New books — From the February 2014 issue

New Books

Download Pdf
Read Online
( 2 of 3 )

“The journey never ends” — this is how Gary Shteyngart dedicates his memoir, Little Failure (Random House, $27). Malamud’s father was a depressive, his mother a schizophrenic suicide; by that standard, Shteyngart’s carping, squawking parents are Semitic saints, deserving of filial affection. But then, they’re only the book’s co-dedicatees, sharing honors with “Richard C. Lacy, M.D., Ph.D.,” whose credentials are a deliberate betrayal. The Internet confirms: Dr. Lacy is a psychoanalyst with offices just off Central Park. Dr. Lacy must be a genius, the Gary Shteyngart of psych, to judge by the voluble equanimity of his patient. But then Shteyngart must be a genius, too, the Dr. Lacy of lit, because after this gesture there’s no way he’s going to have to pay for his sessions at the regular rate.

“Inaugural Excerpt Videograms,” by Robert Heinecken © The Robert Heinecken Trust.

“Inaugural Excerpt Videograms,” by Robert Heinecken © The Robert Heinecken Trust.

Shteyngart has taken stock of himself before: Vladimir Girshkin of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Misha Vainberg of Absurdistan, Leonard Abramov of Super Sad True Love Story. One is a sex-inept Russian émigré conning American students abroad in Eastern Europe; another is a sex-inept Russian émigré struggling with pot and obesity; yet another is a sex-inept son of Russian émigrés who salvages neglected novels and yearns for monogamy with a Korean woman. The current avatar, “Gary Shteyngart,” acknowledges the prior incarnations, if only to persuade the reader of his current credibility: He was born in Leningrad and lives in New York; he’s soberish, fit enough, moneyed, famous, and married to a Korean woman. Over the course of four books and twelve years, there’s been a bit of growth.

Shteyngart changed his first name from Igor to Gary in America, though that didn’t stop anyone from ragging on his denim, or calling him “Shitfart.” Any native can beat Zork, and beat off to Tahnee Welch in Cocoon, but it takes an immigrant to reconcile neoconservatism at Stuyvesant High School (resenting all the Muslim kids with 4.0 GPAs), with neoliberalism at Oberlin (resenting all the theater blondes who wouldn’t hook up), and to leverage an M.F.A. interview at Hunter into a publishing lunch, a contract, bestsellerdom. He’d been a cherished child in Leningrad, but in New York he became a parent to his parents, translating Doritos appetites to borscht mores and explaining the Clinton Administration.

The Shteyngarts, like most émigré Soviet Jews, cleaved to the G.O.P. and especially to Reagan, the Moses who freed them from the House of Bondage. The irony of this idolatry is that the family came to the States in 1979, back when Reagan was still just the ex-governor of Hollywood. In that year, a seven-year-old Shteyngart was one of 51,331 Soviet Jews granted exit visas for Israel, which wound up absorbing only 17,278 of them. The rest took trajectories similar to the Shteyngarts’: flying via East Berlin to Vienna, refusing the offers of naturalization from Jerusalem, and fleeing to Rome, where they applied for American asylum. In the 1970s, the word “refusenik” indicated a Jew who’d been refused an exit visa, as punishment for dissent or for being an expert in the sciences. By the 1980s, Soviet Jews in Israel were mockingly applying it to comrades who, given the chance, preferred living along the LIRR tracks in Little Neck, Queens, where Shteyngart was resettled, to the borders of the West Bank and Gaza.

Shteyngart glosses over this history in a manner mildly avoidant and mildly bored. His major political move, instead, is to recount and regret his stint volunteering for the first campaign of Bush I, severing ties only after the victory party when two teenage WASPs mistake him for a waiter: “I’ll have a rum and Coke, just a splash of ice and a lime.”

The first wave of Russian-Jewish migration, between 1880 and 1914, set the standards for immigrant memoirs. They had to be either radical (Emma Goldman) or sentimental (Mary Antin), and they had to protect an ideal, whether socialist or capitalist. Shteyngart’s memoir washes ashore as the best of the second wave by dint of being neither and of protecting nothing but himself. If this makes him a Failurchka — as he’s called by his mother, for never doing a J.D., and by his father, for finishing below the New Yorker editor and enemy of Zion David Remnick in an online ranking of New York writers — it’s only because America is a Little Failure, too.

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $23.99/year.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf

More from Joshua Cohen:

Readings From the July 2018 issue

Hat Tips

New books From the December 2015 issue

New Books

New books From the October 2015 issue

New Books

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada


October 2019


You’ve read your free article from Harper’s Magazine this month.

*Click “Unsubscribe” in the Weekly Review to stop receiving emails from Harper’s Magazine.