If You Go
What: Bestselling author Gary Shtyengart will read from his new memoir, "Little Failure," and engage in a conversation with CU's Sasha Senderovich
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 20
Where: Room 235, University Memorial Center, University of Colorado-Boulder campus
Tickets: Event is open to the public. Admission is free, but RSVPs are suggested. Email email@example.com
Looking at comic novelist Gary Shteyngart's life and career through a science-fictional prism, he sort of has it all, at least metaphorically: futurism, "time travel," technophilia. He's even an alien. Or as close to it as you can come.
Born in the former Soviet Union in 1972, he immigrated with his Jewish parents to the United States in 1979, that pivotal year in which, some argue, the Communist world began its final collapse, courtesy of Thatcher, Reagan, Gorbachev and Pope John Paul II.
"The experience of being born in the Soviet Union and coming to America, that's kind of science fiction right there," a buoyant Shteyngart says by phone from New York. "We took an interplanetary journey. We left a world that was struggling and slowly sliding into a Third World country. America had its problems, but it looked like the future to me ... I saw a Corvette and I thought, 'This thing can fly, surely!' It looked like it could take off to the stars."
Shteyngart on Thursday will read from his new memoir, "Little Failure" and participate in a conversation and question-and-answer session with Sasha Senderovich of the University of Colorado-Boulder's departments of Germanic and Slavic Languages and the Program in Jewish Studies, which is sponsoring the event at CU-Boulder.
Shteyngart's three best-selling tragi-comic novels — "The Russian Debutante's Handbook" (2002), "Absurdistan" (2006) and "Super Sad True Love Story" (2010) — are quite different, but each draws heavily on his family's personal history. With the new memoir, he says, he's ready to put his "Russian American experience" behind him.
"Well, I'm 41, and in Russian years that's 67," he says when asked why he decided to write a memoir at a comparatively young age.
But aspects of the memoir are almost like time travel to what must seem a weird science-fictional dream to younger generations: An American who actually lived on the distant planet of Communist Russia. He certainly felt like a kid who had fallen to earth when his parents placed him in Hebrew school. In the era of Ronald Reagan and such gung-ho anti-commie films as "Red Dawn," there was nothing worse to be than a Russian.
"I actually pretended I was born in East Berlin and told all those Jewish kids I was German," he says. "That was better than admitting I was Russian."
But, encouraged by his parents, who never fully assimilated, he embraced the American zeitgeist and soon traded in childhood dreams of joining the Soviet Red Pioneers for starry-eyed adulation of Reagan.
But these days, Shteyngart is anything but old world and has — mostly — embraced a tech-driven Western life. In fact, he seems a bit of a futurist. "Super Sad True Love Story," the hangdog and hilarious tale of an anxiety-ridden Russian Jewish immigrant and his young, hip Korean American girlfriend, is set in a near-future America that started coming true as soon as you could one-click buy it on amazon.com. Shteyngart foresaw an Occupy Wall Street-like phenomenon, wearable computers a la Google Glass, transparent jeans (hello, Lady Gaga) and more.
"I called myself the Nostradamus of two months from now," he says.
As for his own relationship to technology, he says he has both technophile and Luddite genes.
"I do try new technology. But on the other hand, I still have a Yahoo account," says Shteyngart, who wrote about using a Google Glass wearable computer for the Aug. 5, 2013, issue of The New Yorker.
Yet, for all the wired world's glitter and hyper-speed, Shteyngart isn't convinced it's as great as BoingBoing would have you believe.
"This is very anecdotal, but life's not any better since all this tech came along ... I got my first cell phone around 1997," he says cheerily. "Since then, it's been this steady march toward more anxiety, keeping up and wondering if you're missing out. Personally, I favor a quiet moment in the country. With sheep."