October 10, 2014
Guest: Gary Shteyngart
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. After drawing on his life in his satirical novels like "The Russian Debutante's Handbook," "Absurdistan" and "Super Sad True Love Story," today's guest, Gary Shteyngart, wrote a memoir called "Little Failure." It's now out in paperback.
As Andy Borowitz wrote in his New York Times review, the book is both hilarious and moving. Shteyngart was a wheezing, asthmatic and fearful 7-year-old when he and his parents immigrated from the Soviet Union to Queens, New York, in 1979. This was soon after America negotiated a trade deal with the Soviets that included allowing Jews to emigrate to Israel, Canada or the U.S. Suddenly, little Gary was living in the country he had been taught was the enemy. His parents, who had been prevented from practicing Judaism in the Soviet Union, sent Gary to a Hebrew school in Queens where he felt lost and despised. And as he slowly became more American, the distance between him and his parents seemed to grow. As he got older, girls, booze and eventually 12 years of four-times-a-week psychoanalysis entered the picture. Throughout, writing was a constant, dating back to when he was 5 and wrote a comic novel that was 100-pages long. Terry Gross spoke to Gary Shteyngart last January.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS, HOST: Welcome back to FRESH AIR.
GARY SHTEYNGART: Thank you. Great to be here.
GROSS: You know, part of your book is about when you were growing up. You had such severe asthma. And that was part of the reason your family left Russia. And I'd like to start by having you read a paragraph from the beginning of your memoir, and it has to do with one of the reasons why your family left.
SHTEYNGART: Yes. And by the way, anyone who wants to be a writer out there, the first thing you have to have growing up is asthma.
SHTEYNGART: So I recommend growing up in a place like Leningrad, which was built over a swamp, which will be very conducive to your not breathing. So here is what happens and one of the main reasons we did leave Russia. (Reading) Unbeknownst to me, my mother was in the middle of a crisis herself, wondering whether to stay behind with my sick grandmother in Russia or leave her behind forever and emigrate to America. The decision was made for her in a greasy Crimean cafeteria. Over a bowl of tomato soup, a stout Siberian woman told my mother of the senseless beating her 18-year-old son had endured after his conscription by the Red Army, a beating that had cost him a kidney.
The woman took out a photo of her boy. He resembled a moose of great stature crossbred with an equally colossal ox. My mother took one look at the fallen giant and then at her tiny, wheezing son. And soon enough, we were on a plane bound for Queens.
GROSS: Do you think your parents would have left Russia if it wasn't for your asthma?
SHTEYNGART: I think the asthma played a big part in it. I think - look, it was such a tragedy for my mother because her mother was dying, and this was one of my beloved grandmothers. She also had a sister who was going to die shortly from cancer, and her whole family was being decimated. And she wanted to stay behind and help them. And the only reason she could leave her culture, her language and of course her family was that she had this little - tiny, little, barely alive, asthmatic son.
And we found out very quickly that in the West they had things called steroid inhalers, which would, you know, get rid of the asthma attack. And when I was growing up, we - the ambulance would come almost every week to take me to the hospital because there were no other treatments for asthma.
So she really made this calculation of whether to leave her family behind and have me grow up, you know, fairly healthy, or stay with them and have me grow up an invalid. And to her wonderful decision that I'm always thankful for, she decided to go to America.
GROSS: Did you grow up with a sense of guilt or responsibility for having uprooted your parents?
SHTEYNGART: In a sense. I mean, we realized when we got to America that, good lord, leaving the Soviet Union was going to be great for everyone involved. I mean, it was a disaster. I remember seeing my first Chevrolet Corvette, thinking this is science fiction. Things like this aren't supposed to exist.
You know, in Russia, we had these sort of nerdy science fiction films where a man in a space helmet walked around the soundstage and, you know, there were little twinkling stars behind him. But this was the 21st century right there. I was - I fell in love with it so ridiculously and immediately that there really wasn't, in my - we realized that this was where we belonged.
And the Soviet Union was also falling apart at that point. It was the beginning of the end, the Brezhnev years, 1979, which I guess is funny because, you know, once I settled in America, this country also began to unravel. So I am the destroyer of superpowers.
SHTEYNGART: Everywhere I go, things fall apart. They won't even let me land in China anymore because they're so afraid of destroying their...
GROSS: Were your parents as taken with America as you were?
SHTEYNGART: I think even more so. I mean, I think my father loved the idea that he - I mean, he was the one that really believed in Judaism, to a large extent, and he wanted me to join - he joined a synagogue immediately, and that was the one community that he felt really close to, were these Orthodox Jews.
I, on the other hand, was sentenced to eight years of Hebrew school for a crime I did not commit.
SHTEYNGART: But it was - you know, and it was a conservative school in Queens. And to me - to him, being Jewish was this amazing thing that he had fought for all his life and he was denied in Leningrad. But for me it was a different experience. Those were the years when, you know, being a Russian was how you were labeled. You were labeled a Russian, not - it wasn't just a confederacy of Jews, it was American Jews and Israeli Jews, and then there was me and a couple of other Russkies.
And we were despised pretty readily. You know, all those movies, "Red Dawn," "Red Gerbil," "Red Hamster," and it was - and also I had this fur coat and a fur hat, and it smelled of various, you know, woodland animal-type smells. And the teachers would take me aside and say, look, you can't be this furry. You can't dress in all these furs. Children won't play with you if you have that much fur on.
And basically what I was told every day in school, that where we came from was wrong, and where we were now was right. I'm not even going to dispute that, but it's just - it's a - it's a lot for a 7-year-old, for a sensitive 7-year-old boy to be told that everything he loved and believed in has to be replaced with something else.
GROSS: So you actually believed in Lenin. You wanted to join the Red Army.
SHTEYNGART: Yes. I mean, I would've been killed in the Red Army within the first day of hazing, but when I was a kid, there was a huge statue of Lenin outside our apartment, and every morning, if I was allowed to leave the house, if my asthma wasn't bad enough, I would hug the pedestal of Lenin. And he just felt like a relative. He felt like just another bald, goateed relative that I had.
And I wrote a little book called "Lenin and his Magical Goose." I wrote it for my grandma, in which Lenin meets a magical goose, and they invade Finland and create a socialist revolution. But the goose turns out to be Menshevik, and Lenin is Bolshevik. So Lenin eats the goose for political reasons. But then at the end of the book, we find out that Lenin also suffers from asthma.
GROSS: You were a child when you wrote that.
SHTEYNGART: I was 5 years old. I was 5 years old.
GROSS: In case it's not clear, yeah.
SHTEYNGART: Yes, I was five years old, and my grandmother paid me in little slices of cheese for each page. So it was 100 slices of cheese for 100 pages. Even today, Random House pays me in cheese, so the tradition continues.
GROSS: And when you got to the United States - you know, in Russia you were told United States was the enemy, and then you get here, and it's kind of like now you are the enemy, very confusing.
SHTEYNGART: Very confusing. And my father took me aside and said, look, everything you loved - the Red Army, Lenin, the Communist Party, the space program, and just went down the line - he said everything was a lie. You know, I'm 6 or 7 years old, and everything you believed in, everything you loved was a lie, and now you have to forget Lenin, and now you have to love Ronald Reagan.
GROSS: Did you?
SHTEYNGART: Can you do that? And I said yes, I'll love Ronald Reagan now. And yes, I fell in love with Reagan pretty hard, the way many ex-Soviet Jewish refugees did. By age 11, I had a subscription to William F. Buckley's National Review with a picture of Margaret Thatcher on every single cover. And a few months later, I got a letter in the mail addressed to me.
I was 11 years old. I open it up, there are two rifles above an eagle, and it's the National Rifle Association has welcomed me, 11-year-old Gary Shteyngart is being welcomed as a full member of the NRA.
GROSS: My impression is that your father kept the conservative Republican politics, and you didn't.
SHTEYNGART: Yes, yes. No, my parents are - they do not watch very much Rachel Maddow, or NPR for that matter, I gather. They, you know, they watch Fox News and an even scarier version of sort of these Fox News-type programs on the Russian cable channel.
So they spend their days, you know, watching people who get paid millions of dollars exploit the anxieties of people like themselves about the coming apocalypse in Obamacare and this and that and the other thing, so it's a little - it's a little sad for me. But, you know, I don't dispute that that's who they are and that those are their politics, and it's - I think they're very upset that I don't share their politics because in many ways children in our culture are supposed to be an extension of their parents.
They're supposed to believe the same things as their parents, and the fact that I turned out different I think is something that hurts them.
BIANCULLI: Author Gary Shteyngart speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview from earlier this year with novelist and satirist Gary Shteyngart. His memoir, called "Little Failure," is now out in paperback. His family emigrated from the Soviet Union to Queens, New York, when he was 7, in 1979.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: You write that you're from a family where there was a lot to worry about. And you write - as you're writing about your family tree, you write, (Reading) As I march my relatives onto the pages of this book, please remember that I am also marching them toward their graves and that they will most likely meet their ends in some of the worst ways imaginable.
Can you just do a brief roll call of some of the horrible ways that people in your family died in Russia?
SHTEYNGART: Sure. I mean, my mother has - my mother is a wonderful cataloguer of everything that has happened to our family. So thanks to her and thanks to my father's - discussions with him, I was able to do a pretty, I think, fair portrait of how my family became who they are. And that means death.
You know, they died in the most horrific ways imaginable. There's an entire photo album my mother keeps, which is Uncle So-and-So, his wife and children, all buried alive, you know, when the Nazis invaded Belorussia, where my grandparents were from. The entire - that entire branch of the family was just buried alive by the Germans.
Then there's Uncle Aaron(ph), who ended up in - you know, mutilated in Stalin's labor camps. Then there's my father's father, you know, who was a Red Army soldier, one of the millions who died right outside of Leningrad. He was in artillery, and Stalin had not prepared for the war. They were fighting with sticks at some point, you know, and the Germans just mowed them down.
And the book includes a scene where I go to the place where my grandfather died. To me that's the most - one of the most important parts of the book because my grandfather - the fact that my father wasn't raised by his actual father but was raised by a horrific stepfather who my grandmother remarried, whose - even his best friends, his nickname among his best friends was Goebbels, you know.
So when that's your nickname, you can imagine what kind of a stepfather you are. That did irreparable damage to my father, growing up with that man, the violence of that relationship. And as I wrote this book, I began to think of my own relationship with my father, which had its ups and downs, certainly more ups than his relationship with Goebbels.
But I began to realize how one little trick of history, one little switch of history could've created a very different world for both of us, especially for him, you know, because there is a loving man who is my father, but the circumstances in which he grew up, I just kept thinking what chance did he have, you know.
And it made me very sad, and oddly enough in writing this book, there are scenes of cruelty between all of us, but it made me love my parents much more because I thought, my God, you know, where did you come from? What a place you came from with Hitler and Stalin and the lies. I mean, I can't believe you did as well as you did.
GROSS: In Russia, your family was discriminated against for being Jewish even though they weren't practicing. Then you come to the United States, and you're sent to a Hebrew school instead of a public school. And so suddenly, you're put in the middle of a - you know, of a pretty religious environment. What did - what sense did religion make to you at that point, and what was your understanding of Judaism, of God? That's a really big question, isn't it?
GROSS: You're welcome, yeah.
SHTEYNGART: Well, you know, thank you.
SHTEYNGART: My problem was I didn't know any English. You know, so on top of not knowing English, there was another language, Hebrew, which is even harder, that they were trying to teach me. And it was too much. It was too much overload, and at home we had no television, so I couldn't learn English from TV.
So for the first years in Hebrew school, I would sit apart from everyone at the cafeteria as they ate, and I would just have long conversations in Russian with myself. So here was this fruitcake wearing this gigantic fur hat and fur coat, speaking in a language nobody understood, and all the kids would run up to me and do the sort of, you know, the crazy sign and, you know, and laugh and laugh and laugh.
But I wouldn't stop because that was the only language that would make me comfortable. And my mother wasn't there, but in speaking it I could pretend that the people I loved were around me, and I could pretend - I would talk about all the things I had seen before we left Russia, you know, the beauties of Yalta and all the different - we did a tour of all the places where Chekhov used to hang out and, you know, again, things that are not going to endear you to a bunch of first-grade, second-grade kids, especially if you're not speaking it in their language.
And the prayers, the endless prayers - Baruch atah Adonai - over and over again. I mean, I realized that God was bigger than all of us. There was my father, who was big, and there was God, who was probably even bigger, and that was the, you know, the rankings in terms of parental figures.
And I remember reading the - we were taught very early on, Abraham sacrificing Isaac, and then - and I really thought, OK, I could sort of see my father in this role. He sent me to Hebrew school. He's going to cut my throat because God says he should. And then God says - God is always the nice guy, and God says, hey, just kidding, you know, put that knife down you crazy guy, Abraham.
So that also reinforced this feeling that I had that life was very mercurial, that anything could happen, that there was absolutely - I was at the mercy of people higher than myself, which is I guess what a child can feel. But there wasn't a great feeling of safety. You know, I was in a school where I couldn't speak the language, where I walked around with my shoelaces untied, where the kids despised me, where - you know, it was a Hebrew school, but Russians were hated so much at that point that I started convincing everyone that I hadn't been born in Leningrad, I was born in East Berlin.
So I was trying to convince Jewish kids that I was actually a German because...
GROSS: To be better liked.
SHTEYNGART: To be better liked and not, you know, beaten as much. I was trying to turn myself into a Nazi rather than a commie.
GROSS: So at some point, you wrote your - this was perhaps your first work of satire. You wrote a satirical version of the Torah that you called the Gnorah because - why was it titled that?
SHTEYNGART: Well, because the kids started calling me - there was a television show that I couldn't watch because we didn't have a TV show, but it was called...
GROSS: You mean you didn't have a TV, yeah.
SHTEYNGART: We didn't have a TV, but it was called "The Great Space Coaster." People of my generation may remember it. It was a show that featured a cartoon - not a cartoon, a puppet antelope called Gary Gnu, and his shtick was no gnews is good gnews. With Gary Gnu, there is no gnews guaranteed - or something like that.
And he wore a turtleneck, and he was this pretentious newscaster, and I didn't know who he was because I couldn't watch him so much, but I started to appropriate his lingo. And then - so the Torah, because it was now the story of the gnews instead of the Jews, it became the Gnorah, and you know, Exodus became Sexodus.
And, you know, I was about 11 or 12, so it was already getting pretty raunchy there, there was some - rah.
GROSS: I want you to read - you reprint a little of it in your memoir "Little Failure." I want you to read a short except of your Gnorah.
SHTEYNGART: Sure. (Reading) And God spoke. Don't worry about ethics. This does not, however, mean you can act like John McEnroe. Do not pray to statues of Michael Jackson or Tom Selleck. I am your god. If you see a blind man, do not cheat him. For example, do not sell him cocaine when it is really angel dust. Don't swear in the name of Brooke Shields. By doing so, you are insulting my name.
We all loved Brooke Shields. Oh my God, there was a centerfold of Brooke Shields in People magazine that the boys of Hebrew school passed around until it was - it was more shredded than the Talmud by the time we were through with it.
GROSS: So in this Gnorah that you wrote, actually was a real turning point for you because it established you as kind of a satirist in your school. People - it got passed around. It was popular. And also it was the first time you felt really comfortable using the English language and being able to do things, to make it really work for you.
SHTEYNGART: Right, it was this - you know, here I was for years trying to make sense of this hostile environment, and all of a sudden it kind of clicked, and I thought, oh- I mean, maybe I didn't put it in these terms - but what do Jews like, you know, other than not eating pork and praying quite a bit and wearing the tefillin and getting circumcised all the time. What do Jews like? And I thought: humor.
This is our main thing. This is what we do better than, you know, than anyone. So - and satire, especially. And so here we were at Hebrew school getting bombarded with Talmud and Torah and saying things that made really very little sense, reading aloud. It was all about rote memorization. And I thought let's have some fun with this. Let's - let me really get to the bottom of what this sounds like to us, you know.
And I did - I had a very tenuous connection to popular culture, but I knew some things. I knew that John McEnroe was acting out. I knew that Brooke Shields was the most beautiful woman that ever lived. And in fact I think we were - a lot of debates about whether she was Jewish or not, you know, whether she was Brooke Shieldowitz.
SHTEYNGART: That was sort of our big dream was that she could be part of our tribe. If she was part of our tribe, then we wouldn't need all those Nobel Prize winners. We could just have Brooke Shields. So all those different things, and then also making fun of some of the kids in school that weren't so nice to me.
And you know, it was - it was written on an actual scroll, which I typed sideways so that it looked like a real Torah. And I put the two - I can't remember what they're called, the two sort of sticks that hold the Torah, with which you can unroll the scroll. So it was a really professional job.
And I would pass it around, and kids who never - you know, what would happened was that the kids who just thought, oh, here's that Russian kid, all of a sudden I wasn't just that Russian kid. I was, you know, that crazy kid who wrote the Gnorah.
GROSS: Did you get in trouble for it in school?
SHTEYNGART: No. I mean, I don't think the rabbis were especially happy, but I think they also were - they were on a different planet. They were - they were not able, I think, to comprehend the full, you know, absurdity of the Gnorah. So I think I got - I would get in trouble all the time for speaking out in class and singing in class and singing songs in class, and I would be sent to the principal's office quite a bit. I was always acting out, you know.
But I think the Gnorah, the censors didn't get the Gnorah.
BIANCULLI: Novelist and satirist Gary Shteyngart speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. His memoir, called "Little Failure," is now out in paperback. We'll continue their conversation in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross back with more of Terry's interview from earlier this year with Gary Shteyngart. After writing novels like "The Russian Debutante's Handbook," "Absurdistan" and "Super Sad True Love Story," he's written a memoir called "Little Failure." It's now out in paperback. Shteyngart was a sickly, asthmatic boy of 7 when he and his parents emigrated from the Soviet Union to Queens, New York, in 1979, after Jews were allowed to leave.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: Because you couldn't practice - your parents couldn't practice Judaism in the Soviet Union when they lived there, when you got to the United States, your family wanted you to be circumcised and brought into the, you know, the Jewish tribe. How old were you when you were circumcised?
SHTEYNGART: I think I was around 8 or 9 - maybe 8. I'm a little fuzzy on the details since I've been trying to repress them for so long. Yeah.
GROSS: Well, but you uncorked those memories for your memoir. And it's both a really painful but also really funny chapter. And I want...
SHTEYNGART: Oh, thanks.
GROSS: I want you to read just a little bit of that. And I should mention, because this will be referred to in the reading, there's a reference to Emmanuelle - which was a series of soft-core porn movies that your father mistakenly took you to when you were...
SHTEYNGART: It was, I would...
SHTEYNGART: It was - yeah, it was called "Emmanuelle: The Love Of a Woman," I believe, or "Emmanuelle: The Wants of A Woman," and it was, it wasn't - I don't know if was soft-core. I think it was medium-core porn.
SHTEYNGART: And my father was a big aficionado of French culture. And he thought this would be a wonderful way to get his son involved with, you know, Balzac and Voltaire. And so, you know, and then we went in there. And there was a theater on Main Street and Flushing. And it was one vagina after another.
SHTEYNGART: And he just put his hand around my eyes, and I kept trying to pry his hands off because I desperately wanted to see what was on the screen. And I did see; I counted about seven genitals that I saw, which was seven more than I would see for a very long time.
GROSS: So, because there's a reference to that; now everyone will know what you're referring to.
SHTEYNGART: OK. OK.
GROSS: So if you could read, like, a brief section of your chapter about being circumcised at the age of...
GROSS: Did you say you were 8?
SHTEYNGART: I think 8. I should - I could be wrong on that. I'll have to ask my mohel, my circumciser. OK. (Reading) The next year, I get the present every boy wants: a circumcision. At Solomon Schechter School of Queens, I have been given an appropriately sacrificial Hebrew name, Yitzchaq or Isaac. And so the knife is drawn at Coney Island Hospital, Orthodox men davening out a blessing in the adjoining room, a sedation mask placed over my mouth - perfect for an asthmatic boy with an anxiety disorder. And then the public hospital walls - green on green on green on green, disappeared to be replaced by a dream, where the horrible things lovingly perpetrated upon Emmanuelle in a Hong Kong brothel are done to me by the men in black hats. And then the pain. Mama, Papa, where are you? And then the layers of pain. Mama, Papa, help. And then the layers of pain and humiliation.
GROSS: OK. And it goes on in the book.
GROSS: It sounds like a really horrible chapter of your life that lasted - the pain and humiliation - lasted a lot longer than you would've liked.
GROSS: So the...
SHTEYNGART: Don't try this at home.
GROSS: Yeah. In retrospect, do you think your parents did the right thing in having you circumcised at the age of 8-ish?
SHTEYNGART: My father's belief was that without this I would not be fully a Jewish boy. And in his mind there was nothing more important than making sure that I was a Jewish boy. I think my mother probably had her doubts. I'm pretty sure she did because she's very against these kind of medical interventions. But I think for him it meant the world to him. It was awful for me, but some kind of bond did survive, you know, I did become what he always wanted to be, which was a person growing up in a country where being Jewish wasn't a mark against you. In some parts of New York it was a mark for you, you know, and I'm not super happy that it happened, but I've certainly made peace with my mohel.
GROSS: There was a lot of conflict in your relationship with your father. And you found a kind of father figure when you were in college in a man who was - you're not sure how old he was - but he was older than you, old enough to be a father figure.
GROSS: And he was making a documentary about, you know, college life, college kids, and you are part of that. You became very close. He was a writer for soap operas, so he was like the accomplished writer in your life.
GROSS: And he would give you advice. But then you started to take advantage of him. I mean, it sounded like at that point in your life that you were just kind of mean-spirited.
SHTEYNGART: I was very mean-spirited. I was full of anger that I didn't know why - I didn't know who to project it towards. I was - I had my very first relationship with a very loving woman from North Carolina, my first girlfriend from college. And the relationship was breaking up - not her fault, not my fault, it was just ending. And I felt incredibly hurt by the fact that I couldn't sustain a relationship. I was angry at my parents who kept trying to shunt me into law school. And I so desperately wanted to be a writer at that point, and I had finished the first and second draft of my very first book "The Russian Debutante's Handbook," but I was too scared to send it out. I was drinking prodigiously and angry at and scared by my parents.
And so the only person that I could take it all out on was the person who was giving me the most love and guidance of anyone I knew. And this was my friend John. He would go over draft after draft of my novel. And each time he would do that I would get angry at his criticisms. I would say, what do you know? You're just a soap opera writer. I'm a real literary fiction writer. You're nothing, you know. And he just, you know, he put up with it for years until finally he didn't. And you know, I mean, I guess one thing I should say about this memoir that I hope comes across is that I never want to glorify who I was. I was not, I mean, for such long periods of my life I wasn't a great person. Maybe I'm still not, but there was a lot of the hurt that was my inheritance became the inheritance of other people - especially other people who wanted to help me, and John was probably the prime example of that.
GROSS: You reprint a letter that he sent you...
GROSS: ...Almost as an intervention.
GROSS: You know, he was really trying to straighten you out. And I'd like you to read an excerpt of that letter.
SHTEYNGART: Sure. (Reading) You are not a child, and I am not your parent. There is practically nothing writerly about your process. You're acute and omnipresent anxiety causes you to function much more as an accountant or a producer with his eyes on the bottom line and no understanding of how artists function, rather than as a young writer trying to develop a first novel - a new career. In short, you are as mean and ungenerous to yourself as your parents are. They taught you well. You are no longer 20 as you were when we met. You are pushing 30. The wounded child in a defensive rage has become an adult man, hurting himself and inflicting pain on others. Your inability to empathize makes it difficult for you to put yourself in the skin of the characters you write. You have to decide to take yourself seriously - not in a phoney, self-pitying way, but in a serious, dignified way.
GROSS: And the letter goes on. What was your reaction when you got that letter?
SHTEYNGART: I was, of course, furious. What, you rich American, what do you know of what my childhood was like? What do you know what it's like to be me? Just go and write your soap operas.
GROSS: What hit hardest from this letter once you were able to actually stop being so defensive and digest some of it?
SHTEYNGART: That I was inflicting pain on others, that I was capable of doing - I mean, I didn't have the sort of global view that I have now that things begin sort of with my father's father dying in the fields outside of Leningrad, and then his horrifying stepfather takes over and then all of that rolls downhill and ends up, you know, partly the relationship I had with him. And - but then whoever loves me will get a piece of that action, will get a piece of that hurt. You know, I mean, one of the reasons I think I started writing this memoir is because I realized that we were going to have a child. And I wanted to know as much as I could about what my life was like so that none of - or hopefully none of that history - the weight of history that we carry on our shoulders - that the most minimal amount of that would end up on his shoulders.
GROSS: So your friend, John, loans you some money - some more money, because he's already loaned you a lot, and insists that you use some of it for psychotherapy. And you do. You go into analysis.
GROSS: When you went into therapy...
GROSS: ...your father's reaction was, it would have been better if you had told me you were a homosexual.
GROSS: Which, I guess, is...
SHTEYNGART: I love that line. In fact, I love all of my...
GROSS: Whatever, right?
SHTEYNGART: I love all of my parents' lines because they're so - I mean, what luck it is to have parents who say things like that. You know, it's - the editing is so minimal. It goes straight from their mouth and into the book. Yes, that's the fear. And I guess because, you know, when a son says, I'm gay, well, you can fight with that. And you can say, you know, you're a disgrace and try to show the light of - the wonders of heterosexuality, and you're destroying me and your mom and etcetera, etcetera. When a child goes into psychoanalysis, you really are losing him because the child is now developing the skills in which to reevaluate the relationship with you, and that's much more dangerous.
GROSS: How old are you now?
GROSS: And so you just became a parent. Your child is 3 months old. Did it take you a long time before you felt like you wanted to or were capable of being a parent?
SHTEYNGART: Yeah. No, that's exactly what it was. And I think this is the confluence of three sort of things happening. One, well, the baby. And the second being the publication of this memoir which puts me, I think, in a better place to be a parent. And the third is that psychoanalysis is finally coming to an end. You know, free at last.
SHTEYNGART: Only 12 years. Only 12 years four times a week. So I don't think I overdid it but, you know, it's time to walk out into the sunlight. So all these different things happened together, and I'm very happy. I'm actually as happy as I've ever been.
GROSS: So your book kind of opens with a panic attack. Do you still get them?
SHTEYNGART: Yeah. I carry enough Ativan to, you know, tranquilize a moose.
SHTEYNGART: It's very interesting. My mother talked about how she - her fear growing up was a fear of being buried alive, which made a lot of sense since a huge part of her family was buried alive by the Germans. And lately, I've begun to experience a fear of being in enclosed spaces, like airplanes and trains and places where I can't readily escape from, you know.
So it's very interesting how all these genetically and I guess conditionally - but, no, I had - I didn't know that so many of my relatives were buried alive until recently but the panic attacks about enclosed spaces had begun before that. The mind is a fascinating and absolutely horrifying thing. It just - it does these things to you that you don't even know where they come from. But they come from somewhere.
GROSS: Well, Gary Shteyngart, thank you so much for talking with us.
SHTEYNGART: Thank you so much. It was great.
BIANCULLI: Novelist and Satirist Gary Shteyngart speaking to Terry Gross earlier this new year. His memoir, "Little Failure," is now out in paperback.
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. The second feature by the 29-year-old director Damien Chazelle is called, "Whiplash" and centers on the agony of a drummer in a high-powered music school. The movie stars the young film actor Miles Teller from "The Spectacular Now" and J.K. Simmons, who is best known for his TV roles on "Law And Order" and "Oz." "Whiplash" won a grand prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: "Whiplash" charts the education and torture of ambitious, young drummer Andrew Nieman played by Miles Teller. The inflictor of pain is a teacher, Terence Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons. Fletcher conducts the elite jazz band at the Manhattan Conservatory where Andrew is a student. Film has a long, dishonor role of sadistic authority figures. But few of them get as much of a charge as Fletcher out of messing with pupils' heads, even driving them from the school in tears. Writer-director Damien Chazelle has you wondering two things at once. Will Andrew succeed in wowing this most exacting of judges? And more important, what can be gained by doing so when the teacher is manifestly psychotic? There's also a larger question. Does the director finally vindicate Fletcher's methods, suggesting that only a harsh taskmaster can spur an artist like Andrew to the next level? Before I try to answer, let me say I love this movie. The title is dead-on. "Whiplash" twists you into knots. The fear of failure is omnipresent, but so, somehow, is the jazz vibe. When Andrew snatches up his sticks and the band launches into a standard, say Hank Levy's "Whiplash," it's hard not to smile and sway and tap your foot. Miles Teller does all the character's playing, so Chazelle doesn't have to hide his hands. Except for an occasional grimace, Teller's face is rapt. He's playing; he's not acting playing. He tells everyone he wants to be one of the greats. Long into the night, he thumps on his drums, blisters opening, blood smudging his sticks. When it's time to rehearse the band, Simmons' Fletcher materializes in the class doorway like a vampire. There's no fat on the actor. He's all sinew and teeth and bald dome. In one scene, outside class, he's warmly attentive to Andrew. He says, just relax; have fun. Then, Andrew sits down to play.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHIPLASH")
J.K. SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Five, six, seven.
SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Not quite my tempo. It's all good, no worries. Here we go. (Clapping) Five, six, seven.
SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) You're rushing. Here we go. Ready? OK. (Clapping) Fix, six, and...
SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Dragging just a hair.
SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Wait for my cue. (Clapping) Five, six, seven.
SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Rushing. (Clapping) Five, six, and...
SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Dragging. (Clapping) Five, six, and...
(SOUND OF CHAIR BEING THROWN)
SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Why do you suppose I just hurled a chair at your head, Nieman?
MILES TELLER: (As Andrew Nieman) I don't know.
SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Sure you do.
TELLER: (As Andrew Nieman) The tempo?
SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Were you rushing or were you dragging?
TELLER: (As Andrew Nieman) I don't know.
SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Start counting.
TELLER: (As Andrew Nieman) Five, six, seven.
SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher, yelling) In four, damn it. Look at me.
TELLER: (As Andrew Nieman) One, two, three, four (Fletcher slapping Nieman). One, two, three four (Fletcher slapping Nieman). One, two, three four (Fletcher slapping Nieman).
SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Now, was I rushing or was I dragging?
TELLER: (As Andrew Nieman) I don't know.
SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Count again.
TELLER: (As Andrew Nieman) One, two, three (Fletcher slapping Nieman). One, two, three (Fletcher slapping Nieman). One, two, three (Fletcher slapping Nieman).
SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher, yelling) Rushing or dragging?
TELLER: (As Andrew Nieman) Rushing.
SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher, yelling) So you do know the difference.
EDELSTEIN: Hearing Fletcher slap Andrew across the face, I'm having traumatic flashbacks. What about that question whiplash poses? Does Andrew, on some level, need a bad authority figure? His dad, played by Paul Reiser, is a mild presence who loves Andrew unconditionally, which is what we want from a parent, right? But Fletcher thinks to be great, you need abuse. He tells his class about the teenage Charlie Parker, who fled a jam after drummer Jo Jones threw a cymbal at him. Parker vowed to come back better - and did. I don't think director Chazelle has a tidy answer. When you listen to stories of great artists or athletes, you often hear how terribly their parents and coaches drove them and how that paid off. You also hear about people being destroyed psychologically and physically. I know a woman whose gorgeous soprano was ruined by an abusive teacher. A good dramatist doesn't need to reconcile the two sides, only bring them both to life. I do note Chazelle believes great art should cost the artist. At the end of his debut feature, the 2009 "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench," the protagonist is on the verge of losing his lover and plays a long, increasingly desperate and discordant trumpet solo. He's pushing against the limits of his talent, maybe of his soul. Chazelle's heroes are artist existentialists. They create themselves anew every day. They beat the drums until they bleed.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. Coming up, I review the new Showtime drama series "The Affair," which starts Sunday. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: I'm TV critic David Bianculli. The broadcast networks continue to roll out their new fall series. The CW network premiered "The Flash" week and unveils another surprisingly entertaining series, "Jane The Virgin," on Monday. But cable networks, which used to take a breather as the broadcasters strutted their fall stuff, now compete as strongly as at any other time. This week, FX presented "Freak Show," the latest and strongest incarnation of its "American Horror Story" anthology franchise. And this Sunday, Showtime launches a drama that ultimately could emerge as the very best new TV series of 2014.
Showtime's newest drama series, "The Affair," is the story of two people who betray their respective spouses and fall into an extramarital relationship. What makes this TV show so distinctively different and so utterly captivating is that it's not told from just one point of view. It's like Akira Kurosawa's classic Japanese drama, "Rashomon." Or Arthur Miller's "Death Of A Salesman," where memories are revisited that turn out to be less than entirely accurate or trustworthy. It means you have to pay close attention. But if you do, the subtleties and subtexts build up and offer entirely new possible interpretations of events. To make this work on TV, you have to start with charismatic actors. People good enough at their craft and so likable as performers that you forgive them their trespasses, even as you see them stray down a troublesome path. Showtime's "The Affair" nails that element of the equation, as it does every other part, a hundred percent.
The part of Noah Solloway - the New York public school teacher and first-time author, with a wife and four kids - is played by Dominic West, who shot to stardom as McNulty on HBO's "The Wire." The part of Alison Lockhart - a Long Island waitress with a husband and a shared recent tragedy - is played by Ruth Wilson, who impressed me tremendously as the unhinged stalker on the original season of the BBC America import "Luther." And their respective spouses are no slouches either. Maura Tierney, from "ER," plays Noah's wife and Joshua Jackson, from "Fringe," plays Alison's husband. "The Affair" is structured as one long series of flashbacks, not intertwined but presented in turn.
So in Sunday's premiere episode, for example, we see how Noah and Alison met, first from his perspective in the show's first half-hour, then in hers. Each portion reveals details and background missing from the other. But even when they cover the same ground, the details are different, down to who makes the first move, even the first joke. Some facts are uncontested. Noah and his family go on summer vacation at his father-in-law's estate in eastern Long Island. In town, Alison the waitress serves them breakfast. And late that night, when Noah breaks away to take a solo stroll on the beach, he encounters Alison, who's sitting there all alone away from a bonfire party farther down the beach. Here's how that encounter began, according to him.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE AFFAIR")
DOMINIC WEST: (As Noah Solloway) Alison? Hi.
RUTH WILSON: (As Alison Lockhart) You found me.
WEST: (As Noah Solloway) No, no, I was just out on a walk.
WILSON: (As Alison Lockhart) (Laughter) I'm kidding, it's a tiny town (laughter).
WEST: (As Noah Solloway) Right, sorry.
BIANCULLI: And later, when that same scene is recounted in the second half of the show, from Alison's point of view, it starts like this.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE AFFAIR")
WEST: (As Noah Solloway) Hello.
WILSON: (As Alison Lockhart) Oh, hi.
WEST: (As Noah Solloway) I found you.
WILSON: (As Alison Lockhart) Were you looking for me?
WEST: (As Noah Solloway) No, I'm kidding.
WILSON: (As Alison Lockhart) Oh.
WEST: (As Noah Solloway) I was just on my way to check out the bonfire over there.
WILSON: (As Alison Lockhart) Oh, wow.
WEST: (As Noah Solloway) You coming from there or are you?
WILSON: (As Alison Lockhart) I, no, I.
WEST: (As Noah Solloway) Too bad, I could've used an introduction.
WILSON: (As Alison Lockhart) (Laughter).
BIANCULLI: This isn't the first time TV has tried a he says she says approach to marriage and marital infidelity. The first was in a pair of 1973 ABC made-for-TV movies called "Divorce His And Divorce Hers." That starred Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. But "The Affair" is much less shrill, much more polished and much more challenging. The closer you listen and the more you observe the more fascinating Showtime's "The Affair" becomes. Watching the opening episode, I was especially knocked out by the attention to tiny details, like how the trendy sunglasses worn by Noah's coming-of-age teenage daughter, in his recollection, turned into heart-shaped Lolita sunglasses in Alison's memory of her. Who's telling the truth here? And why do such inconsistencies matter, if they do it all?
"The Affair' is created by Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi, who last worked on another superb examination of memory and credibility - HBO's riveting series about psychotherapy called "In Treatment." The other executive producers are just as commendable. Eric Overmyer was a writer-producer on "Homicide: Life On The Street," "The Wire," and "Treme." And Jeffrey Reiner was a producer and director on "Friday Night Lights." Like the actors, they've all done excellent work here to tell these stories.
But which character's story is the more believable? Whose memory and whose point of view proves more trustworthy? Ultimately, that's for us viewers to decide. And my decision, already, is that "The Affair" is a new show I believe has to be added to my weekly must-watch list.
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