Gary Shteyngart presents a winning face to the world: as furry and friendly as a character in an Ed Koren cartoon. The protagonists in his first three novels are lovable in the extreme, always playful no matter how riddled by anxiety or depression or a sense of worthlessness. This has proved an addictive elixir for millions of readers in more than two dozen languages the world over, making Shteyngart so popular among his peers that his recent publicity video also stars Jonathan Franzen and James Franco in comedic roles.
The B&N Review set out to discover if he’s really that lovable in person, or at least to see if some of it might rub off on us. The occasion is the publication of his fourth book, Little Failure, a memoir set partly in his hometown of Leningrad, partly in the middle-class enclave of Little Neck, Queens (where he shares his “outsider’s angst” with other high school–aged émigrés: “pimply Russians, Koreans, Chinese, Indians”), partly on the campus of Oberlin College in Ohio, and partly on the Lower East Side. It’s a good read: He avoids the “bullshit laughter and hairy ethnic weeping” of some immigrant literature while also managing to charm the birds from the trees. Could he possibly be so winning in real life? Read on. —Daniel Asa Rose
The Barnes & Noble Review: We learn from Little Failure that your childhood name was Igor. May I call you Igor for the duration of this interview?
Gary Shteyngart: You can call me anything. As long as you call me.
BNR: Ba-da-boom. But your parents also called you Iggy, as well as the Red Hamster and Little Failure. I assume you received more than your share of nicknames because you were an only child. Would you have become a writer if you hadn’t been an only child?
GS: If I had siblings, I would have been a lawyer. Instead this writing crap happened.
BNR: By calling you Little Failure, was your mother merely being playful, or was there a degree of ambivalence toward you in it?
GS: Ambivalence? She was telling me that in her eyes I had failed her.
BNR: It strikes me that only a man well assured of his worldly success would choose such a title. Or do you actually see yourself that way?
GS: Once you’re [perceived as] a failure, you’re always a failure. Success never fully registers for more than a couple of hours. The upside is you’re always striving to be better, even as you’re failing inside.
BNR: You were adorably photogenic as a kid, by evidence of the childhood photos that begin each chapter. How do you hope readers will react to those photos?
GS: I cried a lot when I was taken to those Soviet photo studios. In one of the photos I’m bawling while I’m holding a new Soviet invention, the phone.
BNR: On the other hand, your grown-up protagonists have always been critical of their physical appearance. In your previous book, Super Sad True Love Story (2010), you adumbrate “the overstated nose,” “the bushy eyebrows that could count as separate organisms.” In that spirit I’d like to offer that your lips look kinda like you were suckled by a platypus. Are your features becoming more rubbery with age?
GS: By rubbery, do you mean ugly? [Sob]
BNR: On the contrary — lovable! In fact, with the possible exception of Jonathan Ames, I can think of few writers who manage to create a persona half as lovable as yours. Was it as effortless to construct that persona as it seems?
GS: It took a lot of focus groups to construct this lovable persona. But I’m glad you like it!
BNR: Do you ever find it constricting?
GS: Please, people would pay good money for this kind of persona. I find my 5′ 6″ frame constricting.
BNR: The persona seems to have worked: There’s a noticeably lower amount of sexual starvation in these pages than in your earlier books. Is this because you’re writing here mostly about your prepubescent self or that you’re now happily married?
GS: I just didn’t get any love until I got to Oberlin. That’s where the loveless go to get some.
BNR: You have a genial presence, yet in LF you reference internal rage several times. Is there a more dangerous Igor lurking inside the benign one?
GS: I work hard on not letting the Inner Igor out, but he’s a very small presence amidst the landscape of Big Outer Gary.
BNR: On the dust jacket of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (2002), no less an observer than David Gates blurbed that you have “the manic humor of the deeply melancholy.” Is he correct?
GS: So melancholy I can hardly move some mornings.
BNR: Have you been able to locate the source of that melancholy?
GS: I’m a SAP, a Soviet Ashkenazi Pessimist. When you’re a SAP melancholy’s a walk in the park.
BNR: Do you think you’ll be able to repair that trait someday, or will you still be melancholic at age ninety?
GS: If you think I’m gonna live to age ninety, you need to stop reading science fiction.
BNR: Which if any of the following descriptions of your protagonists from various books applies to you?
- “Small, embarrassed, Jewish, foreigner, accent” (The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, p. 78)
- “unworthy, always unworthy” (Super Sad True Love Story, p. 67)
- “the dull pain of being somehow insufficient. Of being half-formed” (Russian Debutante’s Handbook, p. 78)
GS: None of the above. I change from year to year. I’ll figure out who I am by the next book. Stay tuned.
BNR: Does that mean there’s a sequel in the works? What will it be called?
GS: “Enormous Honking Failure: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Mom.”
BNR: Toward the end of Little Failure, your mentor, John, says, “You have to decide to take yourself seriously, not in a phony self-pitying way, but in a serious, dignified way.” Was that good advice?
GS: That was great advice. It’s rare to meet someone in your life who cares about you enough to tell you the truth.
BNR: In Super Sad True Love Story you ask, “Why is it so hard to be a grown-up man in this world?” Among today’s writers, whom do you deem to be a grown-up?
GS: All of them!
BNR: But really, name names. If you could emulate one of your cohorts…
GS: Jhumpa Lahiri is pretty grown up. Toni Morrison. I guess it’s only writers who are women.
BNR: Readers may be surprised to learn that you were Republican as a youngster. Is there ever a moment today when you still wished you were?
GS: I have friends of all political persuasions, but I love being center-left.
BNR: You write in this book that “the old stereotype of Jews as the People of the Book dies a quiet daily death around us.” As a Jew, how do you feel about that?
GS: I’m okay with it. Not everyone has to be bookish. Some Jews like hang-gliding and I think that’s great.
BNR: Would you ever go hang-gliding yourself?
GS: I’m hang-gliding right now!
BNR: As disclosed in Little Failure, you spent a considerable time undergoing psychoanalysis. Ever check in with your shrink these days?
GS: I’m still in psychoanalysis. But it’s only been twelve years, four days a week. In my circle of writers that’s peanuts.
BNR: You joke that one downside to psychoanalysis is that it robs you of four hours a week that could be spent looking oneself up on the Web. How much time, realistically, do you spend looking yourself up?
GS: I don’t even have a Google Alert, if you can believe that.
BNR: One last question, if I may, for the literary gossip mongers among us. In this book you seem to be no fan of the legendary editor Gordon Lish, whom you call “the master” of a “terse, indecipherable” style. Care to elaborate?
GS: Absolutely no comment.
BNR: Wise man. Thank you, Igor. I am returning you to Gary now.