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Shteyngart's Memoir Personifies Russian Immigrant Experience in U.S.

Published: May 6, 2014 (Issue # 1808)



  • Russian-American writer Gary Shteyngart gets in touch with his roots.
    Photo: Random House

Fans of writer Gary Shteyngart might have been scratching their heads in confusion upon hearing of the release of his memoir "Little Failure." The previous three novels of the wildly-popular author have been so blatantly based on his own life — hilariously self-deprecating tales of larger-than-life characters who grapple with family problems, sexual obsession and the culture clash experienced by immigrants in a new land — that it may seem like a memoir is unnecessary. But the latest Shteyngart outing is arguably his best work to date.

Shteyngart tells us that "coming to America after a childhood spent in the Soviet Union is equivalent to stumbling off a monochromatic cliff and landing in a pool of pure Technicolor." This is one of the primary themes of the memoir — the sense of dislocation experienced by immigrants, fiercely struggling to fit into their new, alien environment, but tortured by memories of the land they left behind.

His family was part of a fascinating and little-known part of Soviet history. Shteyngart's story reveals the hardships faced by Russian Jews who were permitted to leave the Soviet Union in the 1970s, ostensibly to emigrate to Israel, but many chose the U.S. or European countries as their final destination. Global Jewish Advocacy estimates that there are about 700,000 Russian-speaking Jews in the U.S. and the majority live in New York, especially in areas such as Brighton Beach in Brooklyn and Forest Hills in Queens.

Though Shteyngart's family is not overtly religious — despite being pressured into circumcising Gary, a traumatic incident related in the book — the memoir offers a fascinating glimpse into the lives of Soviet Jews, as they assimilated into American society. As Shteyngart described "We Soviet Jews were simply invited to the wrong party. And then we were too frightened to leave. Because we didn't know who we were."

Refusing to follow a dull chronological order, the memoir drifts back and forth between Shteyngart's childhood in Leningrad — he emigrated to the U.S. in 1979 — and the glittering world of 1980s America. The starring roles in Shteyngart's energetic, though sometimes rambling, story, are his parents. It is fascinating to learn about the obvious impact they had on his development. Somewhat different from the usual "suffocating Jewish parents" stereotype, they at times treat their son quite cruelly and seem perpetually disappointed in him. Suffering from asthma as a child, they resorted to holding his mouth open with a spoon to help him breathe at night, before they discovered the wonders of an inhaler upon arriving in the West. His father nicknamed him "Snotty," his mother, "Failurchka."

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