Saturday, March 29, 2014

Immigrant Lit: Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart

Little Failure
by Gary Shteyngart
Review by Henry Gonshak

There’s a rich literary genre that sews together the patches of the endless, multifaceted quilt that is the immigrant experience in America. It unfolds at least as far as Willa Cather’s brilliant novels, such as O Pioneers and My Antonia, published in the early 20th century, which describe the struggles of immigrant Scandinavians to scratch a living from the harsh soil of the western frontier. The genre continues with Henry Roth’s Depression-era masterpiece, Call it Sleep, about a sensitive immigrant boy enduring life with abusive parents in a teeming, impoverished Jewish ghetto in Manhattan. It goes on with more contemporary immigrant fiction, like Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior and Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker, depicting the experiences of Asian families in America, whose parents obey the dictates of Asian culture by pressuring their children to strive in school as a first step to advancing into lucrative white collar professions.

Now we can add to the school of Immigrant Lit. a wonderful memoir, Little Failure, by Gary Shteyngart. Born in the Soviet Union a few decades before the empire’s collapse, Shteyngart emigrated with his family to New York City in the late 1970s, when he was seven years old. His exodus was one wave in a sea of Soviet Jews allowed to leave the USSR in exchange for a hefty shipment of American grain.

I confess that I’ve always had a soft spot for immigrants, primarily because three of my four grandparents emigrated to America from elsewhere. My paternal grandparents were Polish Jews (though at the time they left, at the turn of the 20th century, eastern Poland was part of the Czarist empire). Coming to New York as children, my grandparents hauled themselves, in one generation, into the middle class. My grandfather started out pushing a hot dog stand in Manhattan, and then progressively climbed the economic ladder until by the time he retired, in late middle age, he was the proud owner of two clothing stores. My maternal grandmother was Cuban. Her family owned a hotel in Havana, and my American grandfather installed their plumbing. Clearly, had my immigrant grandparents remained in their native lands, the consequences would have been dire. My paternal grandparents would almost surely have perished in the Holocaust, the fate of most of my more distant relations. And, following the Communist revolution, my Cuban grandmother would have suffered under Castro’s dictatorship. Not surprisingly, all three were some of the most patriotic Americans I’ve ever known.

Shteyngart’s previous work was the best-selling novel, Super Sad True Love Story--an even better book than Little Failure, since, not bound by the memoir format to stick to the facts of his life, the author can let his vivid imagination run wild. Super Sad True Love Story envisions an America, a few decades hence, on the verge of ruin. The U.S. economy is so indebted to China that the Chinese yen is America’s official currency. Nearly all Americans carry with them constantly computers so shrunk in size they could fit around a wrist. Books, on the other hand, are virtually obsolete, and those few decrepit volumes that still survive are commonly reviled as malodorous. In this society, illiteracy has become so epidemic that even street signs are misspelled. Meanwhile, American sexuality has reached such a fever pitch that all citizens are assigned a government “fuckability rating,” while young women don transparent “onionskin jeans.” The novel intersperses a traditional diary kept by a Russian Jewish immigrant much like the author, with the emails and text messages sent by the woman with whom he’s madly in love, a much younger, somewhat vapid but genial Korean girl who, unfortunately, doesn’t reciprocate the intensity of his feelings. Super Sad True Love Story augurs a direction much contemporary American fiction should follow, because the novel explores in a highly imaginative way the radical changes in American society wrought by the computer revolution.

The opening chapters of Little Failure relate Shteyngart’s childhood experiences in the Soviet Union during the sclerotic Brezhnev era. Unsurprisingly, the empire was sunk in deprivation. Shteyngart’s mother had to wait in line for hours to buy a rotting eggplant or a lump of moldy cheese. The standard Russian television set had a tendency to explode, which made TV viewing a lot more exciting than it would have been otherwise, given the mind-numbing nature of Soviet programming. Young Igor (his parents later changed his name to “Gary,” deeming it more American) suffered from severe asthma. The ailment could have been easily treated with a steroid inhaler, but in Russia the standard prescription was to heat a glass to a red-hot temperature, and then affix the glass to the patient’s naked back–a “remedy” that caused tremendous pain without in any way curing the asthma. Shteyngart’s ancestors experienced even worse tales of woe. His paternal grandfather was killed in combat defending the Soviet Union against the Germans during the brutal siege of Leningrad. (A mind-boggling twenty-six million Russians died during World War II.) Another relation spent a decade toiling in the Soviet Gulag because, while in the army, he’d made a mildly disparaging joke about a commanding officer. Nonetheless, Shteyngart doesn’t portray his Soviet boyhood as uniformly grim. A staunch Russian patriot, the author penned his first novel at five years of age--a xenophobic fantasy memorably titled Lenin and His Magical Goose. For every page he wrote, Shteyngart’s maternal grandmother–a Soviet journalist and loyal Communist–rewarded him with a slice of cheese. Shteyngart was inspired in his precocious literary endeavors by an enormous statue of Vladimir Ilyich standing near his Leningrad apartment, showing Lenin with his arms outflung and his long, iron coat billowing behind him as he led the proletariat into the golden dawn of the Socialist utopia.

The Artist as a Young Typist
When Shteyngart’s family arrived in America, like a lot of immigrants they carried the scars of the old world with them. Even amidst the plenitude of the United States, Shteyngart’s parents clung to the deprivation model they’d developed in Russia, a trait most notably evinced by their pathological cheapness. Gary wore tattered old tee-shirts donated to the family by philanthropic New York Jews--clothing that made him the butt of endless teasing by his peers. When Shteyngart outgrew the clothes, his petite father wore them. After the author became an adult, his mother sold him butter-slathered chicken cutlets, and at a fairly exorbitant price, never considering that some might deem her actions rather unmaternal. Like the Asian parents in Woman Warrior and Native Speaker, Shteyngart’s mother and father pinned their hopes for the future on their son’s academic success, which they believed would lead to a big-money career. Even after he won fame as an author, Shteyngart’s parents continued to bemoan the fact that he’d chosen such a traditionally unremunerative profession, as opposed to his becoming a corporate lawyer or Wall Street broker.

Seeking to recover their Jewish roots (all religious observance was officially repressed in the atheistic Soviet Union), Shteyngart’s parents enrolled him in a Hebrew day school. It was a miserable experience. Although one might expect students at a religious school to act respectfully, Shteyngart’s classmates, especially the boys, were just as fond of bullying their perceived inferiors as children everywhere. With the Cold War raging, Shteyngart’s fellow students were convinced he was a Communist, a “red,” even though his family had fled their former home, and his parents openly reviled the Soviet Union. As a result, Shteyngart was beaten up regularly. As for his Jewish education, the author found that mindlessly memorizing the Hebrew alphabet, and reciting Hebrew prayers he didn’t understand, left him with no connection to Judaism at all.

After surviving Hebrew school, Shteyngart disregarded his parents’ demand that he attend an Ivy League university, and chose instead to enroll in the ultra-left-wing liberal arts school, Oberlin College in Ohio. (No matter that the main reason Shteyngart decided to attend Oberlin was that a high school girl he lusted after had also chosen to enroll there.) At Oberlin, Shteyngart indulged in that favorite Russian pastime, heavy drinking. He also delved into drugs, primarily marijuana, which he inhaled through a three-foot bong owned by his roommate–a device so towering it took two people to operate. He also met his first girlfriend, a genial Southern belle of Armenian descent, whose maternal nature fed Shteyngart’s insatiable sexual and emotional needs. Most importantly, at Oberlin Shteyngart began to write seriously, producing work that signaled a marked advance on Lenin and His Magical Goose. Perceiving a wealth of literary material inherent in the immigrant’s limbo existence, poised between the old and new worlds, Shteyngart, aided by a supportive creative writing teacher, began the work that, after years of revision, would become the author’s first novel, the critically acclaimed The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.

Many authors of memoirs adopt poses of endless self-deprecation. After all, the last thing a memoirist wants to look like is a braggart. However, when a writer does the opposite, painting himself as a total loser, the approach can appear calculating and insincere. A classic example of such self-laceration can be found throughout St. Augustine’s Confessions. The pre-conversion Augustine’s worst crime was to conceive an out-of-wedlock child with a woman he deeply loved, yet Augustine portrays his early self as the vilest of sinners, consumed by lust and a heretical attachment to paganism. Of course, the more darkly Augustine can paint his past, the brighter he seems when he finally embraces the light of Christianity. There is something of this Augustinian quality of programmatic self-loathing in Shteyngart’s memoir. “Little Failure” is a nickname given Shteyngart in childhood by his mother, more or less affectionately. But Shteyngart seems to embrace the notion that he actually was an utter “failure” prior to his literary success. For example, he portrays himself as despicable in his post-collegiate friendship with an older man in New York, a successful writer of soap operas, who not only tolerated Shteyngart’s consistently vindictive behavior, but also astutely critiqued Shteyngart’s apprentice writing, while lending the impoverished author thousands of dollars. It’s hard to see how the self-obsessed Shteyngart depicted in this relationship transformed into the amiable author of Little Failure. One suspects that, in reality, Shteyngart wasn’t that rotten.

I hope I haven’t made Little Failure sound too solemn, because in fact the memoir, like all of Shteyngart’s writing, is often hilarious. Like most immigrants of his generation, Shteyngart was introduced as a child to American culture in good part by watching hours of TV, but his perception of American television, shaped by his immigrant status, was often comically skewed. Take his interpretation of that icon of Baby Boomer culture, Gilligan’s Island: “Is it really possible that a country as powerful as the United States would not be able to locate two of its best citizens lost at sea, to wit, the millionaire and his wife? Also, Gilligan is comical and bumbling like an immigrant, but people seem to like him. Make notes for further study? Emulate?” Typical of Shteyngart’s brand of humor, this passage is funny and heartbreaking at the same time.

As my grandparents and Gary Shteyngart both exemplify, immigrants permeate America’s lifeblood. They are, as noted earlier, usually more patriotic than native-born Americans, because, having known a degree of hardship that Americans can scarcely imagine. They don’t take this country’s political and economic opportunities for granted. They tend to work harder, and for wages many American-born citizens won’t accept. Moreover, as Gary Shteyngart demonstrates, immigrants are making an invaluable contribution to American literature, shedding light on a tableau of American life of which we might otherwise remain unaware.

Henry Gonshak is the Rose and Anna Busch Endowed Professor of English at Montana Tech.  His writings have appeared in three book collections and a variety of publications, including The Journal of American Culture, Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice, Response: A Contemporary Jewish Review and Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies.  He also writes a monthly books column, “The Reading Life,” for The Montana Standard.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the very interesting post. I have read a lot of immigrant lit. My great grandfather came from England after the Civil War with his mother,.His father was a warper and the local gingham mill had shut down. It shut down because the gingham was used for house slaves in the US. So when the fabric was no longer needed the mill went our of businees. When his father died, they knew that they could not survive. His mother found another job in a mill when she arrived and he had one job walking (at the age of eight) in circles all day long pushing something for the mill. He quit that job and vowed never to do that kind of job again! Eventually he made it to Indianapolis and founded his own company. My husband is a first generation immigrant. His father (a fisherman) and his mother fled China when the dynasty fell to Taiwan. Never feeling a part of Taiwan even though he was born there, my husband came here.