What happens when an award-winning and best-selling comic novelist lets the mask fall? Gary Shteyngart writes in his new memoir, Little Failure, "On so many 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."
Little Failure is the dramatic journey of the Shteyngart family -- from the Soviet Union to Queens, New York, from refugee status to U.S. residents. In his novels, Shteyngart's funny register has dwelled in the outrageous and satirical, but in Little Failure, the humor is decidedly dark, self-deprecating, circumstantial. It's an explosive book. While much of the writing is dead serious, when humor does arise, it does so with the same mean-meets-kind one finds in violent and melodramatic countries. (When Shteyngart was born, his parents received a letter from the government: "Dear Parents! We cordially congratulate you and share your joy at the birth of a new human being -- a citizen of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and a member of the future Communist Society...")
"Because I was often sick and runny nosed," Shteyngart writes, "as a child (and as an adult) my father called me Soplyak, or Snotty. My mother was developing an interesting fusion of English and Russian and, all by herself, had worked out the term Failurchka, or Little Failure."
Comic distance from things that are still relatively at hand is something the author handles well. While in hiding, his Great Uncle Aaron witnessed the invading German force execute his family (his parents and his wheelchair-bound sister). Shteyngart describes Aaron's escape like so; "After the Germans moved on, Aaron hoofed though the fields to a happy local chorus of 'Run, Yid, Run!'"
Though Shteyngart inherits his humor from his father, he finds his father's quips mean-spirited and terrifying and they begin to tear father and son apart. "Several years ago, drunk off of turning seventy, he took my then-girlfriend (now wife) to his vegetable garden, where he handed her his biggest cucumber. 'Here is something to remember me by,' he winked, adding, 'I am big. My son is small.'"
One of the most lovingly sketched out passages is of Shteyngart's childhood in Leningrad. An asthmatic boy, Shteyngart spent much of his time on a couch reading, but it is a magical universe. The couch is christened the Imperial Snotty, and there Shteyngart reads Dostoevsky, and writes sci-fi novellas.
My favorite passage is one not so dramatic, but it plumbs the dramatic depths of my immigrant heart. "...in 1981 triumph is at hand," Shteyngert writes. "An official letter arrives in our mailbox. MR S. SHITGART [sic], YOU HAVE ALREADY WON $10,000,000.00!!! Sure our last name is misspelled rather cruelly, but cardstock this thick does not lie, and the letter is from a major American publisher, to wit the Publishers Clearing House. I open the letter with shaking hands, and... a check falls out... my mother says, my God, as we look at the pictures of a Mercedes flying off the deck of our yacht toward our new mansion with an Olympian swimming pool. 'Oy, does it have to be a Mercedes? Tphoo. Nazis.' 'Don't worry, we can trade for a Cadillac.'"
In their collective English, the Shteyngart family deduces they can only cash in if they subscribe to five magazines. "I walk solemnly to the mailbox and deposit our claim on the future. Adonai Eloheinu, I say to our new God, please help us get the ten million dollars so that Mama and Papa will not fight so much, and there will be no razvod [divorce] between them, and let us live somewhere far away from Papa's wolfish rodstvenniki [family] who cause all the trouble and let them not yell at Mama when she sends the money Papa says we don't have to her sisters and Grandma Galya in Leningrad who is dying still."
In other words, the American Dream.
Catch Gary Shteyngart in conversation with Daniel Handler at the Jewish Contemporary Center on January 15 at 7pm. For More information visit jccsf.org.