BOOKS Little Failure a funny, scathing autobiography
Book a vivid picture of a Soviet child in the U.S.
“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.”
Gary Shteyngart says he’s sorry for saying Canadian authors take fewer risks.
Little Failure: A Memoir