What a Beautiful Mess!

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Joshua Lutz/Redux
Gary Shteyngart, New York City, 2009

“I am a kind of joke, but the question is: which kind?” Gary Shteyngart writes in his new memoir. That’s something every immigrant could say. Most lives don’t make much sense even to people who never leave the city and the country where they were born, so they have the luxury of leaving them unexamined. This is a feat nearly impossible for immigrants to accomplish. Not just the ones who have survived massacres, bombings, expulsions, famines, genocides, and other hair-raising escapades, but even those who did not have a million murderers chasing after them.

One time riding in a cab in New York, I found out that my driver had been a shepherd in Mongolia tending sheep just a few years earlier, so I asked him if he was amazed to be here, stopped at a traffic light in Times Square, watching a party of men and women in evening clothes crossing the street ahead of us, and he spun around and gave me a big grin. No wonder, I thought, that there’s so much immigrant literature being published in this country. There must be thousands of amazing stories like that, some heartbreaking and tragic, others having the makings of a farce. Here’s one.

In the first scene, a five-year-old boy is playing hide-and-seek with his father underneath the legs of a huge statue of Lenin in St. Petersburg, and in the next, the same boy, now a bit older, is hiding in the bathroom of Stuyvesant High School in New York, smoking pot with black and Chinese kids, and in the next, working as a young volunteer for George Bush Sr.’s presidential campaign and attending the victory party at a fancy midtown hotel wearing a tux. Like all immigrants, he suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder, the presence of two or more distinct identities or personality states, with at least two of these identities or personality states recurrently taking control of the person’s behavior. To his parents and to his grandmother, who insist that only Russian be spoken at home, he is Igor Semyonovich Shteyngart, disobedient son and beloved grandson. To his American teachers, he is Gary Shteyngart, a strange, salami-smelling boy with some aptitude for math. On one hand, he is still a Russian at heart, and on the other hand, an odd kind of American kid, growing up in two cultures and two languages and absorbing their conflicting views of the world within himself.

Shteyngart was seven years old in 1979 when he immigrated with his parents to the United States. They were the so-called “Grain Jews,” whom President Jimmy Carter rescued from Russian communism in exchange for tons of midwestern grain and some advanced technology. In his first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (2002), he offers a perfectly sensible explanation for his parents’ decision in their forties to uproot themselves and immigrate to the United States:

A knowledgeable Russian lazing around …

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