Gary Shteyngart is… Oh hell, you probably already know who Gary Shteyngart is. Part myth, part blurbing machine, part bear, Gary is the author of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Absurdistan, Super Sad True Love Story, and most recently the memoir Little Failure. He spoke with Michael Orbach about his new book and his typical Soviet upbringing.
As someone whose father was active in the Soviet Jewry movement (he wrote a book about it actually), I wonder if I should begin the interview by apologizing for getting you out.[Laughs] No, you guys did a good thing by getting us out. That was positive.
Was it? I just read your descriptions of unending misery in Solomon Shechter and I was kinda wondering about it…
It was this weird historical accident where we ended up being in a country where we were the enemy. These kids just heard what was being said on the TV and around the dinner table and they couldn’t help equating us being Russians because we looked so Russian, like we stumbled out of that Wendy’s Soviet Fashion Show commercial. It wasn’t anyone’s fault.
When the original Red Dawn came out were you like, “Dammit!”
By that point I was so Republican I wanted to bomb Russia even though that meant bombing my grandmother. That made me a little concerned. I don’t think there’s been an enemy to match the Soviet Union in terms of the fact that we had missiles pointed at each other. It was an existentialist thing for many people.
I suppose Solomon Schechter boys and girls aren’t known for subtly dealing with enemy empires.
I’ve been on this book tour for a month and so many Russians come up and say, “I survived Solomon Schechter.” I met someone in Florida who said in second grade her parents yanked her out to public school and nobody made fun of her there.
Should there have been a movement to save Soviet Jewry from Solomon Schechter?
That would’ve been a one-two punch. Get us out and get us out again. [Laughs.]
I’m not trying to butter you up for a blurb, but I really loved the book. One of the things that struck me was how fiction helped you escape from who you were, like when you started making up stories so kids would stop beating you up.
Storytelling is great. Being surrounded by Jews was a positive thing because everyone had a sense of humor. Well, not everyone. But a lot of people had a sense of humor and that is how you progress in a Jewish society: make jokes.
It didn’t make me popular but it did, as they say in L.A., change the narrative. It made me not Russian so much as this weird Gary Gnu Telling Stories Guy. It wasn’t great, but it was certainly better than being The Russian. I was amazed looking back at the yearbook how all the references to the other Russians were all about them being Soviets and Reds, but for me it was about how I was this nutty, crazy guy. That was a step up.
I suppose that sort of happens to everyone, where you shed your persona to try to impress people and become the person you want to be.
The thing is I exchanged what other people were thinking about me with another completely fraudulent persona too. Fraudulent in the sense that there was no inner life, it was an act, but even the act felt more real than people calling me a Commie. Good lord, by that point I was the most Republican kid on the planet. At age 11 I had membership in the NRA. It doesn’t get any more right-wing than that. I was very confused. I wanted to love America as deeply as I loved the Soviet Union and it worked for me. I fell in love with it so blindly. I couldn’t believe America had any flaws other than the Democratic Party. It was very blind love, but at school no one would return that love.
The Americans around me didn’t seem interested until I met people like Jonathan, my friend, and that was sort of a turning point. Having a friend like Jonathan saved my life in a big way. It was an indication that I could have real lasting friendships with people. I didn’t know that before. He and his whole family were my model American family, the first idea of what a smart, intelligent well-meaning American family could look like. I don’t want to glorify or exalt them. I’m sure they had their problems as well, but they were, as I was growing up, that was what I wanted. I wanted that wood-paneled station wagon and Lassie and they just generally seemed to love each other without the kind of Soviet residue that everyone around me had.
Can we talk about that Soviet residue? It seemed like a lot of pain.
This is cultural. What seems very abusive to Americans would make a lot of sense to Russian readers. On this tour so many people came up to me and said, “I know exactly what you mean, I had the same life, my parents called me a failure too.” There’s an incredible cultural dissonance between these two countries that I think still exists even though the Iron Curtain is down and Russia has some psychiatrists running around at this point.
I’ve noticed, we’re Facebook friends, though you haven’t liked any of my Facebook posts yet, FYI.
I’ll start liking immediately.
On Facebook you posted that your favorite Olympic event is Bobsledders Breaking Down Elevator Doors.
I have a very natural fear of getting stuck in elevators that coincides with the fact that everything in Russia gets stuck every once in a while and you have to break out of it with your fist. I pack a lot of Ativan for the elevators.
No, I don’t. I think that the book charts an evolution on my part. I was such an angry child in many ways—there was a lot of anger and that anger floated around. I was angry at the kids for making fun of me, and I was angry at my parents for not understanding my pain and causing some of it.
By the end of the book—in going back to Russia—all these feelings turn to sorrow for my parent’s lives. I wish they had been born in a normal country. I wish my father had a chance to become an opera singer if he grew up somewhere that wasn’t as anti-Semitic as Russia. Learning about their lives and their first memories and the way Stalin and Hitler were so responsible for the world they came into, it was very sad. So by the end of it, I realized that they did the best they could. They really did. But what they were given was very faulty. The country did not prepare one to become anything: a parent, a husband, a wife. Look at the past of so many Russian families: you get married by 22, you have your child by 23; you’re divorced by 25, and you’re an alcoholic by 30. That was the trajectory. People weren’t prepared for any real kind of emotional life. There was no psychological insight and you were spouted lies all day long. How were you expected to become a decent human being?
Do you think that’s changed in Russia now?
Russia doesn’t really change. I think there is a correction for the better, then a correction for the worse. The overall path of the country is a disaster. I often mention there’s a restaurant in St. Petersburg named “1913.” I asked the owner why 1913 and she said that was the only good year in Russian history. That seems really right to me. There was so much hope after the collapse of the Soviet Union that a democracy might develop, a middle class might develop, but it frustrates you on every turn. After finishing this book, I almost thought: “Hey I’m kinda free of Russia for a while.”
And are you free of it now?
I’m going to try to be free of it. I’m going to try to write about other subjects for a while. As a travel writer, I travel around the world and that’s been eye-opening. It would be wonderful to try my hand on something that doesn’t focus entirely on Russian Jews.
One of the people I look at is Philip Roth. He wrote so well about people who came from the same part of the world as he had, Portnoy and Zuckerman, for example. Then in his earlier career tried to jump away from that. He tried to write about non-Newarky subjects and I gotta say that that isn’t the work I love the most. So there is some danger of it as well, but let me try at least to see what happens. I enjoyed writing the Korean character in Super Sad True Love Story. Maybe the only way of writing about Jews these days is writing about Koreans and Indians.
There’s one other thing I wanted to apologize to you for on behalf of all Jews: your botched circumcision. We’re sorry about the Soviet Jewry movement and your bad brit mila…
No. No. [Laughs.] It’s fine. I feel much better now. It doesn’t hurt as much.