On April 10 in Campbell Hall, award-winning novelist Gary Shteyngart gave an endearing public reading of his latest work, Little Failure: A Memoir, a refreshingly realistic take on the challenging immigrant childhood of a writer who would eventually become a huge success.
Sitting before a small, Spalding Gray-esque table with a single glass of water, the memoir and a photocopy of his elementary school composition book, Shteyngart dove into the talk with his signature self-deprecating humor.
“My critics agree that the cover is the best part of the book,” said Shteyngart. “Essentially, it’s a little boy about to cry in a car.”
Continual waves of laughter broke out among the audience of UCSB students, teachers and community members in deep appreciation of Shteyngart’s unassuming wit. Called “the unlikely offspring of Anton Chekhov and Judd Apatow,” the satirist communicates the comedic despair of the sociopolitical human condition in his speech as well as his writing. Shteyngart explained his style: “When I write, nonfiction or fiction, I think it should be entertaining.”
And entertaining he was. Shteyngart introduced his memoir as a book “about learning how to write.” He credits having a grandmother who loved to write as his reason for becoming a writer. Reading from his memoir, Shteyngart shared several vibrant anecdotes, including the story of how his grandmother gave him a piece of cheese for every page he filled with writing.
“Fun fact: Even Random House still pays me in gigantic pieces of cheese,” Shteyngart joked.
“Lenin and his Magical Goose” became Shteyngart’s first short story at five years old — it earned him 100 pieces of cheese. Inspired by the towering statue of Vladimir Lenin in his hometown of Leningrad in the Soviet Union, the young Shteyngart identified with the communist revolutionary. Said Shteyngart of the pseudo-mythical protagonist, “In the story, Lenin is an asthmatic, just like me.”
With the relishing-the-ridiculous attitude of a stand-up comedian, Shteyngart analyzed his immigrant experience as a Jewish Russian boy confronting culture shock in the Cold War-era United States. In comparison to the Soviet Union, Queens, New York “felt like pure science fiction” with its advanced American technology and unfamiliar English language.
Delightfully rendering impressions of his former thick Russian accent, Shteyngart related stories of his struggle as an outcast in Hebrew school. As a seven-year-old, he pretended to be from East Berlin to avoid social exclusion. Shteyngart joked, “You know things are bad when you have to convince Jewish kids you’re German.”
Though Shteyngart struggled to assimilate into his new country while learning two new languages, he found solace in writing science fiction stories. At the age of 11, his charming substitute teacher Ms. S requested that Shteyngart share his writing with the class. From then on, at the end of every English class, his peers grew quiet and listened to him read during “Gary Novel Time.”
Since then, the writer has published Little Failure (2014), Super Sad True Love Story (2010), Absurdistan (2006) and The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (2002).
The highly-acclaimed dystopian novel Super Sad True Love Story is currently in the process of becoming a television show for HBO. Shteyngart shared that his dream casting for Super Sad True Love Story would feature Paul Giamatti as the middle-aged dreamer Lenny and James Franco as Lenny’s sleazy, rejuvenated boss.
During the Q&A portion of the night, Shteyngart encouraged the questions of the audience: “I have a license plate that says, ‘Ask me about my late-in-life circumcision.’ So there’s nothing to hide.”
Explaining the title of his memoir, Shteyngart said his mother called him a Russian word meaning “little failure” when she saw his humble apartment and dreams of being a writer. He reflected that “[you] see your parents as these big hulking figures, and you are their little failure.”
Yet Shteyngart has come to terms with the demanding harshness of his parents. “Whatever feelings of anger I felt turned into feelings of sadness for my parents never becoming what they wanted to be, as immigrants dealing [with poverty],” says Shteyngart of growing into adulthood and developing his memoir. “Writing a memoir shouldn’t be therapeutic. It’s work and it’s artistry. But it did help me understand my parents.”
About his first country, Shteyngart remarked, “I visit Russia every year. You know, I need to suffer for my work.”
Shteyngart also shared observations on the psychological complex of Russia versus the United States. Said Shteyngart, “Both countries have this need for grandeur, this need to be part of something that’s greater than life.”
Gary Shteyngart is the inaugural speaker of The Diana and Simon Raab Writer-in-Residence Series, a program designed to bring distinguished writers, humanities scholars and filmmakers to UCSB. While in residence, the visitors engage with UCSB students in the classroom and give a public lecture for the Santa Barbara community. This event was presented by Arts & Lectures, and cosponsored by the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center and the UCSB Writing Program. Closing with a book signing, Shteyngart kicked off the new tradition with gracious fervor.
Shteyngart also imparted some literary advice, saying “When I’m reading, that’s when I think I’m the happiest … You can’t become a writer without reading more than you ever have in your life. What I tell my students is, the best that you can do is to read. When you open a book, all of a sudden you enter the consciousness of another human being.”
So open up one of Shteyngart’s novels and prepare to fall in love with his consciousness: a funny interplay of vivacious language and piercing insight.
A version of this story appeared on page 9 of Thursday, April 17, 2014′s print edition of the Daily Nexus.