An Excerpt from Gary Shteyngart’s LITTLE FAILURE

Gary-as-a-kid.jpg“You’re Gary Gnu.” It’s some kid on a public, non-Jewish playground.

Me: “Vat?”

“Your name’s Gary. So you’re Gary Gnu. From the Great Space Coaster.”

“Vat coaster?”

“Don’t be a dick. You’re Gary Gnu.”

“I am Gnu?”

But before I am Gnu, let me discourse on one more television show I have caught on Grandma’s Zenith. It is called The Six Million Dollar Man. First, let’s be honest here: This man is expensive. Not ten- million-dollar expensive per the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes we almost won, but nearly two-thirds as expensive. Steve Austin is his name, and he was an astronaut until a terrible accident deprived him of many body parts and he was resurrected at taxpayers’ expense to have all kinds of adventures. (Famous opening sequence: “Gentlemen, we can rebuild him . . . We have the technology.”) As in love as I am with Colonel Wilma Deering of Buck Rogers, I am even more fascinated with bionic Steve Austin. Because when I think about it, the man is a cripple. He is missing one arm, two legs, and one eye. Imagine if I showed up at school without those things. The Israeli kids would mop the floor with me, or the parts of the floor Jimmy and George, the two black custodians, have missed. And yet, Steve Austin is not deficient. Although parts of him aren’t real, Steve takes advantage of his new powers. He is, in the words of the show, “Better than he was before. Better, stronger, faster.” After all, this is America, and you can swap out the parts of yourself that don’t work. You can rebuild yourself piece by piece.

In my “novel” Invasion from Outer Space, I include a chapter called “Bionic Friends,” about, well, two bionic friends. The pretty teacher Ms. S, now sadly a Mrs., likes that chapter in particular, and I remember the incident with her sneaker at the Show and Tell, when one of the kids pointed at her sneaker and said “Pee-yooh”: She laughed at herself and emerged unscathed!

Me, back on the playground: “Who is Gary Gnu?”

“It’s you, dick. Your name is Gary, right? So you’re Gary Gnu, asshole.”

It is hard to argue with this Christian boy’s logic.

Gary Gnu is a comical furry green muppet in a mauve turtleneck on the children’s television show The Great Space Coaster. All the other kids at school are familiar with him, but I do not watch The Great Space Coaster because it comes on in the morning when I am without Grandma’s Zenith. A gnu is one of the “stocky, oxlike antelopes of the genus Connochaetes,” resident of Africa. Gnu is pronounced nu. Gary Gnu clearly has a problem with the silent g in his name because he adds it to every word that starts with the letter n in annoying fashion: “Absolutely gnot. You’re a gnuisance who’s sure to bring gnothing but bad gnews.” His motto on The Great Space Coaster is “No gnews is good gnews with Gary Gnu.” I do not know any of this, but as the goy-boy on the playground pointed out, the antelope’s name is Gary just like mine. So I try it out on the kids. “I’m Gary Gnu!”

“Gary Gnu! Gary Gnu! No gnews is good gnews!”

Well, that went over pretty well. No “Commie” or “Red” there. And then I am reminded of Thurston Howell III, the millionaire on Gilligan’s Island who is so inspiring to a young Republican immigrant. “I’m Gary Gnu the Third.”
“Gary Gnu the Third! Gary Gnu the Third! No gnews,” etc.

And then it hits me. I’m not a Russian. Never was. I’m an antelope. I’ve always been an antelope. It is time to commit this discovery to paper.

I write my own Torah. It’s called the Gnorah, an allusion to my new Gnu-ness. The Gnorah is written on an actual scroll of paper to give it the feel of a Torah. I type it on a new kind of device that my father has brought over from work, which is a computer keyboard that receives signals via a telephone line and translates such signals into dot-matrix- like characters that it then spits out on paper. To make the whole thing even more Torah-like I have my father carve two sticks to simulate the rollers used for scrolling the Torah.

The Gnorah is a hatchet job directed at the entirety of the Solomon Schechter School of Queens religious experience, the rote memorization of ancient texts, the aggressive shouting of blessings and counterblessings before and after lunch, the ornery rabbi who claims the Jews brought on the Holocaust by their overconsumption of delicious pork products. In Hebrew, the words of the Old Testament are pure gibberish to our ears. Bereishit bara Elohim . . . (In the beginning God created . . .). In English, the words are not much better, the start of a long lesson in overzealous genealogy meant, I suppose, to convey to us youngsters the permanence and uniqueness of our race. Only take one look at the redheaded merchant’s son unable to form two coherent sentences in English, incurious about any and all aspects of life save the ongoing excavation of his own nose, and bereishit, indeed. The Gnorah merely, humbly, takes the Old Testament to its own logical conclusion circa 1984.

1. First There was nothing, just a piece of Hubba Bubba. 2. And then it popped and the earth formed. 3. And the sugar of it turned into dust. 4. Just one piece of Nutra Sweet turned into a man.

God creates Adam (or, rather, Madman) and gives him a garden called Cleaveland, referring, I’m guessing, both to the unsuccessful city in Ohio and Genesis 2:24 (“Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife”).

In subsequent chapters there are references to Wendy’s famous Where’s the Beef? campaign, Mister Rogers, Howard Cosell, Playboy magazine, and the Waldbaum’s supermarket chain. Every pop reference I have learned from the Zenith and elsewhere is crammed into use, alongside poor Jerry Himmelstein. The Twelve Gnuish Tribes multiply—“Princess Leia gave him Shlomo, Shlemazel, Shmuck, Nudnik, Dino, Gloria, Dror, Virginia, Jolly and Jim”—and somehow end up in Australia instead of Egypt.

Exodus becomes Sexodus. Henry Miller would have been proud. Moses is renamed Mishugana, and instead of a Burning Bush there is the Burning Television. God sends the Australians twelve plagues, the last one of which is Rabbi Sofer, SSSQ’s potbellied Hebrew prin- cipal and strongman, “and the Australians couldn’t take it anymore and they said go, go and take Rabbi Sofer with you.” The Gnuish tribes make their way from Australia to Hawaii, “the land of silk and money.” The fifth commandment handed down by the Gnuish God is simple: “Abuse your teachers.”

And G-d spoke: Don’t worry about ethics, this does not however mean you can act like John Macaenroe. Do not pray to statues of Michael Jackson or Tom Sellek: I am your G-d. 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 Brook Shields, by doing so you are insulting my name.

And G-d continued: Whatever form of government you have tax the people highly and unfairly. You are not to become emotionally involved with Boy George or his mother. Allow abortion because what if someone like Jerry Himmelstein is born in such cases it is wise to say the two parents agoofed. And what if a natural disaster like Eedo Kaplan [an Israeli boy who harasses the two Russian girls in school] is born? Think about it. Here are things you should not crossbreed . . .

A long list that includes “Ronald Reagan and Geraldine Ferraro” and ends, sadly, with “Gary Gnu and any Female Gnu” and then the same words with which my father would end all of his Planet of the Yids tales: “To be continued.”

Once it is finished I read it over and over again. I cannot sleep. I want to be loved so badly, it verges on mild insanity. The next day in school I wait impatiently until recess, and then unfurl my Gnorah for a few kids, mindful of Rabbi Sofer’s thick presence. More children gather around me. With each new adherent I am crossing the line from unclubbable fruitcake to tolerated eccentric. By the final period, the Gnorah has been passed around the entire school.

By the next day, it is being quoted in the boys’ bathroom, the center of power. Even Jerry Himmelstein seems pleased by my disgustingly cruel remarks about him. Not that I care. And as, in class, we recite mindlessly about the prophets and the women who loved them, as we chant things that mean nothing to us, as Rabbi Sofer waddles around with his bullhorn telling us what bad children we are, me and my small band of—wait, are they really my friends?—we laugh and rejoice in the Gnuish tribes and their hard, horny Sexodus from Australia and their worship of the much-loved Brooke Shields, who, rumor has it, really might be Jewish, or Gnuish, or whatever.