The Short Version: The acclaimed author of The Russian Debutante’s Handjob and Super True Sad Story and Lenin and His Magical Goose brings us an intimate portrait of being born one Igor Shteyngart in Soviet Leningrad. We follow young Igor into America – into being called Gary, Gnu, Scary Gary – with his family and see both an immigrant story and a universal story of trying to live up to the things our parents want us to be.
The Review: It was hard to know what to expect from a memoir by Gary Shteyngart. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him speak several times and he’s hilarious, self-deprecating, terribly insightful – but (and he’s acknowledged this) there’s a sense that whatever of his own life he’s poured into his novels was always done from a distance. As though there was some kind of actual (for lack of a better term) trauma that he needed but would not deal with. He said as much at (I believe) a New Yorker Festival panel a year or two ago: he was writing this memoir because he needed to get it all out, basically. In order to move on, he had to write down this story, the actual story.
And you get the sense, throughout, that this was a difficult book to write. Familial concerns, trying to really actually cut through your own self-mythologizing b.s. in order to put forth the truth, a lack of memory in certain places (whether due to age or substances), old heartaches, etc… And for a guy as funny as Shteyngart, I can see how it’d be easy to just hide behind that wall of humor. From the sounds of things, he’s done that quite often in life. But marvelously (and just proving how absolutely fucking astonishingly brilliant this guy is), he manages to keep the humor while also really opening up and saying “this is how it was, warts and all.”
There are, of course, the typically absurd touches. His captions, for example, of the small pictures that open each chapter are hilarious. There are witty footnotes, deftly placed jokes inside of otherwise moderately serious paragraphs. He keeps his readers smiling at the absurdities of life by playing up the (bear with me on this) persona of Gary Shteyngart, the guy who makes the best book trailers of all time, even as he peels that persona away to reveal a man who’s real name is not Gary nor (as it turns out) Shteyngart. That’s who he has become, of course – but where does the ‘invention’ overtake ‘reality’?
I’ve always believed in life as a series of iterations, each one changing (hopefully improving onbut who’s to say) from the last – and this book rather plays out in that way. We have young Igor in the USSR, young Igor-now-Gary in the USA, Stuyvesant Gary, Oberlin Gary (“Scary Gary”), paralegal Gary, young writer Gary, and finally the man writing the book Gary. You get the sense that each shift is (via the magic of retrospection) a unique moment that cannot be undone – all leading us to the man writing the book.
There are terrific moments here, of course, that are the sort of thing that make any memoir of an interesting person worth reading. Gary’s first story (the aforementioned Lenin/goose tale), the climbing frame his father built in his room, the strange imaginative flights of fancy he indulges in – even the wild drug/booze stories from his college/immediately-post-college days (which are understandably a bit hazier) are just fun to read because they give us a sense of the-famous-person-as-one-of-us. Oooh, look, he’s got a wacky story just like us! But that’s not what makes a memoir, well, memorable.
The most moving part of this book is the ongoing thread, throughout all of it (sometimes rather sublimated and only really teased out by the end), of the relationship between parents and child. The last twenty or so pages (which I won’t ‘spoil’ in too much detail) dramatically shift the focus of the novel in a really profound way – up to that point, it’d been about Gary but now it was suddenly that realization (as all children have, at several points in their lives) that your parents have lives, too. They have history that you might not know. They had hopes and dreams and things both did and did not work out and their lives are just as complex as yours. It is an unexpectedly moving end to the book and one that had me choked up on the 6 train this morning.
In light of the ending, I will say that the early chapters are a bit disjoint and the (for lack of a better term) ‘moral’ at the end sort of shifts our relationship to the earlier story a bit – as though the book is actually the played-out-in-real-time wrestling match between Shteyngart wanting to tell his story and to tell the story of his family. It makes for excellent reading, that tension, but some rushed anecdotes in the adult half of Gary’s life make the reader wonder if more balance couldn’t’ve been achieved. But this, this is a minor quibble. It makes the book, to attempt a terrible joke, only a little failure. (That term, FYI non-readers, is a term of mostly-endearment in the book.)
Rating: 4 out of 5. There are some parts of this book that feel like raw nerve endings, the more I think about it – and not just with the family stuff, either. Towards the end, when Gary first goes to a psychiatrist, he explains rather baldly why he doesn’t think it will work – that self-defense mechanism within all of us that resists baring our souls to others. You can see, too, how this book bears that tension as well. And it can be a little difficult at times, that rawness. But it’s also delightfully funny and brilliantly written – Shteyngart is one of the premier writers working today, in any form. Read this book to understand exactly why.