I Don’t Have to Grow Up, I’m an American Kid: Gary Shteyngart’s Parody (?) of American Dreams


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.

When is too much…too much? The Exhaustion of Failure in Shteyngart’s Little-Failure-Ad-Campaign


Ok.  Its good to know what someone is doing, but when is too much…too much?  And what happens when what he or she is saying is not particularly that insightful?

When it comes to the schlemiel, there is a limit.   Every good writer knows that.  Overkill doesn’t do the schlemiel well.  This is what I fail to see in the Gary Shteyngart’s ad campaign to promote his work.  The content of this endless series of faux pas – inside of interviews, a film trailer, the pages of memoir that he sent to the New York Times, endless praise in this or that newspaper, where we see the ironic little immigrant failure foregrounded – is too obvious and cliche.  It is overplayed and it actually reduces the schlemiel character to the endless repetition of bad jokes.   To be sure, I turn to literature so I don’t have to see all the schlemiel characters that Will Farell, Seth Rogen, and Ben Stiller do so well.  I don’t want to find Hollywood in a schlemiel novel (or a schlemiel memoir).  And I don’t want to hear the a self-congratulatory and slightly snarky tone that I so often find on the pages of New York Magazine.

When I see all of this, I realize what I don’t like.  What I want to see is a schlemiel that is far from New York Hipsterdom and Hollywood comedy.   And I have recently found this in the pages of Bernard Malamud’s novel A New Life.  What I discovered is that, not too long ago, the American schlemiel was a character who, though comic, was trying to seriously start a “new life.”  Shteyngart mimes this process in much of his work.

The life that his characters live or end off with in nearly every novel is, as I pointed out elsewhere “normal” or else lived in yearning of returning to New York.  The end is lacking believability because the characters are either too normal or too ridiculous in their life.

In Malamud’s A New Life, the main character Levin is much more believable.  His schlemiel character touches deep on the life of the male American Jew.   The failures of Levin are not too caricatured.   They feel like real failures.

In taking himself as his subject, Shteyngart’s failures are caricatured.   They are truly silly.  Though animated, they are about as interesting as the next article on your facebook feed.

A recent cartoon interview with Shtyengart is a case in point.


The ironic line that gives it all away happens when Shteyngart jokingly tells us that:

Inside the little clown was an angry kid trying to get out.  Had I been bigger I would have been some kind of bully. 

And the punch line:

Thank God for my tiny frame.

What we are left with is a Jew whose body limits his inner anger.  He doesn’t have the frame to be a man.  The joke is obvious and it makes the Jewish body into a pathetic site of failure.

What’s lost in all this is Levin, Malamud’s schlemiel.  When I think of Levin, I don’t think of his body.  I think in terms of his desire for something better than what he has experienced in his life.  He is a schlemiel because the life he ends up with is new but not in the way he expected.  He often makes the wrong choices, but not always.  He is not a pathetic failure, nor does he endlessly play on failure.  Levin seems to be on, but he’s  just a little off.   Nonetheless, he does have some minor triumphs.  And these are meaningful.  The treatment of failure in American life (for a Jew) is much more believable, humbling, and meaningful.  Malamud’s schlemiel is someone who I can identify with: his failures, real enough, hit on something common to many American Jews – even I, who was born from a different generation than Malamud, find something more resonant in his schlemiels (something that really is about being a Jew and being a failure).

Shteyngart is my age.  We come from the same time, but we come from different countries.  And, more importantly, we have a different understanding of the schlemiel.

Though I have spent a lot of time writing on his work, I always felt that this treatment of the Jewish-American schlemiel was missing something.  I couldn’t identify with his schlemiels as I could with Roth, Bellow, or Malamud’s.   In Levin, Herzog, and Portnoy there is a serious engagement with the link between an American, a Jew, and a schlemiel. Their schlemiels have given me insight into how Jewish schlemiels are locked into different identity-crises: one’s that matter.

The fact that the Jews survives this crisis while at the same time failing gives a deeper shade to the meaning of failure.  Shteyngart’s interviews and ads do the opposite.  In fact, watching them, I feel as if the schlemiel becomes more and more clichéd and empty.  Failure loses all of its content.

When did we ever settle for this?  What does it mean that Random House thinks that we can no longer live through the schlemiel like we used to?  When did they decide that the schlemiel was utterly meaningless by way of infinite repetition and non-variation?

So, when is too much, too much?  When is the praise of the “Little Failure” too much?

Answer: right now.

What we have with this repetition of a certain kind of  schlemiel….is the exhaustion of failure….

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


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.