Near the end of Gary Shteyngart’s second novel – Absurdistan – Misha, the main character, reflects on what he learned about America from “Accidental College.” What we find in this account is a description of America as a place where the fine line between childhood and adulthood “has been eroding.” At Accidental College, dreams are greater than all and dreams, for Misha, are the substance of childhood:
At Accidental College, we were taught that our dreams and our beliefs were all that mattered, that the world would eventually sway to our will, fall in step with our goodness, swoon right into our delicate white arms. (230)
The classes Misha took at Accidental College reflect a curriculum that is not so much about preparing one for the adult world as returning one to the state of dreams and childhood. He sees this as a symptom of something larger happening in America in which the fine lines between childhood and adulthood, on the one hand, and the personal and the fantastic, on the other, are effaced:
All over America, the membrane between adulthood and childhood had been eroding, the fantastic and the personal melding into one, adult worries receding into a pink childhood haze. (230)
As support for this claim, Misha notes that he was gone to parties in Brooklyn “where men and women in their mid-thirties would passionately discuss the fine points of the Little Mermaid or the travails of their favorite superhero. Deep inside, we all wished to have communion with that tiny red-haired underwater bitch. We all wanted to soar high above the city…and champion the rights of somebody, anybody”(230).
Misha finishes his meditation on America by likening democracy to “the best Disney cartoon ever made.”
Although Misha often comes across as an out-of-touch fool, this meditation on America, like much else he says, has an element of truth. To be sure, Shteyngart, in much of his work, celebrates the effacement of the fine line between childhood and adulthood. The fact that his parodies of this effacement are mild and silly doesn’t do much to reinstate this line. In fact, I’d say that that’s not what he wants to do. Rather, it seems as if he sees this as a new, ironic norm, which, in many ways, comes to accept the childish aspects of American reality as a fact.
Reading his account, one wonders how much of this description resonates with the author of the new memoir Little Failure. To be sure, Shteyngart no longer goes through characters such as Misha or Vladmir to explore his relationship to America; he goes by way of a reflection on himself. And many of these reflections, as we can see from interviews and excerpts from his memoir, cast him as a man-child.
His “little failure” (as well as the picture for the book) give another shade to the America that Misha saw by way of his education at Accidental College and his experiences in Brooklyn. They may be ironic, but the fact of the matter is that unlike much irony, which looks to wound or destroy its target, this irony is the irony of a kind of acceptance which, ultimately, is ridiculous.
In this irony, America, the land of dreams, becomes literalized. This works well with Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi’s reflections on America in Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination. In her view, America remains a land that is perfect for the diasporic schlemiel. Shteyngart adds to this by showing that its not just a land of dreams it’s a land of perpetual childhood where the line between being an adult and a child is, for all intents and purposes, effaced.
We don’t have to accept these generalizations or descriptions. To be sure, they belong to a certain project. To be sure, the schlemiel need not be seen as a man-child. S/he shuttles back and forth. And her failure is not something silly or childish. This is what great Jewish American novelists like Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow want to show us.
One that fine line between childhood and adulthood is effaced, however, failure itself will become “little” and silly. When it comes to the schlemiel, we have to take this risk seriously. The problem with characters like Misha is that they seem to have no problem with this, and we see this in his portrayal of American and his American education.
I suggest that the line between the two remain porous, but not effaced. The question of what it means to become mature is at the basis of the question of failure. We need to learn how to articulate this question by way of the schlemiel who is a comic failure. His failures may be comic but let’s hope they don’t become so small as to become childish and silly.
When that happens, the meaning and power of this comic character will be lost.