I’ve finished Little Failure now (see previous posting). The later parts of the book cover the author’s time in New York City’s Stuyvesant public high school and Oberlin College. Here are some quotes:
OBERLIN COLLEGE WAS ESTABLISHED in 1833 so that people who couldn’t otherwise find love, the emotional invalids and Elephant Men of the world, could do so.
It takes me but a few weeks to realize the frightening new prospect before me. Whereas in Stuyvesant I was at the bottom of my class, at Oberlin I can maintain a nearly perfect average while being drunk and stoned all day long.
I like going to classes because I can learn a lot. About the students, I mean. Here the great arias of self-involvement—far more operatic than Puccini’s “O Mio Babbino Caro”—wind their way through the boxy little classrooms as professors eagerly facilitate our growth as social beings and master complainers. I learn how to speak effectively within my new milieu. I master an Oberlin technique called “As a.” “As a woman, I think …” “As a woman of color, I would speculate …” “As a woman of no color, I would conjecture …” “As a hermaphrodite.” “As a bee liberator.” “As a beagle in a former life.”
The things I say in class are no longer meant to be funny or satiric or ironic; they’re meant to celebrate my own importance, forged in the crucible of our collective importance. There is no room for funny at Oberlin. Everything we do must move the human race forward.
Following college the book becomes a bit of a Horatio Alger story in which the author is destitute (20th/21st century style, not 19th century style) until he gets a helping hand from a couple of successful guys, one of whom is Chang Rae Lee. Lee transforms Shteyngart’s life by getting him a contract for his first published novel:
In the year 2000 it is still possible to woo a girl with a book deal. And woo I do. But what’s so amazing is how quickly I am wooed back. How soon a number of warm and attractive women are keen to walk down the street with me, hand in hand, to see Cabaret Balkan or whatever foreign nonsense is playing at the Film Forum, without a second wood-carving boyfriend waiting for them on their Brooklyn couches. I quickly settle down with an interesting one, an Oberlin graduate with some jet-setting predilections—one of our first dates takes place in Portugal. Lisbon’s airport handily features a shop selling engagement rings, and my new sposami subita, with the thick pretty eyelashes and the sexy way of wearing a simple hoodie, encourages me to buy her an engagement ring right there (she is of a certain Asian culture that stresses matrimony).
I know how little attraction I pose for most women à la carte. And what I realize is that with Chang-rae’s single gesture, I will never have to go home to an empty bed again. From this point forward, I will know love whenever I need to know it.
So the book relates the dark inner journey of a writer but then has a happy ending.