication. It is rare for an author to so skillfully cast his parents as the villains and still make sense of his childlike love for them. Of their abuse, he writes,
Yes, I don’t want to live without her love and attention and fresh laundry for a while, but the sentiment passes quickly. Noninteraction does not have the same tried-and-true result as a pummeling. When you hit the child you’re making contact. You’re contacting the child’s skin, his tender flanks, his head (with which he will eventually have to make money, true), but you are also saying something comforting: I’m here. I’m here hitting you. I will never leave you[.]
Mr. Shteyngart’s parents were not exactly religious but had him circumcised in the second grade. By then, he is the second least popular student at the Solomon Schecter School of Queens. He doesn’t know what Star Wars is, but he is not quite as bad as the kid who, instead of talking, incessantly wails the curious refrain of “agoof,” which has so many ostensible meanings it is essentially untranslatable. In high school at Stuyvesant, he is a mediocre student but manages to turn his outcast status into something productive: He becomes a class clown, taking nothing in life seriously. He finds solace in drugs and alcohol. He evolves into the directionless narrator that populates each of his three novels. “You try too hard,” a more popular student tells him while offering a toke. “Everyone can tell.”
I kept going back to that passage. As much as I enjoyed this book, I wonder if Mr. Shteyngart—or ”Shitfart,” as he recalls the occasional hotel desk receptionist naming him—doesn’t hide behind his self-deprecating humor. He admits as much in the memoir: “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. In this book I promised myself I would not point the finger. My laughter would be intermittent. There would be no safety.” And this is true for the most part, especially in his reckoning with his parents. But I can’t help but feel it’s funny—in a cosmic, we’re-all-gonna-die-anyway sort of manner (in fact, the best word for it is “Shteyngardian”)—when one of our most talented authors concludes, after he sells his first novel, “In the year 2000 it is still possible to woo a girl with a book deal. … I will never have to go home to an empty bed again. From this point forward, I will know love whenever I need to know it.” If that’s the takeaway, if all this time he has been writing in order to be loved, then this is the first time he truly admits to it—without ducking behind humor or affect—but he quickly retreats to a derogatory self-analysis of his novel (“a collection of increasingly desperate jokes,” he writes, which just isn’t true). This being a far more interesting dilemma than his late-in-life circumcision, I wish he hadn’t simply left it at that.
The irony, though, is that, for my money, there is no better comic writer alive than Mr. Shteyngart. The sections of his book where he is at college are quite possibly the best writing he has ever done. His middling grades at Stuyvesant mean he attends Ohio’s Oberlin College (the metaphor he uses to describe the school is “three foot bong”), where, as he once told an interviewer, he “majored in myself, in Gary studies.” Why Oberlin? Because it “would allow me to lose my virginity to an equally hirsute, stoned, and unhappy person in the least humiliating way possible.” He’s not necessarily giving the school free advertising, but his quips about his alma mater deserve a book of their own. (He began writing The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, then called The Pyramids of Prague, while still a student there.) I can only hope Mr. Shteyngart will set a future novel on a college campus—Columbia, perhaps, where he teaches a class called, appropriately, “The Hysterical Male.”
Did Mr. Shteyngart travel to the Midwest’s “python’s embrace of American highways and the top hats of bottom tier fast-food restaurants” because of Oberlin’s dystopian farce, or did he become Gary Shteyngart because of it? Either way, descriptions like the following would be at home in his most speculative fiction: “During my first semester at Oberlin my longest assignment is watching Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and then writing a paper describing my feelings about the same. Students, townspeople, and other assorted losers are allowed to teach courses at Oberlin as part of the Experimental College. These classes are for actual college credit.” Little Failure is worth reading alone for the before and after photographs of the author in his first days at Oberlin—enthusiastically holding a lighter in one hand and a metal pipe in the other—and right before graduation, abundantly hairy and clearly not entirely lucid, looking like a just-arrested sex offender who is between jobs.
The counter narrative in the memoir to Mr. Shteyngart becoming a writer is that he also becomes an American. The one is more or less necessary to the other: “Maybe this is what America does to you,” he writes. “With the daily fight for survival abated, one can either reminisce about the past or face the singular destiny of the future.” One can mine the depths of one’s own narcissism, cultivate a self-awareness reserved only for the middle class or higher. In other words, one can become a writer of fiction. And yet it’s Mr. Shteyngart’s past, and the tension it creates with the cushy interior life that America affords, that makes him a much more interesting novelist than his American peers—all those men named Jonathan and a number of others I won’t even mention. As he puts it, “We’re in America, and, frankly, life is just not that hard.”