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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Moving on up: why Ira Sachs is king of the "Rightmovie"

Little Men reminds us that Sachs is the the cinematic poet laureate of the gentrification drama.

There’s a nauseating moment at the end of the 1986 film Stand By Me when the narrator reflects on his childhood. “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12,” he sighs. “Jesus, does anyone?” That sort of retroactive idealism is a temptation for any coming-of-age movie, but the writer-director Ira Sachs resists it in Little Men. His film charts the blossoming friendship between two 13-year-old boys, Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri), without stooping to suggest that what they have is somehow purer than anything in the adult world. It isn’t – it’s just subject to different forces. Sachs captures the concentrated joy of youthful larks and loyalty but he is as wise as Fassbinder ever was to the impact of economic and social pressures on our emotional choices.

It’s clear that the film will be discreet from the way the cinematographer, Óscar Durán, shoots Jake and Tony from behind during their first meeting, as though permitting the boys a modicum of privacy away from our prying eyes. Sachs has a knack for finding those pockets of quiet in the hubbub. The opening shot puts the reserved, feminine-faced Jake at his school desk; he’s the still point in the midst of chaos. He takes whatever life – or, in this case, his classmates – can throw at him.

Then Jake gets a bombshell: his grand­father has died. His father, Brian (Greg Kinnear), and mother, Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), move with him into the old man’s building in Brooklyn. Downstairs is a cluttered dress shop that was being leased to Tony’s mother, Leonor (Paulina García), at a cut-price rate that failed to take into account the property boom. Jake’s father considers himself a sensitive man – he is an actor – ­preparing for a production of The Seagull but his life has just become The Cherry Orchard. Family members advise him to jack up the rent or boot out Leonor.

Kinnear conveys the honest terror of a kind man staring into the depths of his conscience and not liking what he finds. García, the star of the superb Gloria, is brave enough to make her character actively disagreeable at times. In her most complex scene, she sacrifices the moral high ground and overplays her hand with a single rash remark.

Yet Little Men belongs to the little men. Sensing the tremors of discord between their families, Jake and Tony stick together. They skate through the streets in a blur as the camera struggles to keep sight of them behind trees and parked cars while the propulsive score by Dickon Hinchliffe of Tindersticks urges them on.

As Tony, Barbieri is the find of the film. He’s twitchy and gangly, his voice a scratchy drawl that belongs to a bourbon-soaked barfly. No one has swaggered through Brooklyn with such aplomb since John Travolta at the beginning of Saturday Night Fever. Then he’ll do something impulsive, such as hugging his sobbing mother by wrapping his long arms all the way around her and clutching her head to his chest, and suddenly he’s a baby again.

With this and Love Is Strange – about a middle-aged gay couple forced to live separately due to financial difficulties – Sachs has appointed himself the cinematic poet laureate of gentrification-based drama. (Call it the dawn of the Rightmovie.) But he isn’t a tub-thumper. He and his co-writer, Mauricio Zacharias, show simply and plainly how money alters everything. Durán shoots the Brooklyn locations in a crisp, summery light that mirrors this straightforwardness. Any poetry springs from the everyday, such as the night-time shot in which blurred blobs of colour from streetlights and headlamps suggest dabs of paint on a palette.

Even the editing (by Mollie Goldstein) speaks volumes. The sudden cut from the gaudy clamour of a disco, where Tony wears a glow band around his neck like a fallen halo, to the chill calm of the subway platform evokes acutely that plunging feeling when the fun is over. As the boys wait for the train, their faces are framed in unsmiling repose in a shot that calls to mind Simon and Garfunkel on the cover of Bookends. And we all know what happened to them. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times