Gary Shteyngart finds happy place with 'Little Failure'

Gary Shteyngart (Reuters files)

Gary Shteyngart (Reuters files)

Liz Braun, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:26 PM ET

Unlike most writers, Gary Shteyngart, 41, just can't stop. The best-selling author of Super Sad True Love Story, Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante's Handbook has the opposite of writer's block – he’s suffering from not being able to write every day.

He's on the road to promote Little Failure, a new memoir about his family and his own life thus far. "I'm on tour for 150 days so I can't write during this time, and I'm missing it quite a bit. I'm putting all my energy into my e-mails now, that's all I write," he says, and he has the courtesy to laugh with embarrassment. "The emails are very baroque and chatty."

Despite his enviable ability to write like a mad thing, Shteyngart says he didn't start to take writing seriously until college.

"I went to this hippy-dippy, Marxist/Leninist school called Oberlin in Ohio," says Shteyngart, perhaps hoping to get off the alumni mailing list for the respected liberal arts college. "I had a minor in creative writing, and I really started to take it seriously. I'd wake up in the morning and think, 'Oh, I have to go to all these stupid classes.' But writing was this exciting thing."

It should be said that Shteyngart has been writing since childhood. As Little Failure reveals, he wrote his first novel at the age of five, his grandmother rewarding him as he went along with a piece of cheese for each page he completed.

"Saul Bellow calls writers, 'the great noticers,' and I think that's about right," says Shteyngart. "From an early age, for some reason, whether you're too sensitive or you don't have any friends, or whatever it is," he says, "you're good at noticing things and writing them down. That's all it is."

Noticing things and writing them down changed Shteyngart's life, the very life he's mined for material in all his books. The author moved from Leningrad (St. Petersburg) to America with his family in the 1970s.

"I was surprised. I didn't know so many people wanted to read about this subsection of society, Russian immigrants of America," he says. "The particulars of growing up in one superpower and moving to another, it's a very 20th Century sort of story."

And it won him immediate publishing success, starting with The Russian Debutante's Handbook in 2002. (Shteyngart has won important awards for each of his novels, and was one of The New Yorker's "20 under 40" fiction writer's list in 2010.)

"It was exciting. I got to give all these wonderful readings, and then I remember the first time I left New York. I went to Lexington, Kentucky, to this giant mall, and zero people turned up." He laughs. "So then you have to wonder, does this travel at all?"

This travels. Shteyngart's writing is wired and hilarious. He says he left nothing out of Little Failure, which has his trademark humour as well as some surprisingly moving material about his childhood and his parents.

Of course, he and his wife, Esther Won, have had a child since Little Failure was published.

"I haven't seen him much," says Shteyngart of his infant boy, Johnny. "I've been on tour since he was born! I come back, and he's like a different person. When I see him, I get very happy automatically. Babies have a smell that I think biology has created to make you love them even more."

Shteyngart is an only child. His father was too. And his son likely will be too, says the author, pointing out that some surveys suggest only children are happier.

"Growing up an only child was fun, actually. It was very imaginative," he says. "Sometimes it was lonely, but once I started making friends, finally, I became very good at making very good friends. I wanted to make up for some of that loneliness."

Shteyngart’s memoir brilliant comedy

A memoir from someone who is only 41 could be worrisome, but Gary Shteyngart's Little Failure mostly avoids navel-gazing for a wonderful mix of keen observation and brilliant comedy. And heartbreak.

Shteyngart's book is about his family, their move from Russia to America and the Herculean task of casting off one culture to embrace another. Anyone who understands how overrated childhood is will love this book.

In tracing his ancestors' move from Ukraine to Leningrad (St. Petersburg), Shteyngart writes, "In 1932, Stalin decrees that the inhabitants of the Ukraine should pretty much f---ing starve to death," a typical Shteyngart observation. He salts humour into unexpected corners of his sometimes sorrowful story and moves the narrative along at a tremendous clip, managing along the way to make you care very much about his family and their progress. He is a master of the unexpected and the absurd.

Little Failure, his mother's nickname for him ('Failurchka') , tells how Igor became Gary, how the Russian-Jewish family came to America in 1979 — via Italy, a sunny chapter — and how they settled in Queens. Shteyngart is a small, poor, asthmatic child in a large, loud, colourful place, and he grows into a highly anxious adolescent, the only child of parents with high expectations. And no TV.

Some of Little Failure's most poignant passages describe Shteyngart's evolution as a writer. A pretty young teacher asks the striving, unpopular, adolescent Gary to read from his science fiction 'novel,' and that changes everything. Our misfit moves on to high school in Manhattan, to college, to publishing success. And to true love. Little Failure combines a coming-of-age tale with coming-to-America comedy. But mostly, it's a testament to the transformative power of art.

 


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