You call this man a 'Failure'?

Gary Shteyngart, a Russian immigrant, details the adjustment process in his memoir, "Little Failure."

Story highlights

  • Gary Shteyngart's new book is a memoir, "Little Failure"
  • Shteyngart's family moved from USSR when he was 7
  • Author struggled to fit in, both at home and in school
  • Shteyngart's books include "Absurdistan," "Super Sad True Love Story"
They called him "Scary Gary."
Gary Shteyngart had a bong named Big Blue. There's a photo of him in his new memoir, "Little Failure," high on mushrooms. Another photo shows him drunk. He was a one-man party.
In one scene in the book, he is carried out of his Oberlin dormitory because his loud merrymaking disturbed his roommate. (Or maybe he was carried into his dormitory. He doesn't remember.) At his Manhattan high school, he spent three years "drunk and stoned." Or so he claims.
But mostly he says he struggled to fit in. Throughout his life, well before college or high school, he confesses to feeling lonely, or angry, or anxious. Rarely genuinely happy.
Could this really be Gary Shteyngart? The laugh-out-loud author of "Absurdistan" and "Super Sad True Love Story"? The Gary Shteyngart who can find absurdist comedy in overseas revolutions, economic collapse and small electric appliances? That Gary Shteyngart?
One and the same, says the author in a phone interview from a tour stop in Los Angeles.
"The truth of the matter is I was a jerk in many, many ways," he says.
'Humor is the armor'
Let's be clear: Shteyngart didn't rob a bank or maim an old widow. He was merely a bright kid who was sometimes out of control.
Still, "Little Failure" is an attempt to revisit his life -- that of the Russian Jewish immigrant who made his way in the United States -- and get at the root of his woe.
Much of it originated at home with loving but wounding parents. Shteyngart was born in 1972 and spent the first seven years of his life in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), in an apartment with a Russian TV that was always in danger of exploding. His parents, stifled in many ways, bickered.
When his family moved to the United States, he couldn't help but be impressed by the riches of the West.
"We didn't have to go to a store in order to feel like we were someplace completely and insanely (different). You land at the international arrivals building -- the Pan Am terminal -- at JFK and it's shaped like a flying saucer. It looked like something from the 21st century," he recalls. "You saw a Chevrolet Corvette and wondered if this was an airplane without wings on the ground."
It took time to make the adjustment, he observes, especially since finding his way at school was as difficult as doing so at home.
It helped that he had a nimble mind. In the book, he talks about the stories he wrote, including a rewrite of the Torah; he called it the "Gnorah," after his adolescent nickname, "Gnu." He details the long stretches of the computer game Zork he played with his friend Jonathan.
Shteyngart being Shteyngart, he can't help but make the mundane amusing.
His family came over with orange suitcases (and dark jackets) of "real Polish leather." The boy popping a wheelie on the box of Honeycomb cereal becomes "an important role model." His family receives a letter from Publishers Clearing House, addressed to "Mr. S. Sh*tgart," and believes it has just won $10 million -- though, to be sure the judges approve, he and his parents fill out everything and sign up for several magazines.
Even the later stories, about his drunkenness and a disturbed girlfriend, have a comic spin.
This laughter in the face of sadness comes naturally given his Russian-Jewish heritage, says Shteyngart.
"I'd call it 'laughter from the edge of the grave,' " he says. "Yes, it's quite tragic, but at the same time, if you don't laugh at it, the other solution is to wrap yourself in a shawl and die. Humor is the armor and the sword that you are given."
'I tried to write this in the most loving way I could'
He says he had lots of help in putting together "Little Failure." He interviewed family and friends, including an old girlfriend who had saved his lengthy letters.
"I was very grateful she'd done that," he says. "Because, as readers will know, at Oberlin I wasn't sober 100% of the time, (so) it was very helpful to discover these letters and reconstruct what had happened."
Reviewers have approved. " 'Little Failure' is as entertaining as it's moving," wrote Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times. " 'Little Failure' ... is a much more straightforwardly soulful account than many of his readers might expect.," wrote Lisa Zeidner in the Washington Post.
Shteyngart still hasn't heard from his most important reviewers, however: his parents. He hopes he did right by them.
"I tried to write this in the most loving way I could, because I do love them very much. They made a lot of sacrifices."
But there's still a language barrier.
"Their English may not have all the nuances needed to read something like this. I'm usually translated into Russian, so I think the ultimate test is to see what they think of a version published in Russian," he says.
However, he says that another observer, his longtime psychoanalyst, hasn't disapproved. Of course, he hasn't approved, either.
"I'm such a bad analysand. In traditional Freudian analysis you're supposed to lie there, and instead I whip out my phone and start typing in the stuff that just came up so I won't forget exactly how it happened," he says. "And because it's traditional analysis, the analyst doesn't rebuke me or say anything, so I get away with it."
Maybe, he adds, the book is a capstone of sorts, and it's time to move on, anyway. He's already progressed, he says.
"Unlike most New Yorkers I only see mine four times a week as opposed to the five times a week that's traditional. So I'm something of an outlier," he says. "But it's only been 12 years and we're ready to stop soon."