BOOKS Lit­tle Fail­ure a funny, scathing au­to­bi­og­ra­phy

Book a vivid pic­ture of a Soviet child in the U.S.

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Weekend Life - IAN MCGIL­LIS

“I’m feel­ing very Cana­dian these days,” Gary Shteyn­gart said on the phone from Toronto last week. “I’ve been apol­o­giz­ing a lot, and what could be more Cana­dian than that?”

Just in case you missed it, the Rus­sian-born, New York-based writer, ac­claimed for his comic nov­els The Rus­sian Debu­tante’s Hand­book, Ab­sur­dis­tan and Su­per Sad True Love Story, cre­ated a cross-bor­der cul­tural furor last month. In the course of a vul­ture.com round­table in­ter­view with his friend and men­tor the Korean-Amer­i­can writer Changrae Lee, he de­cried how Cana­dian writ­ers’ (al­leged) de­pen­dence on govern­ment grants has fos­tered a re­luc­tance to take risks, a view based on his ex­pe­ri­ence serv­ing as a Giller Prize ju­ror in 2012.

The CanLit com­mu­nity rose in right­eous in­dig­na­tion, and Shteyn­gart has said he’s sorry sev­eral times, mostly via Twit­ter, once even wink­ingly pulling a Rob Ford by blam­ing a “drunken stu­por.” Still, with the dust now mostly set­tled, he won’t let go of the be­lief that his claim con­tained a ker­nel of truth.

“In the old days,” he said, “in­stead of get­ting a grant or go­ing through a writ­ing pro­gram, you had to go to the Span­ish Civil War and get shot at. Those days are over, ob­vi­ously, but I do think that some­thing about the way I came up — writ­ing my first novel on ra­men noo­dles, not hav­ing to please any­one — is good.”

Shteyn­gart’s in­vok­ing of a Cana­dian lit­er­ary icon — and fel­low Jewish hu­morist — only serves to muddy the wa­ters fur­ther still.

“Look, when I was a ju­ror, there were 140 books, and we whit­tled it down to 10 mag­nif­i­cent books. But what I re­ally missed was that Rich­le­rian hu­mour. Hav­ing fun at your coun­try’s ex­pense is not so bad. We do it in Amer­ica all the time. Some­thing hi­lar­i­ous set in Canada, that’s what I found was miss­ing. In the end, as you know, we gave it to Will Fer­gu­son (for his Africa-set 419), some­one who does know about hu­mour.”

Plenty more could be said here — like point­ing out, for ex­am­ple, that Morde­cai Richler him­self was one of the first re­cip­i­ents of a Canada Coun­cil grant — but there comes a time to agree to dis­agree, an op­tion made eas­ier in this case by the fact that Shteyn­gart is just as likely to stick a pin in his own bal­loon as any­one else’s. For proof, look no fur­ther than his new mem­oir.

Where so many have used the mem­oir as an op­por­tu­nity to cast them­selves as the heroic star of their own nar­ra­tive, Lit­tle Fail­ure, from the ti­tle on down (it’s a trans­la­tion of the Rus­sian- Gary Shteyn­gart Ran­dom House English hy­brid Fail­urchka, his mother’s not en­tirely ironic nick­name for him), is one of the more self-dep­re­cat­ing, if not down­right self-lac­er­at­ing, books of its kind in re­cent mem­ory. It might even be har­row­ing if it weren’t so hi­lar­i­ous.

A nat­u­ral ques­tion to ask is why now? Even in these con­fes­sion- mad times, pub­lish­ing a mem­oir at 41 could be con­sid­ered jump­ing the gun.

“I know,” Shteyn­gart said, “but re­mem­ber, I’m 41 in Amer­i­can years. That’s 67 in Rus­sian years. The clock is tick­ing.”

As for his un­spar­ing self-por­trait, he said, “Well, there’s just not much heroic there, I’m afraid. When I was young they told me to wor­ship Lenin, then to wor­ship Rea­gan, and I just did what I was told. I was in many ways quite con­formist. Writ­ing books was sort of my exit out of all the dif­fer­ent dog­mas I’ve had in my life.”

While Shteyn­gart’s ac­count of his Amer­i­can ado­les­cence and young adult­hood — es­pous­ing Repub­li­can­ism in the Demo­cratic strong­hold of work­ing-class Long Is­land, go­ing through univer­sity and grad­u­ate school seem­ingly in a stoned, en­ti­tled fog — would be rec­om­men­da­tion enough, what sets the book apart fur­ther still is its vivid de­pic­tion of a late-Soviet-era child­hood. The Shteyn­garts were able to em­i­grate when Gary (real name: Igor) was seven, thanks to Jimmy Carter’s wheat­for-Soviet-Jews deal with Leonid Brezh­nev. And while it’s the son’s per­spec­tive that dom­i­nates Lit­tle Fail­ure, a rich and com­pas­sion­ate parental por­trayal is the book’s true bal­last.

Among its many bonuses, Lit­tle Fail­ure serves as a his­tory of late20th-century iden­tity pol­i­tics as seen through the eyes of a young im­mi­grant.

“People now are quite bored with the idea of be­ing sim­ply Amer­i­can,” Shteyn­gart said. “It’s so neb­u­lous. It’s funny, be­cause when I was a kid new to the coun­try, it was just the op­po­site. I was try­ing to find my way out of be­ing Rus­sian. Back in the days of the Cold War and the Evil Em­pire speech, I was telling the other kids in He­brew school that I wasn’t born in Len­ingrad, I was born in East Berlin. I was try­ing to con­vince the other Jewish kids that I was a Ger­man be­cause that was bet­ter than be­ing Rus­sian. It was ridicu­lous.

“But by the time I got to Oberlin Col­lege, be­ing eth­nic was all the rage. People were try­ing to trump up their dif­fer­ences. White, Amer­i­can and mid­dle class was the last thing you wanted to be.”

Brigitte La­combe/The Cana­dian Press

Gary Shteyn­gart says he’s sorry for say­ing Cana­dian au­thors take fewer risks.

Lit­tle Fail­ure: A Mem­oir

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