Who’s the big one?

Irina Aleksander

  • BuyLittle Failure: A Memoir by Gary Shteyngart
    Hamish Hamilton, 368 pp, £16.99, February, ISBN 978 0 241 14665 1

On the last page of Gary Shteyngart’s memoir there’s a photograph of his parents, Nina and Semyon, seated across a restaurant table from whoever took the picture (presumably Shteyngart). Nina – the book is dedicated to his analyst, so let’s look first at his mother – has a coquettish tilt of the head, cropped hair and a tight-lipped, sly smile. She sits in front of an empty plate and a glass of white wine, and is wielding what looks like a butter knife. Semyon is mostly bald and has a greying goatee. His eyelids weigh heavy, which makes him look a little angry, or maybe just tired. His cutlery is untouched, and his arms are hidden under the table, as if restrained by their own heft.

‘One is cautioned by the better critics never to write about photographs,’ Shteyngart writes earlier in his book, just before he describes a family photo in which he’s lodged between his parents – ‘my love is divided between his knee and her cheekbone.’ The picture was taken in 1979 in Rome, where the three lived briefly during their emigration from the Soviet Union to Kew Gardens, Queens. Photographs matter in Shteyngart’s memoir. They begin each chapter, and mark the passage of time from early childhood to more or less present day. The final image breaks protocol: Shteyngart is not in the frame and the photo takes the place of a final word. By now we know that Semyon nicknamed his son ‘Snotty’ for being an asthmatic weakling and Nina called him ‘Failurchka’, a synthesis of English and Russian that gives the book its title; that to help Snotty get over his fear of heights, Semyon, with those mighty arms of his, once built his son an indoor ladder, and when Snotty shakily climbed to the top, tried to push him off it; that Nina charged her son $1.40 for homemade chicken Kiev plus the cost of plastic packaging because ‘when you have to pay for everything, you will know that life is hard’; that they submitted the eight-year-old Shteyngart to a too-late-in-life circumcision (remember the butter knife); and that they hurtle shutki (jokes) at him which detonate like Molotov cocktails. ‘I read on the Russian internet that you and your novels will soon be forgotten,’ Semyon says. ‘Yes,’ Nina dutifully adds. ‘I read that too.’

But the thing is they look like nice people. They’re attractive. They’re modestly dressed. They have kind, intelligent eyes. They don’t look like people whose parenting style would bring their son to ‘hit the couch four times a week’ in the office of Dr Richard Lacy. But, then, that’s the point.

Just before the end, Shteyngart writes: ‘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.’ This passage will sound jarringly earnest to readers of his fiction. It’s not Vladimir Girshkin speaking, the aspiring immigrant who cooks up a pyramid scheme to skim off the American dream in The Russian Debutante’s Handbook; or Misha Vainberg, the obese Russian oligarch of Absurdistan; or Lenny Abramov, the hero of the dystopian Super Sad True Love Story, obsessed with death and his fuckability rating in the eyes of Eunice Park. The Shteyngart of the memoir is the one who barricaded himself inside the fortress of those satires. ‘Oh Igor, you are so sensitive,’ his mother says. ‘And that is why you are a writer.’

Igor Semyonovich Shteyngart was born an only child in Leningrad on 5 July 1972. His parents met at music school. Nina was headstrong and from a good family; she played the piano, and later gave lessons. Semyon, a tough but witty son of a soldier killed in the Second World War, had ambitions of becoming an opera singer, but became a mechanical engineer instead. The anxious, fragile little Igor was the object of his parents’ devotion. At night, they hovered over him, holding his mouth open with a tablespoon to make sure he didn’t suffocate. His mother battled the boorish women at the gastronom to get him ‘Doctor’s kolbasa’. His father told him fantastic tales about submarines and made up a saga called ‘Planet of the Yids’ about a Hebraic planet under attack from Gentiles who bomb it with unkosher pork.

Igor’s faulty lungs often kept him indoors. At the urging of his grandmother, who offered to pay a cube of cheese per page, he wrote his first novel, ‘Lenin and His Magical Goose’. This patriotic tale follows Vladimir Ilyich, portrayed as a fellow asthma sufferer, who invades Finland with the help of a giant goose. When the goose betrays him to the Finnish secret police, Lenin cooks and eats it. The message is clear: ‘Love authority but trust no one.’

The Shteyngarts left the USSR in 1979, dragging their Romanian orange mahogany furniture with them. In Queens, Igor’s asthma was helped by the use of Western inhalers, but he suffered a new, isolating affliction: he was an immigrant. His first and, for a time, only friend was a one-eyed girl in his building: ‘We’re suspicious of each other at first, but I’m an immigrant and she has one eye, so we’re even.’ Unlike all the Leonids that became Leons, Yelenas that became Lenas, and Katyas that became Kates, the name Igor lacked a friendly American counterpart, and so Igor became Gary, a random choice except for its pleasing association with a dapper American actor. It didn’t help much. At school, Igor/Gary was renamed the Stinky Russian Bear, Red Gerbil and Shitfart. Igor/Gary went to class dressed in a Soviet-made polka-dot shirt and a large furry coat, and was better versed in ‘The Lady with the Lapdog’ than Star Wars or The Dukes of Hazzard. Igor/Gary was soon handed over to the butchers at Coney Island Hospital to be circumcised. (Nina’s defence: ‘We were told to do it.’) Igor/Gary’s classmates hit him because they hated him, and his father hit him because he loved him. ‘He who doesn’t hit doesn’t love,’ as the motto of the Russian muzhik, a real man, goes.

Immigration is a splitting of the self. But it’s also a premature schism in the most important union. If Shteyngart’s memoir is a love story between him and his parents – and it is – this is where the marriage hits the rocks. The young lovers grow apart. They want other things. They become different people who no longer understand one another. To assimilate is to break faith with your parents, and assimilation is necessary for survival. It’s inevitable that Shteyngart would begin to view Nina and Semyon from a remove, through the lens of an American childhood as portrayed on television, where the parents are doting and children are never hit. ‘In Russia, you can do things like that,’ he informs his parents as an adult. ‘But in America …’ Nina: ‘You couldn’t do that in America?’

To flee the captivity of being Igor/Gary, he found the same escape hatch as he had back in Leningrad. After gorging on Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and American TV, he channelled them (along with the contempt of his family and peers) into his first English work: ‘The Chalenge’ [sic], a sci-fi tale about the racial tensions between an Earth-like planet called Atlanta (‘with its conservative politics and strong retail base’) and Lopes (a hot Latin land populated by three-legged inhabitants and ‘many parrots’). Its hero is not an Igor/Gary alter ego, but a blond fighter pilot called Flyboy.

It’s here that the Shteyngart familiar from his novels – funny, imaginative, a little angry – starts to take form: ‘I write because there is nothing as joyful as writing, even when the writing is twisted and full of hate … I hate myself, I hate the people around me, but what I crave is the fulfilment of some ideal.’ The cretins at school gobbled up ‘The Chalenge’ and asked for more, so Igor/Gary wrote a farcical take on the Torah and the constitution, ‘humour being the last resort of the besieged Jew’. The sudden acceptance of his classmates was as delicious as his grandmother’s cheese cubes, and so Igor/Gary established his post-immigrant identity as the class clown; it would follow him well into his adult life and fiction, and was not without its own difficulties. As he was later told by a classmate at Stuyvesant High School: ‘You try too hard. Everyone can tell.’ Or later still, by his acting coach (also Woody Allen’s first wife) Louise Lasser: ‘You know what your problem is, Gary? You’re fake and manipulative!’

But just as Igor/Gary was beginning to win the battle at school, he was losing the one at home. Caught in the crossfire of his parents’ incessant fighting, he played mediator as threats of razvod (divorce) were tossed back and forth. In America, his mother applied her nimble pianist’s fingers to a job as a typist; his father continued his work as an engineer at a laboratory on Long Island. To his adult son Semyon would say: ‘I burn with a black envy towards you. I should have been an artist as well.’

For all his gifts as a satirist, Shteyngart is at his best in parsing the nuances of familial interaction and sifting through the emotional wreckage beneath. Dispatches from more recent family dinners make for terrific black comedy, delivered in deadpan non sequiturs:

Semyon, mock-punching Shteyngart’s cousin in the gut: ‘I am still the big one!’

Semyon, handing his son’s wife a cucumber from his garden: ‘Here is something to remember me by. I am big, my son is small.’

Nina, at Thanksgiving dinner: ‘We’re a good, normal family.’

Semyon, to his son: ‘Just don’t write like a self-hating Jew.’

Semyon, at the revolving restaurant at the top of the Marriott Marquis in Times Square for Nina’s birthday: ‘A ranking of New York writers came out on the internet. You were ranked thirty, and David Remnick was eight positions ahead of you. Philip Gourevitch was ranked number eleven. They are both ahead of you.’

Nina, pulling her son aside during the same dinner: ‘It seems like you don’t really know me.’

Semyon, again to Shteyngart’s wife: ‘When I was young, I kill sheep. Girls say, “No! Is so cute.” But I slice, slice.’

Nina, to Semyon: ‘Poshol na khui!’ (‘Go to the dick!’)

Semyon, to Nina: ‘Yob tvoyu mat!’ (‘Fuck your mother!’)

Former citizens of the Soviet Union seem complicated creatures to the world at large, and to their American children. To know them is to understand that a bully and a victim are often one and the same. The Soviet Union, Stalin and now Putin all turned out to be magnificent bullies. The children of the USSR moved to a different school. They left its decrepit, lawless classrooms for the pristine private school that is the US. But they weren’t entirely ready for the freedoms of their new land, and so passed on to their children their fears, their resentments, their paranoia – their shutki. ‘Sometimes, I get angry,’ Shteyngart writes.

At a Russian summer colony in the Catskills, Igor/Gary tortured a scrawny, freshly arrived Belarussian kid. ‘How many fingers am I holding, Vinston?’ he asked the boy, borrowing his technique from Nineteen Eighty-Four, holding up four fingers and twisting the boy’s hand until he heard five. ‘He cowers before me, which I both love and hate.’ If only the boy had understood English, he would’ve known that Igor/Gary’s own accent was still rough enough that he couldn’t pronounce ‘Winston’ properly. The boy began to cry; so, in private, did Igor/Gary. After the boy fled the colony and his tormentor, Igor/Gary’s friends begged him to tell a joke. He told the joke.

The laughter continued. At Stuyvesant High School, Igor/Gary lagged behind the rest of the overachieving, multinational student body, and began to dismantle his parents’ dreams of law schools and corner offices. He spent his time stoned or drunk on Kahlua and milk, embraced conservative politics (volunteering for Bush Sr’s first campaign), and entertained his classmates by adapting a series of senseless mottos: ‘Peace in the Middle East, Gary out of the Ghetto, no sellout!’ ‘I am a kind of joke,’ Shteyngart writes, ‘but the question is: which kind? My job is to keep everyone guessing. Because what I do is part performance art, part ineloquent plea for help, part unprocessed outer-borough aggression, part just me being a jackass.’

Shteyngart’s high school and college years sail by. It may be the old problem of the pages accumulating and the pressure to wrap the book up, or it may be that it’s easier to tell the stories of childhood, to find the narrative and the humour, and harder to say what happened just yesterday. At Oberlin College, Igor/Gary drank and smoked some more, transitioned from a Young Republican to a long-haired and goateed liberal, and got renamed (once again) ‘Scary Gary’. He also refined his buffoonery, expelling ‘large quantities of comical intellectualised thought at anyone caught in my path’: ‘Something, something, Max Weber, something, something, Protestant joke, something, something, Brezhnev reference. Those who have come across my first novel will know exactly the song I am singing.’ The routine won Scary Gary his first girlfriend, and the first novel won him the attention of the novelist Chang-rae Lee, who set Shteyngart up with his editor at Penguin, who then offered Shteyngart his first book deal. Things were good. Or so it seemed.

As with every great comic who has parlayed an adolescent act into professional celebrity – see John Belushi – there’s despair lurking behind the humour. Shteyngart carried his class clown routine into his novels, passed it on to Girshkin and Vainberg and Abramov, but something else was going on in those books: there’s Girshkin’s aggrieved Mama; there’s Vainberg’s crippled, purple khui due to a botched circumcision; and there, in Abramov’s heartfelt efforts, is a familiar pained longing for acceptance, attention, love. (Lee would point out that Shteyngart’s characters ‘are usually sons in search of fathers’.) With each novel, he’s inched away from pure satire towards something like his own story.

Shteyngart entered therapy shortly before he got his first book deal, after dating an emotionally unavailable woman with a boyfriend. (She later bludgeoned another lover with a hammer.) He went at the urging of a mentor, who wrote him a strongly worded letter: ‘In short, you are as mean and ungenerous to yourself as your parents are; they taught you well … You have to decide to take yourself seriously, not in a phony self-pitying way, but in a serious, dignified way.’ In therapy, Snotty, Failurchka, Igor, the Stinky Russian Bear, Red Gerbil, Shitfart and Scary Gary confronted their bullies and one another. When he told his father he was seeing a shrink, Semyon responded, ‘It would have been better if you told me you were a homosexual.’ When the first novel came out, his parents were stung by the portrayal of Girshkin’s parents. Nina’s and Semyon’s anger went beyond the shutki.

‘Mudak!’ Semyon shouted into the telephone, a Russian expletive meaning, roughly, ‘dickhead’.

Nina: ‘We don’t ever want to speak to you again!’

‘Well, that’s fine,’ Shteyngart replied. ‘Do as you please.’

This, to borrow Gwyneth Paltrow’s term, is Shteyngart’s conscious uncoupling: ‘I will continue to see them,’ he writes, ‘and love them and call them each Sunday night, as mandated by Russian law, but their opinions of me, the fanged hurt of their own childhoods, will not rend my world asunder, will not send me to the nearest bar, will not be unleashed upon the woman I share my bed with.’ It sounds good, but it turns out to not be so easy.

In the last chapter (subtitled ‘The Final Revelation’), Shteyngart recounts a trip to St Petersburg with his parents nearly a decade later. Among several disclosures, the most telling comes after Shteyngart falls silent and we’re left with the photograph of his parents: a pair of harmless-looking elderly people staring back at us from the page. Its very placement is a contradiction. It’s impossible to look at Nina and Semyon, and not to consider their observer. Because here is what is not pictured: on the other side of that table sits a 41-year-old American. He’s achieved literary celebrity and the American dream; has made it out of the former Soviet Union and Kew Gardens, Queens, and into an apartment in a fancy Manhattan neighbourhood; he’s won over a real life Eunice Park, a Korean American called Esther Won, and together they have a son with the handsome name of Johnny Won Shteyngart. Yet there’s something a little corny and un-Shteyngart-like about the inclusion of the photograph – a backtracking, maybe even an apology. Perhaps the ultimate revelation is a familiar if not a soothing one: you can switch the orange mahogany table stacked with soggy chicken Kiev for one at a revolving restaurant in the Marriott Marquis, but when it comes to parents and children there’s no escape hatch. You open another door only to find yourself in the same room.