The bestselling comedic novelist Gary Shteyngart will give a pair of book talks on Friday in support of his latest work, a memoir titled Little Failure.
A Russian-American novelist living in New York City, Shteyngart is known for his acerbic wit and keenly observed portraits of the immigrant experience. His three novels are The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Absurdistan, and Super Sad True Love Story.
The memoir, out Jan. 7 from Random House, deals with Shteyngart’s early life in Soviet Leningrad, his conservative adolescence in New York, and his college education at über-liberal Oberlin College. He writes about the writing life, growing up asthmatic and anxious, and coming to terms with his parents’ worldview.
Shteyngart will give a reading and sign copies of his memoir from 12-1 p.m. on Fri. Jan. 10 at the Charleston Library Society (164 King St.). Tickets can be purchased via Brown Paper Tickets and are $15 for non-members, $10 for members, or free for students with ID.
At 2:30 p.m. Friday in the Wells Fargo Auditorium (5 Liberty St.), Shteyngart will also give a free Q&A session hosted by College of Charleston Jewish Studies Associate Director Larry Krasnoff. The event is sponsored by the literary journal Crazyhorse, CofC’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences, the Yaschik/Arnold Jewish Studies Program, and the English Department.
City Paper: I read that the title of your new memoir comes from a nickname your mother gave you. How would you describe your relationship with your parents?
Gary Shteyngart: I think it’s pretty good. What I love about my parents is that everything they say is so larger-than-life that a nickname can’t be just a simple “Little Gary” or something, it has to be something gigantic. I think they’re the best kind of parents that a writer can imagine, because they always say things that are very memorable and often very funny. I think the book is a journey in trying to understand where they came from. It concludes with a trip to Russia where I try to understand more about them, and it had the kind of — I don’t want to use the word closure, but it does begin to try to understand what their background is like in growing up in the Soviet Union with huge parts of your family killed by Hitler and imprisoned by Stalin. And so there’s a sense of trying to see where they’re coming from.
CP: You’ve drawn on personal experience before in your fiction. In writing a memoir, were you anxious about making the transition to writing 100 percent about your own life?
GS: You know, it’s a strange transition, because as I finished writing the book, I realized that so much of my life had gone into my previous books. I think, in a way, the story is such a powerful one in the sense that I grew up in one failed superpower and I moved to another. It was such a 20th-century story growing up between the USSR and America that I think it bears telling. I often envy writers who grew up in, say, Denmark who don’t have political tales on this kind of scale and are able to focus more on the personal, and I think in this book I tried to whittle it down to the level of the family.
CP: Your family moved to New York when you were fairly young. Does the book talk a lot about your experience as an immigrant and the anxieties that come with that?
GS: Oh, quite a bit. I was a very anxious child growing up. In my book, I recently asked my mother why I was so anxious, and she said, “Because you were born a Jewish person,” which I find to be hilarious and sort of true. I think a lot of it filtered down from my parents and their parents. Moving to America in 1979 and growing up in the early ’80s with Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech and all those movies — you know, Red Dawn, Red Gerbil — being Russian was the worst thing you could be at that point. The kids in Hebrew school would call me a commie, to the point where I pretended that I wasn’t born in Russia, that I was born in East Berlin. So I was in a Hebrew school telling Jewish kids that I was a German, and that was better than being a Russian. Those were very strange times to be an immigrant from Russia.
CP: Jennifer Baker, a professor at the College of Charleston, told me she’s taught your fiction in a Philosophy 101 class as an example of absurdism. Do you think your work is absurdist? Why or why not?
GS: Well, my life has been absurdist. It’s been a very strange journey. I grew up worshipping Lenin. There was a huge statue of Lenin where we lived, and I would try to hug him every morning before my grandma took me out for a walk. Then I moved to Hebrew school and I was taught to worship in the Jewish religion, and I also became quite a conservative at that point, like most Soviet Jews. You know, I think I was given a membership to the NRA at age 11. And then I ended up at Stuyvesant, which was sort of a striver’s math and science high school, and then I went on to Oberlin, which was this incredibly progressive, almost kind of a hippie-like place. My life has been sort of seesawing from one direction to the next. I got to experience, I think, the entirety of American education by the time I was done, and I had a kind of education in Russia as well. I wrote one of my first novels when I was five years old and my grandmother asked me to write a novel. And I loved Lenin so much that I wrote a novel about Lenin and his magical goose who invade Finland and try to create a socialist revolution there, and then Lenin and the goose get angry at each other and Lenin eats the goose for political reasons. So there was always this kind of sense that there were other things going on that were greater than me, and I was always trying to believe in something, to fall into a religion or an ideology, and that’s how I grew up. I think the book kind of charts these switchbacks from one place to the next.
CP: In Super Sad True Love Story, you use wit to skewer a lot of things — health obsession, consumer electronics culture, dating — but then you’re also surprisingly tender with your characters. How do you go about striking the balance between satire and warmth?
GS: I always ask myself what really matters, and in the end it’s about family and relationships, the way we become close to one another. I think, as satirical as the work gets, it’s important to cleave to these important things. You know, satire in some ways is what happens when a person with a sense of romanticism has his or her hopes dashed and then becomes — I don’t want to say bitter, but becomes much more aware of how cruel the world can be. I think that’s really the basis of satire. It’s not just a person coming out and being angry; it’s what happens when you have been disappointed in life. That really motivates a lot of my writing.
CP: I loved your recent piece in the New Yorker about trying out Google Glass. You seemed conflicted, like you got sucked in but you were constantly asking, like, Why am I taking a picture of this homeless person right now?
GS: That’s really what being a writer is about. You have to be open to both things. I really enjoyed Google Glass, but at the same time it made my life terrible because I went around being not myself and trying to become someone else. So in a way, wearing this technology — and this was one of the themes in Super Sad — being someone in their 40s and trying out new technology, you almost feel like an immigrant in a way, too, because there’s a new world around you and you’re trying to adapt to its requirements, but you find yourself constantly thinking, Oh God, am I doing this right? But I do try. I’m on Twitter and Facebook and every little thing possible, so I am trying to immigrate to the world of pure digital technology.
CP: And do you still use your Glass now that the assignment is over?
GS: You know, actually I stopped using it. I think in the winter, it’s so cold up here it would freeze and stick to my nose, for one thing. But also, it really doesn’t do as much as the iPhone does. Maybe they’ll improve it over time, but for now, the iPhone is much more addictive.
CP: One last thing: You’ve been called the “oligarch of back cover quotes” because you’re so prolific in blurbing other people’s books. How many books do you read in a month, and what qualifies a book for a Gary Shteyngart blurb?
GS: Almost anything qualifies for a blurb, you know, having an ISBN number and a set of covers and pages — anything over nine pages, over pamphlet size, I will blurb. I want to help out. People don’t read books as much as they used to, so when I see a book that’s nice, good fiction or nonfiction, I’ll slap a blurb on it. Why not?
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