Gary Shteyngart: My Self-Deprecating Hero

Gary Shteyngart is one of my multicultural literary heroes. One of the reasons, surely, is his Russian background. Russia and all things Russian have a special place in my family. My French father was a Russian teacher. He taught me the language and introduced me to the country and its magnificent culture, creating a connection that has remained meaningful throughout the years.

Shteyngart was born in St Petersburg (then Leningrad) in 1972. At age 7 he moved to Queens, New York with his parents. His was one of the many families to come to America as part of the Soviet Jewish immigration wave triggered by the Cold War thaw in the late 1970s.

He published his first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, in 2002. His writing is not only inventive and witty, it is also insightful. Reading his books is like walking in a city where a surprise awaits you at pretty much every street corner. Sometimes it is in the plot but often it is the sheer delight in discovering how he expresses something. It seems clear to me that his imaginative mastery of the English language has some roots in his intimate knowledge, and love for, his mother tongue, Russian.

As much as I find his fiction work enticing, the book that stole my heart is his memoir, Little Failure, in which he tells the story of his life:

from the Soviet child unquestioningly accepting the system he was born into — Lenin and His Magical Goose was the first book he wrote at age 5 under the patronage of his beloved babushka;

to the immigrant boy amazed at and struggling with his new life (his thick accent, his sense of being clueless and utterly uncool) — “Coming to America after a childhood spent in the Soviet Union is equivalent to stumbling off a monochromatic cliff and landing in a pool of pure Technicolor.” ;

to the experimenting and self-doubting young man – “In the previous year I had tried being a paralegal for a civil rights law firm, but that did not work out well. The paralegaling involved a lot of detail, way more detail than a nervous young man with a pony tail, a small substance-abuse problem, and a hemp pin on his cardboard tie could handle.”;

to the still unsure up-and-coming author.

The English language – at first a moving target, painstakingly tamed, then beautifully made his. The Russian language – a shiny haven slowly receding?

As it gradually dawned on his parents that Shteyngart was neither doctor nor lawyer material – it seems proverbial Jewish parents’ ambitions are pretty aligned throughout the world – he shifted from being something to marvel at to being a matter of concern and worries. That’s how his nickname came up. “My mother was developing an interesting fusion of English and Russian and, all by herself, had worked out the term Failurchka, or Little Failure.”

The story could be very depressing but, in Shteyngart’s unique voice, it is both hilarious and profound. No doubt he has had his share of obstacles, rejections, and misguided parental love but his craft is to tell his immigrant story in a delightful and illuminating way and to make us want more. And that he does.

It strikes me that Shteyngart can be so preoccupied with, and vocal about, his many perceived shortcomings even as he is by any standards a remarkably talented and successful writer. I don’t have an answer except perhaps that he has recognized his genuine sense of failure nurtures his writing.

Meanwhile, the multicultural story goes on for Shteyngart, whose wife is of Korean descent. They live in New York, alternating between the city and upstate. They became parents to Johnny Won Shteyngart in 2013. I wonder what language(s) they speak to little Johnny…

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