By Gillian Jakab, Daily Community & Culture Editor
Published October 19, 2014
As a high school senior in 1991, Gary Shteyngart almost came to the University of Michigan. Now the award-winning author of “Super Sad True Love Story,” “Absurdistan” and “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook,” is visiting Ann Arbor 23 years later to read from his recent memoir “Little Failure.” The memoir ranges from hilarity to melancholy as it takes us from his birth in 1972 Leningrad, the Shteyngart family’s move to New York in 1979, the travails of his just-off-the-boat household in the land of sweepstakes, promises and brutal schoolboy pecking orders, his years at Oberlin and in New York as a young writer, and finally to his return to Russia as a tourist. Shteyngart’s readers will recognize in “Little Failure” the many ingredients cooked into his three prior novels.
Gary Shteyngart Discusses His Bestselling Memoir, 'Little Failure'
Tuesday 7:00 to 8:30 pm
Ann Arbor District Library
But a memoir is very different from fiction, Shtyengart reminds us in his trademark satirical style.
“Well it’s fun to mind the past, but you have to be — you can’t lie,” Shteyngart said in an interview with the Michigan Daily. “It’s all about the truth. That’s different for somebody who is used to lying, which is what a novelist does all the time.”
In chasing the truth about his own life, Shteyngart found, for various reasons, that he needed to research the secondary sources.
“I had to sit down with a lot of people and talk about it — especially college, it’s hard to remember because I was so stoned,” Shteyngart said. “High school too, I can’t remember much of high school. There were all these things that I thought had happened that never really happened. I thought we had hijacked a number two train while on acid and taken it up to the Bronx, but apparently that was a movie. That was hard to figure out.”
Soviet Russia was an unforgiving place to grow up with a Jewish family. But afterwards, the world was not kind to a scrawny immigrant kid who spoke funny and wore too many furs. Yeshiva grade school left him unprepared for the diverse, rigorous environment of New York City’s most competitive public high school. The American dream mentality and materialist ethos that drove him to Stuyvesant High School then left him clueless for the alternative liberal arts scene of Oberlin College.
“You kinda make (difficult memories) fun, I mean you don’t want this to be one giant cry fest so you try to make it fun,” Shteyngart said. “But it was a pretty awful childhood — segued into a pretty crappy adulthood too … But you know life goes on. If I grew up in America I probably would have enjoyed a lot of stuff. I wouldn’t have gone to a tough school like Stuyvesant; I’d probably go to some nice hippie school. And then Oberlin would have made a lot more sense.”
Shteyngart’s Aeropostale jerseys didn’t cut it at Oberlin, where irony-laced guys named John wore janitor’s shirts inscribed “Bob.” “Little Failure” paints similar humorous portraits of Oberlin students as does Lena Dunham’s new book “Not That Kind of Girl.” And even though Dunham also struggled to find her place, she was better prepared to understand the mentality than Shteyngart had been.
“I haven’t been back in a little while, but it’s all very similar to be back at Oberlin,” Shteyngart said. “People were talking about their Frank Zappa cover band and stuff like that — that was pretty familiar. There was one guy walking around with beanie hat, and when I looked at him he gave me this look like ‘ugh, why are you looking at me?’ But then when I stopped looking at him, his look was more like 'keep looking at me.'”
In “Little Failure,” Shteyngart reveals his thought process about the University of Michigan and his college decision.
“I was going to go to Michigan, because I got into the honors college and I thought that was pretty cool,” Shteyngart said. “I really wanted to go, but — it’s in the book — what happened was there was this woman I really liked who went to Oberlin and I thought she’d go out with me, but then she broke up with me immediately. Yeah, so that didn’t work out well. Well, you know that’s very Oberlin; you just get dumped a lot.”
Shteyngart lives in New York and teaches at Columbia University, so between his teaching and book tours he’s gotten to see many America’s college towns.
“They’re very well manicured. There’s a lot of money being spent on shrubbery I think, so that’s interesting to see. American colleges look really beautiful. One thing that we can still do well as a country is produce elite colleges.”
Asked what he thinks about fellow Russians Pussy Riot, who came to Ann Arbor earlier this semester, Shteyngart quipped: “They’re lovely, I love them. Great riots. Great riots.”
But when pressed on the question of Russian politics, he was circumspect.
”Well Russia is always a disaster, so what are you going to do?” he said. ”It’s always going to suck. But I don’t know it’s nice that they have the energy to try to fight that, fight the system. I just gave up a lot time ago on Russia. The best thing you can do with Russia is just to get as far away from it as you can.”
Shteyngart steered clear of Russia and politics and became a writer, but his advice is to avoid that profession as well.
“Oh my god, find another line of work please. Like if I could do it again I’d go into probably air conditioning and refrigerator repair cause you got a lot there with global warming and such. Stay away from writing. But if you do decide to do it, just try to write down everything around you. Keep a diary. Take notes all the time. Notice everything around you. Try to wake up by 11 o’clock so you can get a good couple of hours in, and read, read, read! Anyone can write, but reading requires even more concentration.”
He has the writer’s life down:
“I wake up pretty late: around 10:30 or 11:00 and then I think I write for about four hours a day. Then after that, like most New Yorkers I go see a shrink for a while that’s from 5:00 to 6:00, and then we all get together and have dinner — all the writers because our shrinks are in the same part of town, so we have dinner, and then from 7:00 to 11:00, or 7:00 to midnight we drink a lot. And then midnight is the crying hour when writers cry because, you know, publishing is not doing so well. And then I need my beauty sleep obviously so I sleep for about ten hours.”
The decline in reading, or at least in reading fiction, in our digital age led Shteyngart to pioneer a marketing device that’s come to be known as the “Book Trailer,” short videos to promote his books as though they were movies. They have big stars — Paul Giamatti, James Franco — and are hysterical: Little Failure, Super Sad True Love Story, Super Sad True Book Club
“Well, nobody likes to read anymore. So to sell a book you have to make a film about it first. You have to — well you have to do a book trailer with James Franco or else nobody is going to remotely read it. In the old days you just had to write a book,” he said.
Check out Shteyngart at the Ann Arbor District Library and when you get there, take his advice:
“Just have fun. I suffered for 42 years so people can have a lot of fun reading about it. That’s my hope. Enjoy my suffering.”