Thursday, January 16, 2014
Tsar of the Amazon
I just published my first Amazon review as Shady Ivan from "Sugar-Plum Kingdom", I am happy about the result but do feel somewhat guilty about a polemic aimed at an author whose fiction I thoroughly enjoy. Especially, since Shteyngart seems like the kind of a fella who would actually read negative reviews of his books on Amazon.
Also, the beginning of this review is taken from a previous blog post. Be warned, my non-existent readers!
I want to preface this by saying that I am a fan of Gary. I have read every book he has put out and was eagerly awaiting this memoir.
I too am a Russian immigrant (though a goy in my case). Born in Moscow where as Shteyngart hails from Saint Petersburg.
One of the most uncomfortable college experiences I had was when once a grad student teaching my Slavic Studies course asked the class of your run of the mill Ohio State students what came to mind when they heard "Eastern Europe."
What sprang from the tips of the Midwestern tongues didn't exactly scar me for life but reaffirmed the fact that the place that housed my ancestors for hundreds of years is -in one way or another- viewed as a cold hell by many (if not most) in my adopted country.
Nothing about soulfulness or good literature or mystical spirituality came up.
The stereotypical litany I heard included, "prostitution, mafia, dictatorship" and -to add insult to injury- "bad food."
On the upside, nobody actually brought up an STD.
I have the perspective to appreciate this book.
The problem with "Little Failure" is that it is not a story of a Russian immigrant it is a story of an evolving neurosis.
The neurosis of a sick Soviet child, the neurosis of a thick-accented adolescent at a Hebrew school, the neurosis of a lonely teenager in an elite public school, etc...
Everything is told in this nervous, pained voice in search of the next punchline. All the other people in the memoir are vague, blurry ghosts. A source material for another bout of angst or a new litany of jokes.
Most good writing is crafted in a way where the reader can develop his own independent opinion about the events in the book. With "Little Failure" this feat is impossible. The reader dwells in a totalitarian, literary state where humor is the pedestal that upholds the ideology of dread. There is no freedom here. The nervous voice dictates your vision. And I found the experience of reading this book suffocating and repetitive.
This memoir is free of people, real people, real characters. The only real person is Gary and even he plays second fiddle to his nervous mind which is the only living entity that had depth in the book. Sort of like Chairman Mao was the only man who could afford to be fat in his realm.
All the people who make an appearance are more or less one-dimensional societal caricatures. Rich New York hippies, goofy left-wing Oberlin students and -of course- Soviet Jews.
For those who read this book and appreciate it, let me pose a simple question.
On one hand, place the stereotype of a Russian Jewish person and in another hand take Gary's parents as they are described in the book. Can you detect any difference? Could this lack of differences be considered a literary success?
Yes, Gary describes his folks with brilliant style but are they really perfect ethnic archetypes or has their humanity been stripped from them by their son?
There were ethnic stereotyping in Shteyngart's fictional works too, but with rich narratives they reclaimed their humanity. Not so in Little Failure.
There is a rich tradition of self-deprecating humor in America. But if you look closely, the people doing the self-deprivation are minorities. Brilliant Jewish, black and others putting out their ethnic laundry and having a laugh.
Woody Allen and Dave Chappell looking at mainstream American with a plea, "yes, I am ridiculous but can you still love me? let me do a funny dance for you."
Its an old performance that generated millions of dollars for the entertainment industry. But it strips the dancing monkey of his dignity.
As a Russian, I want my country of origin and its offspring to be described with more depth. Yes to absurdity, yes to tragedy, no to to a narrating voice of a cerebral Yakov Smirnoff. Sometimes you have to lay down the humor and show something real.
Yes, there is value in describing the immigrant neurosis, yes it is often funny. But I want to see a human face behind the laughs and the nervous twitches. I wanted to see the faces of Gary's parents. I wanted to see Gary's face.
I looked into the borscht and saw a dull, suffocating abyss.
Do svedanya, Gary.
I hope your next book won't be a little failure.