Recently, I attended an author lunch featuring Meg Wolitzer. After her talk, she answered questions from the audience. When a woman asked what book she had read lately, Wolitzer answered quickly, “Little Failure”, and went on about how good it was, despite the fact that non-fiction is not usually her favorite read. I was pleased to hear her say all this, because I was also reading the book. So yes, I am just that big of a book geek that I was proud of myself – proud that Meg Wolitzer and I had the same taste in books, and were reading the same one at precisely the same time. Ok, I know you are saying to yourself, uh, aren’t a lot of people reading this book? Didn’t I just see him being interviewed? So yes, I did not discover Gary Shteyngart. And no, I haven’t read any of his other books. Yet.
Despite the fact that my husband calls him the literary Yakov Smirnoff (and my husband read Absurdistan); I found his writing poignant and his characterization acute. And yes, it was often hilarious. So again, maybe a little Yakov, but early Yakov, when he was new and different, before he became a cliché.
Shteyngart’s life is one of dramatic contrasts. Having spent his early years in Leningrad, he was thrust, fairly unwillingly, into life in 1970s America. He was a good little soviet child for a long time, loyal to his country, and completely unaware that his parents did not share his fervor. When they were finally able to leave the country, they did, dragging little Igor behind them.
I almost feel bad about how much I laughed while reading this story. I especially appreciated the photos of the author as a child that begin each chapter. Each of them is treated like a highbrow caption contest, always with the author as the butt of the joke. But what really moved me were the stolen moments spent at his grandmother’s house, watching as much tv as he possibly could, because they did not have a set at home. I felt terrible for little Igor (turned Gary), who tried to figure out American life through the lens of “Three’s Company”. Think for a minute about how completely inane that show was (yes, I loved it), and then imagine a little boy believing he was learning something about actual life here, and picking up social cues from the characters in the show. Poor thing.
Young Igor was a working author early, penning his first novel at the age of five, in exchange for “thick, hard, yellowish Soviet cheese” from his grandmother. His early years in Russia, and his struggles with his strong-willed immigrant parents serve as a counter balance to his relatively easy success as a writer. His early success, though, was not without its complications. Shteyngart is as neurotic as they come; calmly told by his mother that his fears were due to the fact that “you were born a Jewish person.” So I will curb my jealousy toward Shteyngart, because much of the luck in this world comes at a cost. For Shteyngart, it is the four-times a week analyst sessions, where he struggles with his place in his family, in the literary community, and the world at large. Having read this book, it seems like a worthwhile expense.