In Little Failure, the new memoir by Gary Shteyngart, the Russian-born author doesn’t hold much back about his early days in his native land, his family’s move to New York when he was just a boy, his college years spent partying and growing his hair long at a Midwestern liberal arts school, his emergence as a writer with his 2002 debut novel The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, and his eventual return to his home country. Of course, these moments will sound familiar to readers of his fiction, because Shteyngart has used many of them in his three novels in one way or another. And while sprinkling autobiographical details into your fiction isn’t new, he has managed to create and sustain a particularly unique “Shteyngartian” voice.
I meet Shteyngart at a coffee shop near Gramercy Park, amid the polar vortex. The author, whose last novel, 2010’s Super Sad True Love Story, was his first bestseller, walks in looking just as unhappy about the freeze as everybody else, wearing a checkered ushanka hat. At some point during our conversation he points to it and jokes that he wore some version of the cap (its ear flaps created to keep Soviet troops warm during winters colder than anything any Manhattanite could imagine) when he was seven years old and in his first year in Hebrew school.
I ask Shteyngart about the autobiographical factoids I connect from Little Failure to his previous books. There are the funny dorm-room nicknames, the romantic relationships that don’t work out, and, of course, the self-deprecating humor that he uses finely enough to avoid recalling a Catskill comedian from yesteryear. “I was shocked,” he says. “Because some of the stuff, I didn’t realize as I was writing it that it had happened to me,” he says, confirming my long-held belief that Shteyngart has transcended the old adage of “Write what you know,” and entirely sublimated his own past experiences, old friends, joys, sorrows, fears, and especially family into his fiction. He says he wants to try something different — “Something with a female protagonist,” who might have an immigrant background, he says — but Shteyngart’s approach works, and has created a set of highly identifiable and enjoyable books. His readiness to switch gears shows that even though Shteyngart has cultivated the public persona of a goofy author with a slight foreign accent who makes silly book trailers co-staring James Franco, he is also serious about his work, telling me that he writes his books based on big ideas.
“The next year I get the present every boy wants. A circumcision.” Shteyngart starts out the ninth chapter of his memoir by recalling the ritual operation that most boys receive within a week after they’re born, but which he underwent at age eight. It isn’t for the sake of shock value that Shteyngart tells us about the customary snipping required by Jewish law, but were barred from receiving in the Soviet Union.
It isn’t like the scene in his second novel, Absurdistan, where Shteyngart’s protagonist, Misha, receives the same ritual cut, drunk and 18 years old (although Misha does wake up in a hospital gown with a hole “cut in its lower region,” much like Shteyngart’s mother “cut a hole in my underwear so my broken penis will not have to touch polyester.”). It might seem like a memory included to make the reader chuckle — Shteyngart tells me that he realized he was funny at an early age — but the circumcision scene in his memoir is a telling moment that sums up the immigrant experience of making sacrifices for the sake of a new homeland.
It’s scenes like this that not only sum up the experience of coming to America and assimilating, but also highlight Gary Shteyngart’s unique strengths as a storyteller — what makes Little Failure the type of memoir you can’t help loving, page after page. We learn about the author’s family’s history, his own brief flirtations with being a George Bush Sr. Republican, his days at Oberlin College, and what propels us through all of it is Shteyngart’s familiar voice. Little Failure succeeds twofold, as an immigrant’s memoir as well as a literary memoir, but ultimately it’s a great book because it is the author’s true story, the story from which all his past stories sprung.
What really defines Shteyngart’s work, and will be interesting to see as his work evolves, however, isn’t the Shteyngart character or the Shteyngart experiences transformed into fiction; instead, the author has a unique ability to balance humor, tenderness, and melancholy without falling prey to crass jokes or boorish cheap shots. That takes intuition. “It’s been my life’s work, so all I’ve been trying to do is find that balance,” he says, discussing his own evolution over his three novels. By his second novel, he tells me, “I was already kind of depressed by the world, and my tone shifted more to sadness.” But since he’s Gary Shteyngart, the self-proclaimed “second most-hated boy” in his Jewish day school, there’s always humor, because he’s an author that always falls back on what he knows.