The Ironic Moral of the Jewish-American Story: To Be a Big Success, Gary Shteyngart Must Be and Remain the “Little Failure”


Today, on his Facebook page, Gary Shteyngart announced that he is a “nebbish no more” since “The Forward puts me in its Top Five of 2014 list, where I’m the only sort-of-male listed.” The only “sort-of-male” is another name for the schlemiel, the man-child. He is, in other words, the only schlemiel on the list. The Facebook message goes on to tell his Facebook crowd to skip the words and go to the video which shows the schlemiel doing what he would rather do, act, instead of write. And, like Roth’s Portnoy, he plays the schlemiel-as-patient: “Scroll down to the video where I free-associate. Mostly about mikvahs.”

What I find most interesting about the decision of The Forward to put him on its “Top Five of 2014 List,” write a feature article on Shteyngart, and make a special video dedicated to his being a schlemiel-who-has-made-it-and-should-no-longer-be-a-schlemiel-but–still-is, is that Shteyngart has also been featured as the schlemiel by The New Yorker, which has had several articles by Shteyngart over the last year – and currently features an essay nearly every week about his “Little Failure” (memoir) Tour – and The New York Times.   It’s as if it there is a highbrow, New York consensus that Shteyngart is a literary version of Woody Allen.

In all of the above mentioned pieces, Shteyngart effaces the line between reality and fiction showing us that the schlemiel lives on.   But what makes this highly ironic and deeply satisfying the urbane reader is the fact that we are all in on the joke. This article by The Forward and the video at the bottom of the page ironically suggest – like every piece in The New Yorker and The New York Times – that Shteyngart is a “nebbish no more!” He is no longer a “little failure,” now, contrary to his literary persona, he has become a success.   But how, after all, can a schlemiel be a success.  Herein lies the irony that highbrow New York wants to consume.

The article by Adam Langer makes him into a larger than life schlemiel. The first words state the irony that has been banked on by Random House (who is behind the publicity stint with Shteyngart), The New Yorker, et al:

“What’s funny is that I’m not self-hating at all. I like myself quite a bit,” Gary Shteyngart, 42, told the Forward’s Yevgeniya Traps earlier this year. Luckily, despite the self-loathing that the author, humorist and star of book trailers (featuring his former student James Franco) affects in his comic persona, Shteyngart is not alone in that positive assessment of his worth. Writing for the Forward, Gal Beckerman — who had previously praised Shteyngart’s 2010 madcap dystopian romp “Super Sad True Love Story” as “hilarious,” “dead-on” and “Rabelaisian” — called the author’s 2014 debut memoir, “Little Failure,” his “best book yet.”

The schlemiel who isn’t supposed to be a success has, in life, really become one. Langer describes him as part schlemiel, part Bosht Belt, Philip Roth…in short everyone and everything that equals Jewish Urban Culture. And he is a “tonic” for the more serious immigrant fiction and he is also popular on “twitter.” Something about what he does, in other words, really works and earns him recognition.

Mashing up Philip Rothian introspection, Woody Allen-esque schlemielery and Jackie Mason-esque Borscht Belt delivery with a whip-smart pop cultural sensibility, Shteyngart was and continues to be a tonic for the humorless earnestness and solemn “importance” that can often hamper first-generation immigrant narrators. A late arrival to Twitter, he has also proven adept at social media; 46,000 followers track his witty gibes and japes.

But the last paragraph of the article, though seemingly serious, is, in the video, partially a joke. The joke, as you can see from the video, has to do with the fact that he will not stop playing the schlemiel character. For in doing so, he would no longer be successful:

Now that Shteyngart has conquered both fiction and nonfiction, one wonders what his work will look like when we reach the bleak future he predicted in “Super Sad True Love Story.” Television? Motion pictures? A comfortable early retirement? As long as Shteyngart’s voice remains fresh and his former students famous, there should be no end to the possibilities.

The video plays on this by foregrounding the praise for Shteyngart with a word-association game with the speaker and, in the end, returns to it. The word choices are the choices that would be made by a self-deprecating schlemiel. And, strangely enough, we seem to be going back to the old Philip Roth formula of casting the schlemiel-as-patient.

Gal Beckerman, who praised Shteyngart’s last novel for The Forward, speaks well of Shteyngart in the film short. Included in the short is a comic short video put out by Random House to promote the book. It uses comic music and awkward scenarios to cast Shteyngart as the “little failure” (the schlemiel) as one would cast a classic schlemiel comic scene with Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Ben Stiller, or Larry David.

Against this portrayal, Beckerman suggests that this memoir is a “completion of a process” he has undergone in his novels which, to be sure, are all focused on the life and tales of different schlemiels.   This would suggest that, since he has finished this “cycle,” he can move on and stop being a “nebbish” or rather “schlemiel.” But this is the joke. It seems he will be in “interminable schlemiel analysis,” something we see in many Woody Allen’s books.

The last words of the video assure us that in his next novel there won’t be a “nebbish,” that is, a schlemiel. There will be, rather, an “attractive woman” And “now,” after the cycle is over, “we can write about attractive people.” But his presentation gives him away. He will remain a schlemiel. But, then, his last words, “let the readers of The Forwards” decides suggest that if they are buying into the schlemiel, he will continue to write on it.

And if A.O. Scott’s recent complaint about “perpetual adolescence” in American film and TV mean anything, it seems that Shteyngart will have to continue casting schlemiels if he is to be a commercial success. It seems that the readership wants more schlemiels. And if that’s what they want, than the schlemiel cycle is not over.

His schlemieldom depends on his readers. But, then again, his market goes beyond Jewish Americans. Since the schlemiel is an American icon, it seems this character and Shteyngart’s imperative to brand the schlemiel as his persona (as Sasha Baron Cohen did with Borat) has become a part of the Jewish-American literary and cultural scene. It’s a guarantee for success. If you don’t believe me, ask Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen, Ben Stiller, and Adam Sandler.   They have made a career out of “little failures.” America, it seems, needs them…like a “tonic” for seriousness and, as A.O. Scott would say, adulthood.   This means one thing: to be a big American success, Gary Shteyngart must constantly portray the “little failure” in his novels, on the pages of The New Yorker and The New York Times, Twitter, Youtube, and VIMEO.

Who would have believed that failure is the key to success?

Given the success of so many schlemiels in film and on the pages of literature, it’s the ironic moral to the Jewish-American story.

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