Little Failure, Big Success: Gary Shteyngart At Vassar
Photo by Brigitte Lacombe
By Robert Burke Warren
When bestselling author Gary Shteyngart delivers the Alex Krieger Memorial Lecture at Vassar on March 27, attendees will get more than a talk; Shteyngart is a performer, an avid YouTuber and Twitter maven. He’ll be reading from his recent memoir, Little Failure, which is actually a big success, due in part to his relentless promo action, including an online book trailer featuring James Franco, Rashida Jones and NYC literati interacting with a madcap Shteyngart. (Franco plays Shteyngart’s husband.)
Shteyngart spent his first seven years in Leningrad, immigrating to Queens with his parents in 1979. Since his 2002 debut, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, he’s earned a reputation as a deft satirist, using his hardscrabble Russian background as fodder for his books, all bestsellers. Shteyngart promotes his efforts with a theatrical persona, a darkly witty, self-deprecating jester, hamming it up in print and onscreen. In addition to the Little Failure video, he and his publisher, Random House, produced a trailer (also featuring Franco) and a short film for his last novel, Super Sad True Love Story (currently in development as an HBO series). The film, Super Sad True Book Club, features award-winning actor Paul Giamatti as Shteyngart’s hapless roommate.
“Hooray for book trailers,” Shteyngart says. “I teach at Columbia, and my students are very passionate about literature. But in the country as a whole, literature has been increasingly marginalized. Fewer people read, and books just aren’t as central to our culture as they used to be. So you gotta do trailers with movie stars now. Otherwise, who’s gonna buy your book?”
Little Failure is a bit of a departure for Shteyngart. While his previous book output falls under “thinly veiled fiction,” his memoir delves deep into his own story, a tale rife with pain and anxiety, not to mention real people, including his parents. Shteyngart had been circling around it for a while. “I’ve always written [autobiographical] essays for the New Yorker and other publications,” he says, “so that helped stir the pot. It took about two years to fill in the connective tissue between all the essays and the new stuff, which accounted for about 80 percent of the book.”
Shteyngart and his wife (his real wife, not James Franco) have houses in Germantown and Red Hook, NY, and while much of Little Failure takes place in Queens and Manhattan, he did most of the work on the memoir in the country. “It was nice to write most of this book upstate, where I spend half the year,” he says. “The distance from New York made the city come alive more for me. There’s nothing like distance.” How does writing memoir compare to fiction? “In a weird way, there’s more research,” Shteyngart says. “You’re always checking your memories against the facts. Close to a dozen friends and family members were interviewed for this thing. The transcripts alone would take up several volumes.”
Little Failure evokes quite a lot. Shteyngart makes his story both distinctive and universal; with exquisite narrative grace, he paints the tribulations of a troubled, asthmatic Russian Jewish immigrant with cruel parents (“Little Failure” was his mother’s nickname for him), while also breathing life into the New York City of the 80s, a bygone time of synth pop and big hair. “It’s nice to stir people’s memories of time and place,” he says. “People will come up and talk to me about their SANYO cassette players with anti-rolling mechanism. Whatever the heck that was.”
This annual lecture series is given in memory of Vassar student Alex Krieger, who was killed in an automobile accident during the spring of his freshman year. One of Krieger’s keenest interests was distinguished American writing that incorporates humor as a primary element. In consultation with his family, Vassar has invited outstanding American writers and humorists to deliver the annual speech, including Tom Wolfe, Wendy Wasserstein, David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell, Ira Glass and Mo Rocca.
Gary Shteyngart, Alex Krieger ’95 Memorial Lecture
Thursday, March 27, at 8 p.m.
Vassar College Students’ Building
This is a free event.