“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 in the grass, sniffing clover and munching on boysenberries, expects that at any minute the forces of history will drop by and discreetly kick him in the ass.
A knowledgeable Jew in a similar position expects history to spare any pretense and kick him directly in the face.
A Russian Jew (knowledgeable or not), however, expects both history and a Russian to kick him in the ass, the face, and every other place where a kick can be reasonably lodged. Vladimir understood this. His take on the matter was: Victim, stop lazing about in the grass.
Vladimir Girshkin, the hero of that novel, is a young man who like the author was born in Leningrad, has a similar pair of parents, and is a graduate of a prestigious high school in New York City and a small liberal college in the Midwest. He works for a miserable salary at an agency in lower Manhattan dealing with absorption of new immigrants bewildered by American society even more than he is. However, after amassing a huge credit card debt trying to impress his American girlfriend, in desperate need of cash, and fearing for his life after falling afoul of a drug dealer, he flees to Prava (an Eastern European city like Prague) where he hangs out with American expatriates and makes bundles of money running a Ponzi scheme for a Russian gangster.
The men and women he meets there don’t know what to make of him. To Girshkin, they are no mystery. White middle-class and American-born, these nouveau-nerds, as he calls them, never have to worry about money and feel themselves entitled, after five generations of affluence, to be second-rate, unlike him who is expected to do something extraordinary—conduct at the Bolshoi, write a best seller, and make a lot of money in order to gain some acceptance. As for the locals, they are the same crooks, he says, who ran things before the fall of communism and who needed just two seconds to switch from hammer and sickle to Christ.
The Russian Debutante’s Handbook is a picaresque novel, with a far more intricate and amusing plot than I can summarize here, about a scoundrel who lives by his wits. It is thoroughly entertaining, well written, and a very funny book. Shteyngart relies on his sense of humor to give him a true picture of life. Laughter for him has its own aesthetic and its own take on reality that he completely trusts. This is the Russian side of him. Although marinated (to use his term) in contemporary American culture and idiomatic English, he is a writer in the tradition of Gogol, Goncharov, Babel, and Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, whose Ostap Bender, the archetypal con artist in their novels The Twelve Chairs and The Little Golden Calf, is a model for Girshkin. Unlike Shteyngart, American fiction writers tend to be uncomfortable mixing tragedy and comedy, as if the presence of one excludes the other, and our world can be depicted without mentioning that there are as many dunces as there are tragic figures. Shteyngart’s gift for comic characterization relies, as it does in the work of Rabelais and his Russian successors, on caricature, exaggeration, and noticing things we ordinarily don’t see, to rejuvenate the art of description: “You could drown a kitten in her blue eyes.”
Shteyngart’s heroes are without exception tragicomic figures. They make fun of themselves while complaining about their unhappy lives, and do not spare their own families and their Russian-Jewish background, as well as other ethnic groups and religions. Summarily reducing people to stereotypes is frowned upon today, but when it is done without malice, it is hard to get upset and not to chuckle. Here, for instance, is Misha Vainberg, the hugely fat and wealthy son of a Russian gangster, the hero of Shteyngart’s second novel, Absurdistan (2006), describing what he sees as he is being driven through Brooklyn for the first time:
In the Soviet Union, we were told that people of African descent—Negroes and Negresses, as we called them—were our brothers and sisters, but to the newly arriving Soviet Jews at the time, they were as frightening as armies of Cossacks billowing across the plains. I, however, fell in love with these colorful people at first blush. There was something blighted, equivocal, and downright Soviet about the sight of underemployed men and women arranged along endless stretches of broken porch-front and unmowed lawn—it seemed that, like my Soviet compatriots, they were making an entire lifestyle out of their defeat.
Absurdistan is a savage satire about a fictitious nation whose inhabitants are known among their neighbors as “The Cretins of the Caucasus,” and more seriously about the dissolution and decline of the Soviet Union and its effect on the region. Here’s the same Misha returning from New York to his father in Leningrad and seeing his country as if for the first time as he goes through customs at the airport:
There was defeat on the faces of the Kalashnikov-toting boys who guarded the dilapidated international terminal, ostensibly from the rich passengers of our Austrian Airlines flight. Defeat at Passport Control. Defeat at Customs. At the curbside line of sad men with battered Ladas begging to ferry us into town for hard currency, defeat. Yet on Beloved Papa’s face, prune-dry, oddly sober, infused with a misbegotten familial glow, there was something like incumbent victory. He tickled my stomach and made a manly poke at my khui. He pointed proudly at the armada of Mercedeses ready to ferry us to his four-story kottedzh on the Gulf of Finland. “Not bad, these new times,” he said to me. “Like an Isaac Babel story, but not so funny.”
Shteyngart tells about Misha’s adventures, jumping from subject to subject like a seasoned raconteur who loves to digress, make a trenchant observation about something seemingly unrelated, and crack a joke before continuing. There is a marvelously told story about his father’s funeral, many funny pages about Rouenna, Misha’s black girlfriend from the Bronx, who back in New York is taking creative writing classes from some upper-middle-class phony called Shteynfarb, who came to the States as a kid and is now playing the professional immigrant game, and many other memorable scenes and hilarious one-liners, but the plot unfolding in the mythical country Absurdistan and the cast of characters there are no more believable than the citizens of Freedonia, in the Marx Brothers’ movie Duck Soup, and, depending on the reader’s mood, just as enjoyable.
A much more accomplished, inventive, and troubling novel is Super Sad True Love Story (2010). It takes place in New York City in the near future, a time when the United States is in rapid decline, its assets are worthless, and its currency is pegged to the yuan. The country is governed by a single political party calling itself the Bipartisan Party (whose slogan is NOW IS THE TIME FOR SPENDING, SAVING, AND UNITY) that has invaded Venezuela and has set up National Guard checkpoints everywhere to suppress dissent among the population. The men and women of the future are obsessed with youth and health and regard shopping as the highest form of patriotism. They are equipped with a gadget called an äppärät that allows them to text and scan for data and live-stream their thoughts and conversations in a language of early adolescence. There’s no privacy left. Women wear transparent clothing and transmit their “fuckability” and credit ratings to strangers.
At one point in the novel, the hero, Lenny Abramov, who works for an entrepreneur who peddles an expensive, long-term treatment to the wealthy that is supposed to make them immortal, downloads his own profile on the äppärät to check how he rates in this new world and comes up with information about his address, income, current blood pressure, blood type, age, lifespan (47 percent elapsed; 53 percent remaining), high cholesterol and depression, aggregate wealth, liabilities, spending power, consumer profile (heterosexual, nonathletic, nonautomotive, nonreligious, non-Bipartisan), sexual preferences (low-functioning Asian/Korean and White/Irish American with Low Net Worth family background), and information about his last purchases: books made of paper that his fellow citizens now regard as repugnant, smelly relics of an earlier primitive United States.
Some reviews of the book have cited George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We as models, as if one needed to immerse oneself in futuristic fiction these days to read the writing on the wall. What makes the book disturbing is that the future it predicts is not just plausible, but is closing faster on us than anyone till recently could have imagined. As Shteyngart remarked wittily about the book in a New Yorker essay called “Confessions of a Google Glass Explorer,” he feels “like a very limited Nostradamus, the Nostradamus of two weeks from now.”
One of the often-noticed weaknesses of dystopian fiction is that people in it do not seem very real and thus elicit our sympathy only in an abstract way. This cannot be said of Super Sad True Love Story. The story of Lenny Abramov, a nice guy who believes that life is always fair in the end, and Eunice Park, his young Korean girlfriend who discovers that it isn’t, has genuine depth and ends up by being heartbreaking. All Shteyngart’s books are about love. His heroes search for it, find it, lose it, or love madly without being loved in return, but never before has he written with so much understanding and empathy for what two people in love go through. Super Sad True Love Story is aptly named. It is a super sad story, and so are the stories in his other books, even the funniest ones, because, as one of his characters once said, “real humor is not supposed to be funny.”
I must admit, I was surprised when I read that Shteyngart was publishing a memoir, since he had already written about himself and his family under various fictitious names, recounted his unhappy childhood and his difficult relationship with his parents, told us that he loved them so much when he was young that it could have been called child abuse, that he craved their approval and longed for the carrot and stick of their nineteenth-century child-rearing, while elsewhere congratulating himself on barely surviving the criminal closeness of a typical Russian family and hoping that someday he’ll rehabilitate his mother and father the way Gorbachev rehabilitated Stalin’s victims. However, now that he has written Little Failure: A Memoir, I’m glad he’s done so, because it is a very fine book that we can hope may free him from writing about them again.
It begins, as most memoirs do, with his earliest memories of himself and his family and the life of a country that is no more. Little Igor was a sickly child suffering from asthma, but recalls fondly the hominess of being bedridden, surrounded by pillows, duvet covers, and comforters with the heat coming from the radiators and his own musty warmth, and wonders if this is his first memory. What he remembers more clearly are the asthma attacks at night, his mother or father awake holding his mouth open with a tablespoon so that he doesn’t suffocate and to allow him to get some air into his lungs, his father’s hand on the back of his head brushing his hair with sympathy, until he can no longer hold back the frustration and says to him, “Akh, ty, soplyak” (“Eh, you, Snotty”). And as years pass, realizing that the asthma will not go away, the anger and the disappointment in that statement, the son remembers, will become even more pronounced, so that he will drag it out in this manner:
Shake of the head.
Shteyngart’s parents come from diverse backgrounds. His father is a village boy whose own father was sent to the front to hold back the German advance on Leningrad and lost his life along with thousands of other defenders and 750,000 civilians who died of hunger in the city under siege. His father’s mother was evacuated with her three-year-old son, Semyon, and some relatives to a small village some four hundred miles east of the city where there was milk and potatoes, so at least they did not starve, but had to fight off rats that liked to crawl in with the sleeping children to get warm and have a bite. His father recalls one of his aunts jumping out of the window to get away from them.
His mother, who regards his father’s family as savages and provincials, comes from Petersburg’s cultured classes. On her father’s side, she is descended from twelve generations of Russian Orthodox churchmen hailing from the Kirov region, lost, as Shteyngart says, somewhere in Russia’s vastness between Helsinki and Kazakhstan. On her mother’s side, they are from the small town of Dubrovo in Belarus, where they were descendants of a long line of rabbis. Most of them were killed by the Nazis, except for his grandmother, who in hope of becoming a journalist found her way to Leningrad alone, enrolled at a technical college, and met his grandfather, the son of the Russian Orthodox deacon there, who became an economist at a prestigious mining institute in the city while she found an editorial perch at a local newspaper. In a country that lived through the biggest war humanity has ever known with twenty million dead, everyone who survived those years has an amazing story to tell.
Unlike most immigrants, Shteyngart’s parents came to the United States with advanced degrees, eager to learn English, and found jobs in no time, he as a mechanical engineer on Long Island and she working for a nonprofit organization in New York. They prospered quickly, buying a co-op apartment first and then a house, and sent their son to a conservative Hebrew school in Queens. Nevertheless, all three felt uprooted, his parents with their fresh memories of Petersburg where they spent half of their lives, and in the case of their son, still mumbling comforting Russian words in his sleep (kasha, Masha, baba) and coming to school wearing a fur coat and a fur hat smelling of various wild animals and speaking with a thick accent. He was hated there, he says in his memoir, hated more than he was ever hated anywhere. The other students hated him because he came from the country President Reagan had called the “Evil Empire,” and because of all the anti-Russian films like Red Dawn that were so popular in those years. “Commie!” they’d shout as they pushed him against the wall. “Ruski!”
What saved him from being permanently shunned by his classmates in Hebrew school was his sense of humor and his literary talent. He discovered that he could make his fellow students laugh with his jokes and amuse them with a science fiction novel called The Chalenge that he wrote in installments and that a kind teacher let him read to the class every day. As he says in Little Failure, “After all, this is America, and you can swap out the parts of yourself that don’t work. You can rebuild yourself piece by piece.” And he did that, in a typical way children of immigrants do, by distancing himself from his politically and religiously conservative parents. “I think Obama should be president. But of African country. This is white country,” he hears a relative of his saying over a Thanksgiving dinner. “The racism inside me is dying. A difficult, smelly death,” he realizes after becoming a student at the multiethnic and multiracial Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan full of kids smarter than he is.
“I know what modernity teaches us: whenever there is some kind of trouble, the parents are usually to blame,” he writes in The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. In his case, however, this may be true. His mother doesn’t speak to his father for days and sometimes weeks. There’s talk of divorce and many angry, painful scenes over the years between the father and son with the older man rarely passing up an opportunity to say something nasty to the one he calls “snotty,” “weakling,” or “little failure.” Even his jokes, Shteyngart says, have a way of ending with a twist of a knife. The only loving family member is the grandmother whom her grandson adores and whose worldview, he says, reminds him of that of country folk in Goncharov’s Oblomov, who greet the coming of night with the phrase, “Well, that’s another day over, praise God!”
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
I bet anyone who reads this famous poem by Philip Larkin has no trouble understanding what he’s saying, even if their own parents are largely exempt. In the case of Shteyngart’s mother and father, having Stalin and Hitler as babysitters may have made all the difference. By the end of the memoir, he comes to realize something like that about them. In reality they never left Russia, so the softness of their new life in America could never soften them. Even their son, who has no God, no family myth to cling to, can’t help living in two worlds too, the clash of which inspires in him the feelings of both elation and remorse: the elation of having a special, privileged knowledge reserved for those who know both the one and the other, and the remorse of fitting finally into neither one. This may sound like an awful predicament to be in, but it gave him a kind of consolation prize: not just his own distinct identity, but all the loose ends and unresolved contradictions out of which great literature is made.