If comedy springs from childhood misery, Gary Shteyngart, one of the funniest writers in America, must have had a truly awful childhood.
And so he did, as we learn in his simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking new memoir, "Little Failure."
Even before his family immigrated to the United States from the Soviet Union when he was 7, Shteyngart was a melancholy, lonely little boy.
Later he would be a melancholy, lonely young man.
He drank too much, smoked too much marijuana, couldn't keep a job or a girlfriend, and was, in general, a hot mess — a fact his own mother acknowledged when, in her inimitable Russian-Jewish immigrant fashion, nicknamed him "Failurchka."
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With the help of 12 years of psychoanalysis, Shteyngart is a failure no longer. After his first novel, "The Russian Debutante's Handbook," appeared in 2002, he went on to write the best-selling "Absurdistan" (2006) and "Super Sad True Love Story" (2010). But in "Little Failure," he tells the super sad true story of his life until recently — including the disconcerting tale of his relationship with a woman who attacked one of her later boyfriends with a hammer.
Printers Row Journal caught up with Shteyngart, 41, for a phone interview from his home in New York City. Here's an edited transcript of our chat.
Q: What can you tell us about the book-jacket photograph, which is of you as a small and rather miserable-looking child sitting in a toy car?
A: It was taken in Leningrad. At the time you would take your kid to a photo studio where they had all the latest marvels of Soviet technology set up. The studio freaked me out completely. I was very scared, and the thing I was most scared of was this car. Most boys would grasp the steering wheel and go, "vroom, vroom!" But I'm just sitting there, very taken aback. I only learned how to drive this year, actually, and I'm 41.
Q: You're wearing what seems to be a sailor's suit.
A: Yeah. The horrible thing they did to Soviet boys at that time was put them in sailor outfits. There are hundreds of pictures of me wearing sailor outfits, in fact. It's been hard to live that down. Anyway, in the picture I had asthma and looked exhausted. It kind of captures the "meh" feeling I had, already, that life wasn't all that great.
Q: Working our way forward from the book jacket to the dedication page, I see that you dedicated the book to your parents. Have they read the book?
Q: Will they?
A: Probably. I think it would be easier for them if it gets translated into Russian, as some of my books have been.
Q: So their English is still not great?
A: Well, their Russian is certainly better.
Q: And how will they react, do you think, to your portrayals of them, which aren't exactly flattering?
A: Well, first, a lot of this was written with a sense of love. Second, they came from a very difficult place. There are chapters that trace the family lineage: crushed by Hitler on one side and Stalin on the other. And some of the things they say are very clever, very memorable. When I was growing up, I thought of them as these Shakespearean characters. Sometimes they could be very hurtful, sometimes they could be very funny.
Q: The title of the book, "Little Failure," is the English translation of "Failurchka," the nickname your mother gave you. Some people are going to think that was incredibly cruel.
A: Well, you know, I've known a lot of children of immigrants — Chinese, Korean, Indian parents — and from that part of the world, or my part of the world, the parents pretty much say whatever's on their mind. The American kind of filtering where you say, "Well, I probably shouldn't say this because I'll hurt his feelings," that just doesn't fit. If you think your child is a failure — or a little failure, as in my case — then you tell them that. The hope is that the child registers that he's a failure, and will improve, and become less of a failure.
Q: And did that work in your case?
A: That's a good question. Maybe all that prodding and all that competitiveness made me work harder. On the other hand, maybe without all that, if I'd been more sure of myself and what I was doing, even more could have been accomplished. On the third hand, if you will, if my parents didn't shape me like that, I would have been writing about different things. So much of my fiction, and now this book, is about the way immigrant parents work.
Q: Of course, this is all theoretical. You are who you are, you had the childhood you had.
A: Right. And when you're an artist, you can't really help yourself. I've tried to do other jobs, and I literally failed at all of them. I see myself as a sort of Hasidic man, dreamy and not really working, reading books and writing stuff about them. But there are many paths, and I wouldn't say that this is necessarily the best one, the one that I fell into.
Q: You also dedicate the book to your therapist, with whom you endured 12 years of analysis, four times a week.
A: (Laughs.) I like that "endured."
Q: It sounds like an endurance test to me.
A: It was a lot of work — I don't want to say it was fun — but when it comes to writing a memoir, therapy is very helpful. You talk about yourself in a way that produces insights.
Q: Twelve years, though! Wouldn't you run out of things to talk about?
A: Not really, because everything is so linked to everything else that there's really no way to run out, especially if you have a mind that's always racing and trying to make associations between one thing and another. Certainly it's changed the way I see myself. I was too scared to send my first book out to a publisher, for example, because I was too ashamed of it. I was so worried about what the reaction would be. That's one of the first things that happened in psychoanalysis, dealing with that. I also stopped dating women who attack their boyfriends with hammers.
Q: Why were you were drawn to these young women who were not, in hindsight, so great for you?
A: Well, you know, the woman with the hammer ...
Q: Of course, she didn't have a hammer then.
A: She was in training for the hammer, you could say.
Q: Maybe she had a symbolic hammer.
A: Yes. Well, you started off by talking about me being called "Little Failure," and a lot of these relationships were like being called "Little Failure" over and over again. I was told I wasn't good enough to be in these relationships, that I was somehow deficient. And that felt familiar, even comfortable, in a weird way. Of course I shouldn't be with a woman who loves me unconditionally! I should be with somebody who thinks I need to be hammered.
Q: That one woman was scary.
A: Yes. After she and I were no longer together, she had a different boyfriend. She heard that he'd done something bad and she attacked him with a hammer, hit him several times in the head. She took off a piece of his ear, I think. He was hospitalized, and she fled the state. She later went back and surrendered, and was given a year in the county jail, and then 14 years' probation. But as you say, when I was with her, she wasn't violent toward me. But I could tell that things were very, very bad with her.
Q: Freud says that our personalities are formed by the time we're 6 or so. So you were already a Russian when you came to America, which was tricky for you.
A: Yes, I was quite fully formed by then. I was writing my first novel. I loved the Russian language. I was obsessed with the Communist Party and the Red Army and Lenin, whom I loved more than anything. And when I got to the U.S., it was very hard for me to pick up on, for example, English. I did learn English, but a part of me didn't want to let go of Russian, because that's where I felt safety. So I would speak Russian at the family breakfast table. And at Hebrew school I would sit alone at the lunch table and talk to myself in Russian. The kids thought I was completely insane. I just couldn't become another person, which was an American.
Q: But you knew you had to.
A: Yes, and quickly I understood that this was a superior civilization to our own. Things were so much more advanced than they were in Russia. In that picture on the front of the book, I'm in that little car, but when I got here and saw my first Corvette, I almost fainted. I understood that America was so superior that in a sense, I had to be inferior. I still had this big fur coat and this giant fur hat that I brought from Russia, and all the other kids laughed at me. There were teachers taking me aside and saying, "You should probably get rid of that fur coat and that hat. No one's going to play with you if you keep wearing those."
And that was a lot to handle when you're 7 years old. When we lived in Russia, I thought we were the world's pre-eminent superpower, that we were the source of good and America was the source of evil. And all of a sudden, things changed 180 degrees.
Q: Was that the fundamental source of the issues you dealt with in psychoanalysis?
A: Well, as you said, so much happens before you even turn 7 years old. So much of my trouble was almost genetic. The anxiety one suffers when half one's family was killed in the Holocaust and the other half was sent by Stalin to the labor camps — it's almost in your blood, that sense of insecurity. But certainly changing one's life so dramatically can't help. Still, I'm glad I didn't grow up in Russia. If I had, maybe I would be a wealthy oligarch jetting off to Switzerland, but I somehow doubt that.
Q: Another thing that might have been genetic is a fondness for alcohol. Did you have a drinking problem as a younger person?
A: Well, it's true that I drank too much, which was the road to becoming "Scary Gary," as they called me at Oberlin College: the guy who was drunk and stoned at every party. There was a release in that; I could drift off in my mind and be somewhere else, and that's a very Russian feeling, I think, that desire for escape. And when you're in Ohio, it's very good to escape.
Q: I'm sure the people at Oberlin will be thrilled to read that in this interview.
A: (Laughs.) I think some of them will agree.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer and photographer. Twitter: @KevinNance1.
By Gary Shteyngart, Random House,
368 pages, $27Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun