Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Gary Shteyngart, _Little Failure_

GIVEN THAT MEMOIRS by Russian-born novelists who emigrated to the United States and write in English are not that frequently encountered, it's hard to read this and not think of Nabokov's Speak, Memory. Once we do think of Nabokov, though, we are mainly struck by contrasts.

On the one hand, a butterfly-collecting princeling, his parents' pride and joy, grows up in the twilight of the Romanovs; forced into exile, he attends Oxford, becomes the shining star of the émigré literary scene, endures the assassination of his beloved father, and (after a series of romances) marries a devoted wife. On the other hand, a sci-fi devouring child of the Brezhnev years, whose parents call him "snotnose" and "little failure," ends up in Queens, majors in marijuana at Oberlin, suffers writer's block, and can never keep a girlfriend for long.

I wondered if Shteyngart was deliberately playing up the contrast, actually. He mentions Speak, Memory in passing (p. 261), and the almost absurd abyss between his circumstances and Nabokov's is the kind of sly joke that his novels often make.

Just as the memoir's comedy is a lot like that of the novels, the persona of the memoir often reminds one of the schlimazels whose beleaguered adventures feature in the novels. And just as one discerns behind the hapless narrators of Shteyngart's novels a novelist who is intelligent, perceptive, and resourceful, Shteyngart the memoirist is as skillful and deliberate as Garry the subject is naive and deluded.

The latter chapters of the book steer close to the edge of the topoi of celebrity memoir--drug and alcohol excesses, ethical lapses, recovered memories of rough treatment in childhood, therapy--but even while sustaining the tone of class-clown self-disparagement that runs throughout the book, Shteyngart handles this material with tact and even--not at all what one has come to expect from him--dignity. So in some subtle way the book may have a lot in common with Nabokov after all.

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