Immigrant song: Gary Shteyngart enthroned as Billy Idol in 1985.
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Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart: Reborn in the USA

The Russian-American novelist's memoir shuttles back and forth between the deep past of his Soviet childhood to the glimmering possibilities of George Bush Sr's America.

Little Failure: a Memoir
Gary Shteyngart
Hamish Hamilton, 368pp, £16.99

There are two ways in which you could read Gary Shteyngart’s memoir, Little Failure. First of all, as a sort of crib to the author’s acclaimed fiction. His first (and most autobiographical) novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (2002), won the National Jewish Book Award; his second, Absurdistan, was named as one of the 10 best books of 2006 in the New York Times; and his third, Super Sad True Love Story (2010) won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize – which pretty much covers all the bases, critically speaking.

Born in Leningrad in 1972, Shteyngart emigrated with his parents to the US when he was seven, and one of the greatest strengths of his fiction is the way in which he has mined the immigrant’s ridiculous, tragic, wonderful plight. His novels are sophisticated – and hilarious – conversations between cultures in which characters must navigate the double displacement that results from leaving one place and yet never quite belonging in another.

So, Shteyngart wouldn’t want to stop you looking for connections between the life and the art; indeed, occasionally the author will, not a little wistfully, point them out. But there is another way to read this book, and that is in the understanding that you don’t have to have read any of the author’s novels to find it ridiculous, tragic and wonderful.

“Little Failure”, if you are wondering, was little Gary’s nickname – given to him not by some playground oik but by his very own parents. But his parents were Jewish! I hear you cry. Jewish parents adore their children! (Allow me this: I have some experience here.) This is not the dynamic in little Gary’s family, however. Indeed, little Gary did not start out as Gary at all but as Igor; he only becomes Gary when his family is allowed to leave the Soviet Union thanks to a bad harvest in Russia and a deal cut by the American president Jimmy Carter: “Russia gets the grain it needs to run; America gets the Jews it needs to run: all in all, an excellent trade deal.”

The move to the US (via Austria – pretty nerve-wracking for a family scarred by the Second World War – and Italy, portrayed, despite its history of fascism, as a land of fat tomatoes and sybaritic bliss) is like a move to another planet. The Pan Am terminal at JFK looks to Gary – who is still Igor at this point – like a flying saucer. Throughout the book, Shteyngart skips back and forth between the present and the past, the deep past of his Soviet childhood at the book’s beginning, his school years and drunken, stoned college years as his life progresses. But even though we know that little Gary finally achieves success in this brand-new country, we are given to understand that it is only success when seen from the outside. From within his family, things look different. “I read on the Russian internet that you and your novels will soon be forgotten,” his father tells him.

Yet his father loves him and he loves his father too. This memoir is one of the best depictions I have read of the precarious, passionate triangle that makes up an only child’s relationship with his parents; in the Shteyngarts’ case, both the passion and precariousness are exaggerated by the wrenching shift not just from one country to another, but from the Soviet Union to a place that would describe their homeland as the “Evil Empire”. “We Soviet Jews were simply invited to the wrong party,” Shteyngart writes. “And then we were too frightened to leave. Because we didn’t know who we were. In this book, I’m trying to say who we were.”

And who is Gary? A writer. The memoir is punctuated by the moments in which he gradually finds his voice – whether that’s writing his first book, “Lenin and his Magical Goose” when he was five, or, some years later, securing his first publishing deal. He turns his keen eye mercilessly on himself, presenting a ruthless catalogue of anxiety, narcissism, rudeness and folly (he campaigns for George Bush Sr! And he thinks this is going to get him laid!) that somehow always has, hovering over it, the hope of redemption. Yes, this is in part the redemption offered by a country like America, the land where anything is possible, from success as an author to that author’s parents discovering that they might, after all, be able to get along.

The best memoirs are ones that are perfectly individuated, particular – and yet somehow speak to every reader’s life, every reader’s family. This is one of those rare books. It is suffused not only with the author’s trademark wit but also with raking honesty. The one need not preclude the other – a lesson that bears repeating. “People who think literature should be Serious – should serve as a rocket that will never take off – are malevolent at best, anti-Semitic at worst,” Shteyngart notes.

And yet he knows that sometimes humour has its limits. “On so many occasions in my novels I have approached a certain truth only to turn away from it, only to point my finger and laugh at it and then scurry back to safety. In this book, I promised myself I would not point the finger. My laughter would be intermittent. There would be no safety.” No: there is no safety, not ever in this life. How can this dreadful knowledge be borne? By keeping books such as Little Failure close to your heart.

Erica Wagner is British Library Eccles Centre writer-in-residence and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

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Back to the future – mankind’s new ideas that aren’t new at all

Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas by Steven Poole reviewed.

When Steven Poole writes a book review, he likes to lie to himself. His only conscious decision is to jot down a few notes as the deadline approaches. There is no pressure to think deep thoughts, he tells himself, or to reach the required word count. Then invariably, in a few hours, he has written the entire review. This happens time and again. No matter how many times he convinces himself he is merely jotting and thinking, the result is a finished article.

Human beings are extraordinarily good at deceiving themselves and possibly never more so than when they think that they have had a new idea, as Poole makes clear in this fascinating compendium of new ideas that aren’t new at all. He digs deep into subjects as various as cosmology, economics, health care and bioethics to show that, as the writer of Ecclesiastes put it (long before Poole), “There is nothing new under the sun.” This is demonstrated in the re-emergence of ideas such as therapeutic psychedelic drugs, inherited traits that aren’t programmed into the genome, cognitive behavioural therapy, getting our protein from insects, and the multiverse.

Poole explores these propositions deftly enough, but they are not what interest him here. Rather, his subject is the way that we have seen them all before. He ties together what he concedes is a “highly selective snapshot of the looping evolution of ideas” with the observation that: “Any culture that thinks the past is irrelevant is one in which future invention threatens to stall.” Originality, he argues, is overrated.

The book might be something of a downer for those who like to gaze at “progress” with wide-eyed admiration. The starkest takeaway is that we are clearly hopeless at putting good ideas to work. In his discussion of artificial intelligence, for instance, Poole mentions the emerging idea of a universal basic income, which is likely to become a necessary innovation as robots take over many of the least demanding tasks of the human workforce. Yet he traces it back to 1796, when Thomas Paine first published his pamphlet Agrarian Justice.

Maybe this tells us something about the limits of the brain. It has always innovated, thought through its situations and created solutions. But those solutions can only be drawn from a limited pool of possibilities. Hence we get the same ideas occurring ­inside human skulls for millennia and they are not always presented any better for the passing of time. Richard Dawkins and his ilk provide a salient example, as Poole points out: “Virtually none of the debating points in the great new atheism struggles of the 21st century . . . would have been unfamiliar to medieval monks, who by and large conducted the argument on a more sophisticated and humane level.”

So, perhaps we should start to ask ourselves why so many proposed solutions remain unimplemented after what seem to be thousand-year development programmes. It is only through such reflection on our own thinking that we will overcome our barriers to progress.

Sometimes the barriers are mere prejudice or self-interest. After the Second World War, Grace Hopper, a computer scientist in the US navy, created a language that allowed a computer to be programmed in English, French or German. “Her managers were aghast,” Poole writes. It was “an American computer built in blue-belt Pennsylvania” – so it simply had to be programmed in English. “Hopper had to promise management that from then on the program would only accept English input.”

It is worth noting that Hopper was also a victim of postwar sexism. In 1960 she and several other women participated in a project to create COBOL, the computing language. Critics said there was no way that such a “female-dominated process” could end in anything worthwhile. Those critics were
wrong. By the turn of the century, 80 per cent of computer coding was written in COBOL. But this is another unlearned lesson. A survey in 2013 showed that women make up just 11 per cent of software developers. A swath of the population is missing from one of our most creative endeavours. And we are missing out on quality. Industry experiments show that women generally write better code. Unfortunately, the gatekeepers only accept it as better when they don’t know it was written by a woman.

Solving the technology industry’s gender problems will be a complex undertaking. Yet it is easy to resolve some long-standing difficulties. Take that old idea of providing a universal basic income. It appears to be a complex economic issue but experimental projects show that the answer can be as simple as giving money to the poor.

We know this because the non-profit organisation GiveDirectly has done it. It distributed a basic income to an entire community and the “innovation” has proved remarkably effective in providing the means for people to lift themselves out of poverty. Projects in Kenya, Brazil and Uganda have made the same discovery. As Poole notes, even the Economist, that “bastion of free-market economics”, was surprised and impressed. It said of the scheme: “Giving money directly to poor people works surprisingly well.” You can almost hear the exclamation “Who knew?” – and the slapping sound of history’s facepalm.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt