The satirist on drinking too much, learning to write through psychoanalysis, and making the switch to memoir.
It seems quaint, in a way, to introduce Gary Shteyngart, but here we are. Shteyngart is described as a master of satire on the backs of his three novels, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Absurdistan, and Super Sad True Love Story, and it’s a well deserved designation. Those books attack modern society and mores with a vigor that might seem pure sophistry if it weren’t for the deep aliveness of their protagonists. Absurdistan’s Misha Vainberg is corpulent, yes, and the heir to a criminal Russian fortune, but he’s also a lost boy at heart, searching vainly for his father’s love. Lenny Abramov, the protagonist of Super Sad True Love Story, is a man fanatically devoted to his girlfriend Eunice and to his parents. Even as Eunice abandons him, it’s hard to hate her; she makes human choices, behaving as many of us would in a quest to save her family. The novels are also, page by page, some of the funniest books written in the past decade.
Now Shteyngart has published a memoir, Little Failure. Like his novels, Little Failure is a portrait of a very particular kind of Russian immigrant. It opens with an almost modern-day Shteyngart standing in a now-defunct branch of the famed New York bookstore The Strand, holding a book about St. Petersburg architecture and having a panic attack. Quickly, we move back to Shteyngart family prehistory and learn of the various tragedies—a broken engagement, the Russian revolution, the start of World War II, among others—that lead to his parents meeting, marrying, and bearing him into the specific Soviet context that would shape his writing life.
Reading Little Failure, Shteyngart devotees will draw more than a few connections between his real life and his novels. Like Lenny and Misha, he adores his parents, for instance. And the themes of Shteyngart’s fiction are evident in his memoir. There is the almost obsessive concern with the economics of what it means to be an American, there is the longing to belong to a social group that may or may not be worth joining, and there is the continual questing for women. Little Failure’s opening panic is credited by Shteyngart, in part, to the judgement of a girl he is pursuing at the time. This is indicative of the overall tone of the book. As he writes in that beginning section, “Unless I’m telling you otherwise, I am completely in love with everyone around me for the rest of this book.”
His affection is not restricted just to women, though. Throughout Little Failure Shteyngart loves, variously, American culture, a huge fake spaceship outside of his St. Petersburg window, smoking weed, drinking, the cool kids of Stuyvesant High School, writing, his parents and grandparents, Oberlin, his mentor, food, and psychoanalysis. That last is particularly important. Through his engagement with psychoanalysis, which acts as the final turning point of the book, Shteyngart transitions away from his various personae, becoming the writer that we recognize today.
I talked with Shteyngart over the phone about this cutting self-portrait of the artist as a young drunk, a young striver, and a young watcher of television; the fun of book trailers; the honesty required of memoir; and realizing “that whatever myths you had built up about yourself overcoming adversity and turning into a great person are not exactly true.”
—Michael Hafford for Guernica
Guernica: Why publish a memoir now?
Gary Shteyngart: Like a chicken hatching eggs, I have no plans for when a specific work will drop. When a satirical work like Absurdistan inspired me, that’s what I hatched. At forty-one, I felt emotionally distant enough from my younger days to write about them, and yet there’s still enough memory in my noggin to do a reasonable job of recreating the past.
Guernica: What would the ideal reader take away from Little Failure?
Gary Shteyngart: I try not to think of ideal readers. There’s a universality to youth that means one doesn’t have to be an immigrant to identify with this book. All outsiders are welcome. And maybe some good-natured insiders, too.
Guernica: How did the experience of writing this memoir compare with writing your first novel?
Gary Shteyngart: Well, with the first novel, I didn’t think there would be any audience for it, so I wrote and didn’t really think twice about it. After you publish a book, you become a writer and you’re supposed to take it very seriously. You’re supposed to show up at your desk—although frankly, I don’t have a desk, I write in bed—you’re supposed to show up at your bed and produce work. I think it’s a little bit like work. I like to have fun with it, do things like make silly book trailers. I don’t want to take this too seriously.
Guernica: You’re the most visible user of book trailers. Do you write those yourself, or does the publishing house work with you on them?
Gary Shteyngart: The first one, I wrote myself. The one that just appeared, with James Franco, I co-wrote with David Ebershoff, who’s my editor at Random House and also a great writer, so it was a joint effort.
Guernica: Do you like doing those?
Gary Shteyngart: Yes! I love doing them. That’s some of the most fun I think I have in general. Bring it on.
As far as I’m concerned, if you’re not doing it honestly, then why are you writing a memoir?
Guernica: And in the latest one, you get to kiss James Franco, right?
Gary Shteyngart: You get to make out with James Franco. How many people can do that?
Guernica: There’s a lot of material in your novels that is sourced from real life. In writing this memoir, did you ever feel you didn’t want to cover something because you’d already written about it in a novel?
Gary Shteyngart: Right. There’s an asthmatic boy in the first book and there’s an asthmatic boy in my memoir, so certain cold facts I couldn’t really change. As far as I’m concerned, if you’re not doing it honestly, then why are you writing a memoir? Stick to fiction. For me, the most important thing was doing it right. But there’s a kind of safety net that comes with writing a satire. You can do humor, humor, humor, something sad, humor, humor, humor, something sad. But the way life is lived, it’s not going to fall into that three-to-one, three-to-one trajectory. If you’ve had this kind of life, you’re not going to be able to hide behind humor as you are in a satire. Otherwise, it’s going to come out as disjointed or it’s going to come out as a sad attempt to make your audience laugh.
Guernica: How did you find yourself writing in the mode of satire? Is that something you consciously adopted?
Gary Shteyngart: I grew up around the mode of satire. You pick up a book on the Soviet Union and everything is kind of funny. There was a lot of joking growing up, a lot of Brezhnev jokes, things like that.
Guernica: So it’s almost a Russian thing?
Gary Shteyngart: It’s a very Russian thing, a very Soviet thing. The greatest books in Russian literature are satires. Gogol’s Dead Souls, for example, is a very over-the-top satire about life in Russia. I think it’s the thing we do best.
You realize that whatever myths you had built up about yourself overcoming adversity and turning into a great person are not exactly true.
Guernica: There are some behaviors in here which must have been tough to relive or confront. For example, the scene from your childhood in which you hurt a younger Russian boy by twisting his fingers. What was that like to revisit?
Gary Shteyngart: It’s not good. You realize that whatever myths you had built up about yourself overcoming adversity and turning into a great person are not exactly true. And I don’t think they’re ever true, maybe. Who knows if Mother Teresa wasn’t twisting fingers when she was an eight-year-old kid? It’s impossible to know. What I do know is that there was no saintliness in my life. I absorbed a lot of the anger and depression and anxiety I saw around me. Some of it was later sublimated into fiction, and now this memoir, but while it was happening, it was a “shit rolls downhill” kind of thing.
Guernica: This also comes up when you’re looking at the less popular boys at the Solomon Schechter School of Queens—being mean in order to fit in or acting in an “acceptable” way. How does the idea of performance figure into your writing?
Gary Shteyngart: The operative word I think really is “act.” There’s a reason I’m doing these trailers: I love to act, I’ve always wanted to be an actor. I think that acting and fiction go nicely together—being able to visualize language as something you perform, not just something that’s there on the page. That’s why it was so great to have James Franco in my writing class [at Columbia]. A big problem with fiction is that you read dialogue, and it’s dialogue that writers think has to be dialogue because it’s the way it’s been over the centuries. There’s nothing alive about it. I look for stuff that sings off the page when I write, whether it’s a memoir or one of my novels. I act out the whole thing. I listen to the dialogue, I try to recreate what it would sound like. If it sounds false, if the bullshit meter goes off, I can’t include it.
Guernica: There’s a lot of directly reported dialogue in this book. Is that something from memory or something from interviews?
Gary Shteyngart: Interviews. I followed my parents through Russia with a video recorder. Obviously I edited the dialogue, but it’s the dialogue they said. The same thing goes for the meetings I had with them in New York. A lot of stuff is straight from their mouths into the book.
Guernica: What was the research process like?
Gary Shteyngart: Every morning, I would wake up and think, “I’m nine years old. What was it like?” Thankfully, my parents saved a lot of the documents from that period, so I was able to dip right into it. I had a pretty good sense of what my life was like since so much of it was recorded. On the other hand, it’s difficult to remember specifics. I looked at a lot of photographs from that period. What I also did was meet with people from my past. I would sit down with them and say, “What happened, and what didn’t happen?” So it was really carefully researched in terms of meeting with my friends from Hebrew school, some friends from Stuyvesant [High School], from Oberlin. There was a lot of research going on.
Guernica: Is there one interview that stands out as particularly painful or enlightening?
Gary Shteyngart: I always thought that Stuyvesant was this great moment when I overcame my provincial background and became a full-fledged Manhattanite with all the rights and privileges that that entails. When I started talking to people and reminding myself of what it was really like, I thought, “Jeez, even that sucked.” That was a difficult, unhappy transition period where I kept clowning around, not being myself, creating this weird, Republican persona to drive people a little crazy, but really just to get noticed. It was really sad and a time of not knowing who I was.
Guernica: There seem to be two moments where the book turns and you become more yourself. One is when you enter Oberlin, and the second is when you enter psychoanalysis. Do you feel as though psychoanalysis saved you as a writer?
Gary Shteyngart: Yes. I think this memoir is in large part a product of psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis really has quite a bit to do with writing. You’re publishing things into the air. Not formally, but at least the raw material of what will often be in the books is presented there, and then you go home and you think it over some more. One of the goals of analysis is you become your own analyst. You continue the process even if you’re not in therapy, whether you continue the process by walking down the street thinking about things or whether you continue the process, as I do, by writing about them.
Without [psychoanalysis] I’d probably have one book at most and be living in a hut in Albania somewhere.
Guernica: I’ve found there’s often a sense among writers or creative types that, “If I go into therapy, I’ll be giving it away. It needs to be filtered through my own work.” It sounds like you’ve had the opposite experience.
Gary Shteyngart: Right, and I think that just is ridiculous. The way I’ve experienced it, there’s been none of that. When I entered psychoanalysis, I was drunk out of my mind. I couldn’t do basic things. I was dating a woman who ended up in prison a year later for bashing this guy’s head in with a hammer. So the answer is no. I spent five years spinning my wheels on my first book because I didn’t have the wherewithal to bring it together. Now, yeah, some of those experiences formed my fiction and my nonfiction. I’m glad those things happened. But was I better able to process those experiences once I entered analysis and my life stopped derailing? Of course. Without that I’d probably have one book at most and be living in a hut in Albania somewhere.
Guernica: Did you interview the ex that attacked her boyfriend with a hammer?
Gary Shteyngart: No, no. I couldn’t get in touch with her. The New Yorker ran an excerpt about that and they couldn’t track her down. Or they could and she wouldn’t respond to their questions. So she’s out of my life.
Guernica: Probably for the best.
Gary Shteyngart: I think so. I don’t want to wear a Kevlar helmet anymore. I feel more secure.
Guernica: Were there any stories that you felt were funny or revealing but just didn’t make the cut?
Gary Shteyngart: I think I remember an acid trip that went on for a long time. Like a scene in The Wolf of Wall Street, it just went on for a very long time. I tried to talk to others about it, and I couldn’t recollect the complete story. I remember I was on a train and—did we get into the conductor’s booth? I don’t know. Did we stop the train? Maybe none of that happened, maybe I was just imagining it. It was one of those stories that, you know, fact-checkers beware. It’s hard to prove one way or another, so I didn’t use it.
Guernica: Do you feel that writing fiction in a mainly satirical mode ever blocks you from being recognized as a “serious writer”?
Gary Shteyngart: You do feel like there are serious literary establishments and I’m not a part of that, obviously. That’s fine. I’m in my own little thing. I don’t know how literary fiction is supposed to look and smell and feel. I just do my thing, you know. I think form is important, I think the way you write is important, but I also think content is important. My books still have plots and characters and emotions and absurdity. All of that stuff. That existed in my novels, it exists in this, too. One should learn from a book. Books have a lot to teach us. They have a lot of empathy to impart to us, but they should also be fun. This stuff is fun! You shouldn’t pick up a book and say, “Oh my god, I’m gonna better myself by reading this.” You may better yourself by reading this, but who cares? Just have fun.
Guernica: You’ve talked about writing novels as a child. Do those still exist?
Gary Shteyngart: Yes, they do.
Guernica: What was it like rereading them?
Gary Shteyngart: It was hilarious. They’re also really depraved. It’s scary, my mindset at the time. In the book I talk about a science fiction novel I wrote. It’s like a race war in outer space. There’s the evil Hispanic aliens and then there’s these wonderful Republican aliens from a planet called Atlanta. I mean, Jesus Christ, kid, get a grip [laughs]. That’s what happens when you get your first National Rifle card at age eleven.
Guernica: They still sound pretty funny. Obviously you wouldn’t publish a novel about an interstellar race war with a straight face.
Gary Shteyngart: [laughs] Yeah, well. My father’s version is he told me all those “Planet of the Yid” stories where the Jews had a planet that was constantly being attacked by pork products, and they would fight them back. I think his fiction was at that point a lot stronger than mine.
Guernica: Did coming from two frustrated creative parents help you grow as a writer?
Gary Shteyngart: Yes, but it also made me more fearful because they didn’t have great success. My father didn’t, my mother did OK. One thing you have to know entering this field is that it’s a tough field. Books, especially, these days, jeez.
Guernica: When you sat down to start writing this memoir, did you have this specific structure in mind? Did you know you were going to start it holding that book about Russian architecture and end it back in St. Petersburg?
Gary Shteyngart: Absolutely, yes. Usually, with a novel, you start with no idea what to do because your job is to create convincing characters and then they just run around getting crazy. The problem with writing a memoir, obviously, is you can’t do that because you sort of know what’s going to happen. Because you’re the character.
It’s important to brush one’s teeth, that’s my only advice.
Guernica: What’s your writing process like?
Gary Shteyngart: I work in bed. I wake up around 11:00 a.m., do a little writing, maybe some breakfast. Go to sleep. See my shrink, cry a little, have dinner with some friends, couple of drinks, go right back to sleep.
It’s important to brush one’s teeth, that’s my only advice. That wakes you up a lot, and even if you’re just writing, your breath should be better than it was when you woke up. Sometimes the shower can wait a little bit. Depends on how fast you want to get to work.
Guernica: Let’s say with Absurdistan, the character Misha Vainberg walks into your head. Do you think, “I’ve got to put this guy through the wringer”? Or is there a period of just exploring his psychology?
Gary Shteyngart: There’s a lot of exploring of psychology. The profile is just a large, fairly wealthy Russian guy and that’s it. But then I decided to investigate further: What’s it like to be that overweight? So I went to Russian areas and hung out with fat people and saw what that was like. You’re just constantly researching.
Guernica: There are a lot of pictures in this book, but there’s one specific photo of you I want to ask about. It’s at the beginning of Chapter 21 and you’re brushing this mane of hair.
Gary Shteyngart: [laughs] Yeah. It says that it was taken at Oberlin, but I don’t think so. It looks like it was taken in the bedroom of my parents’ house in Little Neck, Queens. I definitely see a Hungarian armoire behind me of some sort. First of all, let me just say how wonderful it was to have hair and how much I miss hair. That was quite a lot of hair. It was a very Oberlin-Jesus kind of thing. Behind me there’s a lot of eye contact solution. I wore a lot of contact lenses. This is probably me at my vainest. I look so ridiculous. I’m wearing a kind of kimono my girlfriend J.Z. had bought for me. I think that’s very Oberlin-like, to get your boyfriend a kimono for his birthday.
Guernica: It’s a beautiful kimono and a beautiful head of hair.
Gary Shteyngart: I’m beautiful, too, in my own, non-geisha way.