“I can’t stand Russian food,” Gary Shteyngart tells me, wincing politely at my restaurant list. I was suggesting a place to meet in New York City, and the Russian Tea Room, or perhaps some place in Brighton Beach, seemed like an obvious choice, given Shteyngart’s Russian heritage (perhaps it was too obvious). He shrugs, “Let’s eat Korean.”
A couple of weeks later we’re seated across from each other at Madangsui—Shteyngart’s pick—in Midtown. We dip into small dishes of kimchi and namul and chat about Russian science fiction writer Yevgeny Zamyatin, whose dystopian novel We was published in the 1920s, and 19th-century satirist Ivan Goncharov, author of Oblomov, which Shteyngart once riffed on in the New York Times Book Review.
Each of Shteyngart’s three novels—The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (2002), Absurdistan (2006), and Super Sad True Love Story (2010)—have autobiographical elements. But in his forthcoming book, Little Failure (Random House, Jan.), he turns to nonfiction to cast light on his Russian-Jewish upbringing in Queens.
Little Failure begins in 1996 with a panic attack that Shteyngart had while he was at the Strand Bookstore, after flipping through a book called St. Petersburg: Architecture of the Tsars and seeing a photo of Chesme Church, close to his childhood home. This panic attack set Shteyngart on a memory tour of his life, starting with his first days in the Otto Birthing House in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), when his anxious mother asked the nurse what she should do about her baby’s constant sneezing. “You should say bless you,” said the nurse.
Shteyngart, who is now 41, apparently inherited his mother’s anxiety, and it’s reflected in his novels. He recently asked his mother why he was so scared of everything as a child. She responded, “Because you were born a Jewish person.” After discovering that young Gary was afraid of heights, his father, hoping to toughen him up, built a ladder in the family’s 500 sq. ft. apartment.
Shteyngart also looks back on his family’s brief stay in Vienna, where many Jewish émigrés from Russia stopped on their way westward to the U.S. While the Shteyngarts were there, doctors threatened to call protective services after seeing welts on Gary’s body—the results of the cupping technique that his family used to alleviate his asthma. Upon arriving in the U.S. in 1979, when Gary was seven years old, the family settled in Queens. Shteyngart experienced alienation as a foreigner at the Solomon Schechter School. He also had to endure a painful bris at the late age of eight, when he finally became “a little Jew.” Like many other bright children of immigrants in New York, Shteyngart attended Stuyvesant High School; he went on to Oberlin College in Ohio, and, after graduating, returned to New York, where he became a writer.
Toward the end of Little Failure, Shteyngart writes about rereading his three novels as “an exercise that left me shocked by the overlaps between fiction and reality I found on those pages—by how blithely I’ve used the facts of my own life, as if I’ve been having a fire sale all along: everything about me must go!” The title of the latest book comes from “Failurchka,” a nickname that Gary’s mother gave him when he was a child, which playfully combines English and Russian.
And Shteyngart’s memoir frequently refers back to his novels. For instance, in Russian Debutante, he incorporates the story of how, on a trip to Prague, he nearly died while crawling on tram tracks in a drunken fit. In Absurdistan, Misha attends Accidental College, which is based on Oberlin. And in Super Sad True Love Story, the Russian immigrant protagonist falls madly in love with a Korean-American (Shteyngart is married to a Korean-American).
So what made him decide to write a book of nonfiction? “If I keep writing these books,” he asks, “will I ever write about anything other than this?” In other words, laying down facts in a memoir might help free him up to write a novel that does not feature Russian immigrants.
At some point during the meal, the waitress places in front of us a small bottle of soju, a Korean drink distilled from rice or potatoes.
“Oh, neat,” Shteyngart says, as he looks at the bottle. “It’s Psy soju.” He turns the bottle around to show me the image of South Korean pop star Psy, then tilts the bottle back and forth—wuppa gangnam style.
Shteyngart’s self-deprecating humor is on display in Little Failure, but the author becomes subdued when talking about this book. The captioned photos of Shteyngart that open each chapter are simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking.
When asked about the difference between writing fiction and nonfiction, Shteyngart talks about the amount of research that went into Little Failure, and the trips that he made to St. Petersburg, both alone and with his parents. Did he worry about his parent’s reaction to the book? “I spent a lot of time ‘writing into the table,’ ” he says, borrowing a phrase that Soviet writers used to describe their practice of writing clandestinely to avoid arrest.
Shteyngart’s memoir also pays homage to 19th-century Russian writer Ivan Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons, a book that he says has influenced him deeply. It’s about a son who goes away to school and returns home with radical ideas. Now, Shteyngart himself is a father, to a two-month-old son with the unmistakably American name “Johnny.” Asked about his approach to parenting, Shteyngart replies, “Perhaps I won’t be so hard on him.”