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

Trumbo still
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What the modern-day relaxation of border controls between TV and cinema means for actors

It’s ironic that a man who got his breakthrough in a TV series with cinematic ambitions should now be the star of a movie, Trumbo, which resembles television at its most unadventurous.

Speak to many film professionals today and you will hear the same cry: Give me a series! It’s not only the security of a long-term contract. There is also the attractiveness of high-calibre writing and the relative liberty of working for an AMC or an HBO, a Netflix or an Amazon, compared to a movie studio.

Directors such as Todd Haynes (who made Mildred Pierce for HBO during a seven-year hiatus from cinema that ended last year with Carol) and Steven Soderbergh (who has defected permanently to television and is currently in negotiations for a possible third round of his Cinemax series The Knick starring Clive Owen) both speak of the creative freedoms afforded them in the TV world.

Soderbergh is currently lining up a new HBO show, Mosaic, which will star Sharon Stone and Garrett Hedlund. It’s been described as an interactive, “choose your own adventure” experience that allows viewers to follow different narrative paths, presumably in the manner of the once-popular children’s books: “You find a sword. If you pick it up and slay the dragon, turn to page 48. If you, like, can’t be bothered or whatever, turn to page 65.”

The boundary between TV and film performers was once rigidly patrolled, with television the training ground for cinema; once an actor moved up to the major league, there would be ignominy in returning to the practice yard. It’s a truism to say this is no longer the case.

The traffic of familiar faces flows freely back and forth without snobbery or preconceptions. And though there are still actors who can be TV A-listers while remaining unknown in the film world – Sarah Lancashire (Happy Valley) and Suranne Jones (Scott & Bailey), both former residents of Coronation Street, spring to mind – it is more common now for a performer’s star value to be bankable across the TV/cinema divide.

A case in point is Bryan Cranston, who was a reliable and recognisable TV actor for many years, often in a comic capacity (Seinfeld, Malcolm in the Middle), before he became an outright star for playing an accidental crystal-meth kingpin in Breaking Bad. In Cranston’s case, his TV success must have helped push Trumbo into production, a new film in which he plays the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Gun Crazy, Roman Holiday, The Brave One), who continued writing under other names after being blacklisted for being a Communist.

Like some of the other movies that have addressed the same dark period in Hollywood’s history (Guilty By Suspicion, One of the Hollywood Ten), Trumbo is all conscience and no panache. Cranston doesn’t discredit himself in the lead – he is studied, level-headed and workmanlike, and he has one wordless and especially powerful scene, when he is humiliated during a body search before being admitted to his prison cell.

But it’s ironic that a man who got his breakthrough in a TV series with cinematic ambitions should now be the star of a movie that resembles television at its most unadventurous. Sure, he got a Best Actor Oscar nomination. But that figures. Hollywood adores him (rightly so) but it also loves atoning for its sins in drearily respectable dramas like Trumbo.

My favourite example of the richness that can come from the modern-day relaxation of border controls between TV and cinema is the case of Alec Baldwin. Here is an actor whose career has been at various points promising, fascinating and mysteriously self-sabotaging. But Tina Fey’s fiendishly inspired NBC sitcom 30 Rock has been his salvation. Having only caught occasional episodes of it over the years, I am currently picking my way through every minute of it and marvelling at the interplay between Baldwin’s real-life persona and career and that of his character, Jack Donaghy.

When this sort of thing is done badly, it can capsize a scene and even an entire movie – the new superhero comedy Deadpool, which features Ryan Reynolds in character cracking jokes about Ryan Reynolds, is a particularly grisly example. But 30 Rock gets the balance right in a way that creates a dazzling comic frisson.

There are numerous references to Baldwin’s filmography but the boldest overlap yet occurs in the 100th episode when Donaghy launches into a warning against the dangers of movie stars appearing on television. What it amounts to is a précis of Baldwin’s own career:

“Do TV and no one will ever take you seriously again. It doesn’t matter how big a movie star you are, even if you had the kind of career where you walked away from a blockbuster franchise or worked with Meryl Streep or Anthony Hopkins, made important movies about things like civil rights or Pearl Harbour, stole films with supporting roles and then turned around and blew them away on Broadway. None of that will matter once you do television. You could win every award in sight. Be the biggest thing on the small screen [but] you want to hit rock bottom again? Go on network television.”

The joke, of course, is that 30 Rock didn’t sink him – it saved him. Bryan Cranston is a fine actor whose career won’t be waylaid by a few dull choices. But it would be encouraging to see the goodwill he built up from Breaking Bad (or from being great in poor movies such as Argo) being parlayed into movies that took chances or played with the form in some way, as shows like 30 Rock and Breaking Bad have been able to do.

Dalton Trumbo was a firecracker of a writer; it’s a shame that the movie that now bears his name lacks any of the sizzle he brought to the screen.

Trumbo is on release.

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.