The Meaning of Failure: A Word or Two on the Trailer for Gary Shteyngart’s New Memoir

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I recently stumbled across a trailer for Gary Shteyngart’s new book – Little Failure –  which will hit the streets on January 2014.

I came across the trailer by way of an article in Slate. The title of the piece, “Gary Shteyngart’s Homophobic Little Failure of a Book Trailer,” suggests that the trailer, because it played on “gay stereotypes,” was homophobic.   But the author of the article – J. Bryan Lowder – isn’t against gay jokes that poke fun at this or that stereotype so much as gay jokes that are based on “lazy stereotypes”:

Gay jokes aren’t that hard to pull off. Whether the comedian is straight or gay themselves, they only need to be clever, to pick out something fundamentally true about gay people or culture and play with it deftly. Unless you just reject identity-based humor altogether, a well-crafted gay joke delivered in the spirit of good-natured frivolity should not offend. That should only happen when the joke is malicious or, as is more often the case, draws its “humor” from lazy stereotypes.

Using the word “lazy” repeatedly, the author says that Shteyngart was looking for a “lazy gay laugh.”  And he uses it, once again, in his final summation of the piece:

Look, I’m sure Shteyngart and the folks at Random House thought they were making fun of the author’s shlumpy looks and demeanor, but there are ways of doing that which don’t necessitate lazily dusting off tired homophobic clichés.

And it recurs in his last words on the trailer:

Of course, considering the source, it’s clear this trailer wasn’t produced with malicious intent; it’s just the product of unimaginative, lazy thinking. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make it any less offensive.

The problem with this kind of reading is that by repeating the word “lazy” over and over again in different variations we are led to believe, falsely, that there is an argument here.  What would a more imaginative gay joke look like?  The author refers us to an article he wrote on a James Franco roast for his criteria.

But what we find there is that Franco’s jokes were acceptable because they were an “imagined embodiment of gayness” and were not “at the expense of gayness.”

Were the jokes really at the expense of gayness in general, or were they based on Franco’s imagined embodiment of it? From what I saw, the latter was the case; specifically, the jokesters all seemed very focused (to the point of fetishization, really) on how much crazy gay sex Franco was having, often with the person speaking.

This “imagined embodiment,” in his view, was “very focused” as opposed to Gary Shteyngart’s “lazy” performance.  Rather than level such a “taste- based” reading of this video – as to whether or not it is “at the expense of gays” – I think it would be more fruitful to read this performance of gayness by way of the schlemiel.  To be sure, the schlemiel and not gayness is the real focus of this trailer.

But what, in fact, is a gay schlemiel?  What examples do we have?

The gay schlemiel is something that has not been explored by any writer I know of – including Shteyngart.  But in this trailer, Shteyngart gives a go at it.  He starts off with a slightly inflected pitch for his new memoir by suggesting titles that “fail” because they are out of tune with reality (something we often find in the schlemiel is a disconnect between reality and their dreams; this at work here, too).  Playing on James Joyce, he first suggests The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Mensch, which is actually witty (and not lazy) because the subject of Joyce’s novel – Stephen Daedelus – is the anti-thesis of the schlemiel.  The second suggestion, playing on the serious writer David Eggers’ opus, The Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (a title which, though ironic, has a serious non-Jewish, edge, and lucid prose), is The Staggering Work of Great Jewness.   Both titles are frowned upon (notice the musical cues and the blank facial reactions); however, what is missed is that these titles evince a major difference between a comic Jewish attempt at a memoir (the attempt of a schlemiel – a half-man) and a “serious” (heroic) non-Jewish attempt.

Both titles are rejected.  And the two representatives of Random House tell Shteyngart that through their “focus group” they have discovered that the best title for his book (and for Shteyngart) – which best describes what he “is” – is Little Failure.   In other words, he is identified as a schlemiel by a “focus group” that consist of people who are self-actualized and normal.

Now comes the “gay schlemiel” part.  For the rest of the trailer, Shteyngart tries to deal with the fact that he has been designated a “failure” by Random House.  (Lest we not forget, the attempt to come to terms with failure, of course, is something Woody Allen does in many of his films.  It is a central schlemiel motif in his films.  And Shteyngart, in many ways, takes Allen as a model.)  When Shteyngart goes home to talk to his “husbands” about this designation, we first see James Franco who tries to cheer him up.  He tells him that Shteyngart shouldn’t worry about being designated as a “failure.” In Franco’s eyes, he’s a lover.  But, as we can see, Franco is self-actualized (a “real man”) and has his own Memoir (“an erotic journey”) which, once again, pits success against failure.  Although Shteyngart is in Franco’s memoir, the real focus is Franco and his erotic journey.   (Shteyngart is incidental)

Shteyngart’s attempt to come to terms with being a “little failure” – something that he, as a schlemiel, was blind to all these years (which reminds me of the motif of “blindness” in Woody Allen’s Hollywood Ending) – is repeated in the rest of the trailer.

In the next scene we see Jonathan Franzen – another self-actualized individual – as his therapist/husband and Shteyngart on the couch.   After Shteyngart presents the book, Franzen, condescendingly, says the more appropriate title should be “the little narcissist.”  Franzen ends with his identity as a heroic-slash-authentic writer of sorts who has to “speak the truth” without any irony: “I’m so sorry I have to stop speaking the truth aloud.”

The last part of the trailer – framed by the words “three weeks later” and sad violin music – shows us a sad Shteyngart at a coffee house.  The barista is reading Franco’s book, which isn’t a memoir – he says – so much as “an erotic journey.”  Memoirs, we see, aren’t welcome there.  To foreground Shteyngart’s failure, we bear witness to everyone else in the coffee house reading Franco’s book. We hear a series of clichéd descriptions of Franco’s book by these young and “hip” readers: his prose is perfect, he captures the Zeitgeist, etc.   The final blow is directed at Shteyngart: “why is he married to that dork?”

The meaning: no one wants to read the memoir of a “little failure” (a schlemiel).

In contrast to the author of the Slate article, I wouldn’t call this “lazy thinking” or a denigration of gay culture so much as an articulation of Shteyngart as a gay-schlemiel.  But, to be sure, this gayness is not fully sketched out and could use a lot more development.  It is by no means the benchmark for a new kind of schlemiel.

That said, the context for Shyeyngart’s designation as a “little failure” is that all of his “husbands” are good looking, confident, and successful.  He, like Jews who were historically excluded from a society that privileged masculinity, is not.  The schlemiel, to be sure, can be used – in this regard – to critique serious art, eroticism, and culture.  His failure can speak truth to power – albeit in an indirect manner (not like Franzen, Eggers, et al).

That’s what I like about this character. To be sure, I’m more interested in Moses Herzog, Gimpel, or the schlemiels of Yiddish literature than I am in Hemingway and all his literary heroes. That’s why I found Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris to be a great disappointment: in the end Owen Wilson’s character is influenced by Hemmingway to “be a man” and as the movie progresses we watch him “become a man.”  Woody Allen’s concession, in this film (and several others that stretch back to Anything Else in 2003) is to masculinity.

The schlemiel, in contrast, offers a critique of this emulation of masculinity (as we saw, for instance, in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall).

For this reason, I would suggest that the author of the article for Slate take a moment to think about the historical context of the “little failure” aka the schlemiel and how this comic character offers a powerful critique of masculinity.  Perhaps he should read Daniel Boyarin’s Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man to better understand what is at stake with the schlemiel’s critique of masculinity.  (I have dedicated a few blogs to this insightful book.)  If this trailer has any power to it, it comes from this tradition.   And while I can appreciate the concern the author has for the trailer’s treatment of gayness, I cannot overlook the fact that in this reading (by calling it “lazy”) he misses the point of the schlemiel (the little failure).

All of this comes across as odd since, ultimately, gay culture – at its best – offers a critique of masculinity that has much resonance with the schlemiel.

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