Searching for a place in the world

Gary Shteyngart’s memoir takes us on his personal quest to become a mensch.

Gary Shteyngart was born Igor Semyonovich Shteyngart on July 5, 1972, in Leningrad. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Gary Shteyngart was born Igor Semyonovich Shteyngart on July 5, 1972, in Leningrad.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It feels as if 41-year-old Gary Shteyngart’s heart has always been breaking.
Perhaps his sadness is the result of a series of misfortunes – being born the asthmatic only child to demanding and contentious parents; being born in the Soviet Union under Brezhnev, in a country that has never been hospitable to Jews; and an innate temperament that focused on life’s bleakness.
But he was given tremendous gifts as well. Those familiar with his three critically acclaimed novels (The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story) know him to be an imaginative and irreverent author who has been able to channel his literary energy into creations that have been compared to the work of Saul Bellow, Martin Amis, Joseph Heller and Vladimir Nabokov – perhaps sprinkled with tidbits of Borat and Woody Allen – that still ring with a voice utterly his own.
Still, personal exposure in a memoir calls on a different skill set, and Shteyngart’s demons run deep. He spent years seeking approval from others, filled with self-loathing and confusion about his place in the world. His decision to decipher his interior life for the world was a courageous act, no doubt prompted by the persistent anxiety he was experiencing and his sessions with his psychiatrist, whom he saw numerous times a week for several years.
SHTEYNGART WANTED to become a mensch – not to get girls or money or more literary acclaim, or even to please his still-difficult parents or even his new Korean wife, but because that is simply what he wanted to become. The result is a ferocious masterpiece of a memoir that will leave readers captivated by his bravado. He reminds us that childhood sadness need not be a prognosis for adult despair; we can learn to love and forgive others for past transgressions – and even ourselves.
The author describes the overwhelming feelings that dominated his younger self, claiming, “I am born hungry. Ravenous. I want to eat the world and I can never be satiated. Breast, condensed milk, whatever you have I will suck on it, bite it, swallow it.”
He remembers vividly his parents’ fights and the tension that followed. Much of their distress seemed to stem from his mother’s contention that his father’s relatives were “animals” from the lower class, while her family came from the cultural class of St. Petersburg.
The young Shteyngart was used as a pawn between them, negotiating truces and praying for peace. The nervous strain resulted in his having asthma attacks and being rushed to the emergency room for help in a country that still did not have inhalers readily available. He remembers his early life as a gigantic effort to simply breathe.
When the family got permission to flee Russia, they landed clumsily in Queens, New York, with seven-yearold Gary in tow, along with his paternal grandmother and her new husband. There, his strange and often humiliating attempts at assimilation began – first at Solomon Schechter Hebrew School, where he was mocked for his shabby clothes and foreign accent; then during his years at Stuyvesant High School in lower Manhattan, where he spent most of his time in a pot-induced haze; and later at Oberlin College in Ohio, where he flirted with girls and writing seriously while still drinking and smoking a lot of weed.
He eventually returned to Manhattan and Hunter College, where he got his MFA as well as his first book deal.
The author is still haunted by memories of Hebrew school, recalling the endless bouts of rote learning and intellectual deadness that bothered him, as well as “the aggressive shouting of blessings and counter- blessings before and after lunch.” He rebelled by rewriting the Torah as the Gnorrah, and Exodus as Sexodus, in an attempt to win the approval of his peers on the playground. When he entered high school, he recognized that his worldview was radically different from what he had learned at Solomon Schechter or from listening to his father’s lectures.
IN COLLEGE, Shteyngart struggled to break free from his parents’ tenacious emotional hold. This was not an easy task. He remembered too vividly his father’s hand striking him severely and frequently as a child, and his mother’s cold, silent treatment, but he also felt their fierce love. He tries masterfully in this memoir to look at them from an adult perspective, and attempts to understand their own traumas as well as his own.
In one unforgettably striking scene, he meets them atop the Marriott Marquis in Times Square for dinner, and looks intently at his father, thinking, “Let me stop for a moment. What is it like to be him right now? What does he see through his browheavy stare? His son. A stranger. Ordering truffled things from the menu. With his Obama and his Remnick, the haters of Israel. My father has been to Israel for only seven days, but he loves it as obediently as anyone who doesn’t understand his young lover, who sees only her slinky dark shape, the curve of her settlements.
In the third-floor attic where my father lives – the spacious second floor has long been surrendered to my mother – life is punctuated by the boom of the classical records and the drone of extremist rabbis on the radio. How did his son travel so far from here? Isn’t it his duty to stay by his father?” In Shteyngart’s third novel, Super Sad True Love Story, which takes place in the near future, Lenny Abramov returns to the US after a year in Rome, where he has fallen in love with a 24-year-old Korean girl. The book is a fast-paced collage of his diary entries, and her emails to her girlfriends about their romance. Much of it parodies how we have come to interact; how technology has replaced genuine contact. But even with all the futuristic razzmatazz, it is basically a love story that focuses on yearning and a desire for intimacy, and the price one must pay to get it and maintain it.
When Lenny senses he is losing his girl, he steadies himself by saying, “You must be good, Lenny. You must not think of yourself at all. Only of this little creature before you. Then you will be helped in turn. If you don’t pull this off, if you hurt this poor girl in any way, you will not be worthy of immortality. But if you harness her little body to yours and make her smile, if you show her that adult love can overcome childhood pain, then both of you will be shown the kingdom.”
Shteyngart still may not have found his way to the “kingdom,” but he has surely found the front door. And it is euphoric and cathartic for the reader to watch him go through it.