Friday, April 29, 2016

Back in the USSR: Gary Shteyngart, “Hipsters,” and the Allure of American Movies

Like so many of today’s rising American novelists, Gary Shteyngart was born in another country. He’s a product of a place that no longer exactly exists: Leningrad has, since the collapse of the USSR, reverted to its older and more gracious name, St. Petersburg. When Shteyngart (originally called Igor) came into the world on July 5, 1972, his parents were typical products of the Soviet Union. But they were also Jewish, which meant they knew all about official anti-Semitism. So when little Igor was seven they packed their belongings and made their way to New York City, where a whole new world awaited them.

In a vivid 2014 memoir, Shteyngart details the making of an American. Transforming himself from Igor into Gary wasn’t easy. He was a particularly fearful child, partly because of his roots and his years of displacement. It didn’t help that his father expressed his love for his only son by harping on his weaknesses. Hence his around-the-house nickname, “Snotty,” and the phrase that  becomes the memoir’s title, Little Failure. At times in the face of his painful growing-up, Gary Shteyngart seems all too worthy of this kind of curt dismissal. Yet he has a talent for language, and the kind of cross-cultural curiosity that brings his words to life. That’s why he’s the author of three acclaimed novels, and in 2010 was named one of The New Yorker’s “20 under 40” literary lights.

So what does Shteyngart’s own story have to do with movies? When he moved to the U.S., he knew little of American movies and television. But as a pre-teen, on fishing trips with his father, he discovered the joy of small-town cinemas, watching movies like 1985’s Cocoon. Here’s how he describes his new passion: “At this point in my life, Hollywood can sell me anything—from Daryl Hannah as a mermaid to Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl and Al Pacino as a rather violent Cuban émigré. Watching movies in the air-conditioned chill I find myself wholly immersed and in love with everything that passes the camera lens. . .  At the movie theater my father and I are essentially two immigrant men—one smaller than the other and yet to be swaddled by a thick carpet of body hair—sitting before the canned spectacle of our new homeland, silent, attentive, enthralled.”

This passage from Shteyngart points to the impact of Hollywood movies on recent arrivals to the U.S. But an unlikely Russian musical, made in 2008, chronicles the impact of Hollywood on those who once lived under the Soviet system, “where sneezing too loud is enough to get you arrested.” In the world of the film Hipsters, it’s 1955, and restless Soviet youth are besotted by boogie-woogie, pompadour hairstyles, and zoot suits in electric shades of green, raspberry, and mustard. Opposing them are the drably-clothed Young Communists, armed with scissors to cut off too-wide neckties. A hip young man can be sent to jail for buying Charlie Parker albums, because “a saxophone is only one step away from a switchblade.”

 Hipsters is full of outrageous color and wild musical numbers. But one of the film’s most poignant moments comes when a character who has dubbed himself “Fred” gets (through his father’s connections) the opportunity to actually study in America. To do so, with the hypothetical goal of joining the Soviet diplomatic corps, he must get married, and have his hair shorn into an ideologically acceptable crewcut. When he returns, he’s sadder but wiser. As he tells his friends, the “cool” American-style clothing prized by the Russian hipsters just doesn’t exist in the USA.

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