When you find a book you love, you may have also found a writer you hate in that Mean Girls-style jealously masked as loathing kind of way. This is the experience of picking up a Gary Shteyngart novel, like 2010’s Super Sad True Love Story, or his previous Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. Shteyngart effortlessly handles brutal satire, withering anti-heroes, keen social observation, and a dour former-Soviet wit and it’s effing annoying. With his latest, Little Failure, Shteyngart chronicles his own origin story. It’s just as irritatingly brilliant, but in equal measure heartbreaking, and so he might be forgiven for driving us nearly insane with jealousy before.
The Shteyngarts immigrated to the US when Gary – née Igor – was 7, under an agreement President Jimmy Carter made with the Soviet Union. Shteyngart explains, “Russia gets the grain it needs to run; America gets the Jews it needs to run: all in all, an excellent trade deal.” His memoir traces the family history in the old country and his own story in the new one. Oy. It doesn’t sound easy.
As part of a reading at the Skirball Cultural Center last week, Shteyngart illuminated a little bit of what’s important to a perpetually anxious, formerly asthmatic, currently skeptical writer at the forefront of the zeitgeist. Though he dubbed Super Sad True Love Story his “dirge for the death of literature” (in it, no one really reads anymore, opting instead to constantly stream information through small devices worn around the neck), he’s still quite confident in the resilience of books.
“Books are the only technology that fully transports you,” he said. The beauty of the analog is that there’s no alerts, no pop ups, no inbox or messages or updating feeds. Opening a book puts you right in the head of the person who wrote it, and there’s really nothing quite like it, he pointed out. Additionally, they serve as a useful screening system for potential dates. A bookshelf loaded with Glenn Beck titles is a pretty good indication of the type of person who owns them, and may save you a good amount of time and energy if that’s not your jam.
On why a memoir at the relatively sprightly young age of 41 (“74 in Russian years”), he noted the density of his life so far. Shteyngart reasoned that his memory is still pretty good: “I still remember my childhood,” he said. And it makes for a really compelling memoir: the tactile details he delivers of an early childhood in the Soviet Union really works with that transporting thing he claims books do. But really the point – and it makes sense for a nervous Russian Jewish person who’s been psychoanalyzed to the nth degree – was to “figure out who I am, and that great, beautiful, awful scary story that came before. How can I move on and write about other people, and have empathy for them if I don’t know who I am?,” he mused.
Little Failure proves an affecting, transporting reading experience. It’s more of the same witty literary gymnastics Shteyngart’s delivered in his novels, tempered with the delicate and heartbreaking truth of his family history.
And if nothing else, it gave us this book trailer, featuring Rashida Jones, Alex Karpovsky, and James Franco in a bathrobe: