On the Life Stories podcast (available on iTunes), memoir writers talk about their lives and the art of writing memoir. Recently, Gary Shteyngart came on to talk about Little Failure, where the acclaimed novelist writes candidly about his Russian childhood, emigrating to New York City in the 1980s and becoming a Reaganite youth, then a stoner whose college nickname, based on the depth and breadth of his substance consumption, was “Scary Gary,” until a close friend finally convinced him to clean up his act in his late twenties.
Below are some highlights from that conversation — the entirety of which you can listen to right here:
4. On the title:
“‘Little Failure’ was my mother’s nickname for me. It’s really a combination of English and Russian, “Failurchka” — failure is the English part, -chka is a diminutive meaning little. I had just graduated from Oberlin College, I was writing my first book and my mother was pressuring me to go to law school. I was living in this little studio apartment with many friendly roaches and, you know, not much in the way of savings, so to emphasize how she felt about my life to date, my mother nicknamed me ‘Little Failure.’ And it kind of stuck; I felt very much a failure for a very long time.”
5. On his parents’ rough approach to raising him:
“What the book tries to do — I don’t know if it succeeds or not — is try to figure out how they became the parents that they were, which requires a lot of going back to Russia, trying to understand the culture a lot more. In my mind, it’s almost as if in some ways they didn’t really emigrate, that they continued life in Russia here in the States. And there you do treat your child differently; there’s a mixture of pride and disdain in the same breath, so that you can say something affectionately that would sound to American ears like a huge insult.
But because I grew up partly in Russia, partly in America, I would partly take it as a huge insult. I knew that I was being loved by my parents, but that I had failed them ultimately… There’s that old Russian saying, ‘He who doesn’t hit doesn’t love.’ I think that’s kind of a grotesque statement… The idea is that you need to bind yourself to other people, and emotional violence and physical violence is the best way to do that — that’s the best way to know you are forever in someone’s heart; you’re also underneath someone’s fist.”
6. On arriving in Queens and enrolling in Hebrew school:
“I was a very hated kid. Remember, it was the years of Ronald Reagan’s Evil Empire speech, all those movies: Red Dawn, Red Gerbil, Red Hamster… and I felt like I was the Big Red Kid. My parents had expected that after the anti-semitism of Russia that kids were going to love me because I was Jewish, but that’s not how it worked out at all. I was Russian in their eyes; I had a big fur coat and big fur hat and I was clearly the enemy.
So I decided to write a satire of the Torah. We were all being force fed the Torah and the Talmud and the kids had to chant and memorize this stuff that didn’t mean really anything to many of us. So I wrote my own version of the Torah which was called the Gnorah; Exodus became Sexodus, you know, all that kind of stuff. It was a very raunchy, horny kind of book that only an 11- or 12-year-old could write. And it became… I wasn’t popular exactly, but my first friends were made because of that. Other kids felt that there was a kind of, ‘Oh, this guy has something to show us.’”
7. On what he was like in his 20s:
“So intolerant, so selfish, and just angry… and not knowing where the anger was coming from. Taking it out on… people who meant me quite well, sucking up to people who didn’t mean me well — God, that’s a terribly constructed sentence, but you know what I mean. Going out with a woman who, after I went out with her, attacked another gentleman who apparently looked like me with a hammer and put him in the hospital and is still on parole in the state of Florida. So, making these terrible, terrible choices, turning it inward, being drunk out of my mind for many years. And, more importantly, not minding the store, not doing the work I was supposed to be doing, not writing my first novel.”
8. On how psychoanalysis turned him around:
“It’s not for everyone, and I know there’s a lot of people who think that it’s too indulgent—and it is a very huge investment in time and money. But, within a year, I think, I was not dating people who attacked other people with hammers. I had gotten a book deal in a year; I was too ashamed before that to send out The Russian Debutante’s Handbook to any publisher, but I met Chang-Rae Lee, the wonderful Korean-American writer, who hooked me up with his publisher and immediately I had a book deal. My life just changed so dramatically after [my psychoanalysis] began; it really was the second stage of my life.
That was 29? 28? Maybe 27, that happened? It’s strange to think that I lived more of my life under that crazy regime before I got my first book deal and then there’s only 14 years after. So two-thirds of my life was spent in complete anxious insanity…
We change; we don’t change. We learn to cope. Someone calls you Little Failure at a formative age, part of you will always feel like a little failure. It goes away; there’s a response to it that’s different. Hopefully, when you have children, the response doesn’t get… that doesn’t get passed on. You learn to block that. You learn to shunt into something else. You learn to sublimate into fiction or memoirs or screenplays, whatever it is that you’re writing. It gets better. It gets a lot better. But, at the same time, it doesn’t fully go away… Success, failure, love of parents, fear of parents: It’s all part of this endless cocktail that you drink for the rest of your life.”