Near the beginning of Gary Shteyngart’s new memoir, “Little Failure,” Gary shares an emotionally charged moment with his father. “The past is haunting us,” Shteyngart writes. “In Queens, in Manhattan, it is shadowing us, punching us in the stomach. I am small, and my father is big. But the Past – it is the biggest.”
And indeed, the past is the subject, scenery, context and oftentimes the protagonist of this deeply personal book, which feels equal parts memoir and bildungsroman. “Little Failure” tells the story of how Igor, a Soviet Jew born in Leningrad, came to be a kid named Gary in Queens, NY, and how Gary came to be a successful writer. (“But what kind of profession is this, writer,” my mother would ask. “You want to be this?”) The past is the constant source of Gary’s pain and joy, embarrassment and pride, and facing it will finally allow him to grow up.
Shteyngart’s wildly popular novels, “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook,” “Absurdistan,” and “Super Sad True Love Story” each sampled elements from the author’s experience, but here we see Gary through each stage of boyhood, adolescence, young manhood and adulthood, in excruciating – and somewhat self-indulgent – detail. Shteyngart attacks his own life with his distinctive narrative style, a blend of playful humor, brutal honesty and startlingly profound observations of human life.
Gary, or Igor in Russian, was born in Soviet Leningrad, the only child of determined parents, committed to the survival of their small family. Shteyngart recounts every memory of his difficult early life, from the taste of the food rations his mother waited hours to receive, to the plot of his fantastical first novel, scrawled under the careful watch of a doting grandmother in a tiny, crumbling apartment. Though Igor is but six years old when the family’s passage to America is arranged, his earliest years in the Soviet Union shape his identity in ways that he continues to deal with as an adult. “Every moment I have ever experienced as a child is as important as every moment I am experiencing now, or will experience ever,” Shteyngart writes.
Once in America, the Shteyngart family struggles to gain a foothold in Queens, NY. Baffled by the language and culture around them, they cling tightly to their Russian customs and embrace the Judaism that they could not practice in Leningrad. Igor takes on the name Gary and is enrolled in a Jewish day school, thus beginning his personal quest to fit in with the “native-born” Americans. Shteyngart regales readers with hilarious and slightly redundant tales of the trials and tribulations of hapless young Gary, desperate to be defined by something other than his “Russianness.”
As Gary grows up, and as his family climbs the ladder of middle-class American success, he grows increasingly frustrated with his Russian home and fiercely close-knit family. Gary’s mother and father raise their son with a tough love that is more often rough than affectionate, a way of parenting as foreign as the meals of farmer’s cheese and canned peaches that Gary eats while dreaming of McDonald’s. His family nicknames translate to “little failure,” “weakling” and “snotty,” a reference to his childhood asthma. Gary’s most complicated relationship is with his father, a figure whom he admires, fears, envies, loves and hates.
Shteyngart writes most powerfully on the daily realities of an immigrant family, using the details of his upbringing to shed light the widespread condition of immigrant marginalization. He describes hauntingly the impact that life in the Soviet Union continued to have on his parents in America:
“My parents don’t spend money, because they live with the idea that disaster is close at hand, that a liver-function test will come back marked with a doctor’s urgent scrawl, that they will be fired from their jobs because their English does not suffice. Seven years in America, and we are still representatives of a shadow society, cowering under a cloud of bad tidings that will never come.”
Gary finally gains tenuous social acceptance through humor, and after attending the highly academic New York high school, Stuyvesant, he veers away from his parents’ plan (a top-ranked university, followed by law school) and attends the artistic Oberlin College. It takes Gary a long time to comprehend the grungy hipster culture of students with wealth and privilege that he only dreams of: “There’s a very popular upperclassman who wears a janitor’s shirt with the name BOB stenciled over his breast. I have also worked as a janitor before coming to Oberlin.”
It also takes Gary time to figure out where his passions lie, how to have a relationship with one of the many women he loves, and how to claim his identity as a Soviet Jew and an immigrant. In between getting stoned and drunk enough to earn the nickname “Scary Gary,” he rediscovers his passion and talent for writing.
The road from college graduate with a manuscript in the works, to published, successful writer is ridden with potholes and ditches, but eventually we come full circle and Gary Shteyngart is an author. The “little failure” finds success in both intellectual and commercial worlds, but still grapples with his past, identity and relationship with his parents. In telling his story, Shteyngart emphasizes the importance of finding peace with oneself and one’s existence, however scarred and warped one may be. The memoir is striking in its meticulous development of one individual by delving into the history and intricacies of a family, of a culture, of a way of life.
During the section about the Oberlin years, Shteyngart makes a comment that speaks to his irreverent, yet poignant style; “People who think literature should be serious – should serve as a blueprint for a rocket that will never take off – are malevolent at best, anti-Semitic at worst.” And while peppered with searing self-deprecating humor, this is fundamentally a serious memoir. Shteyngart lovingly and critically picks apart the past, then reassembles it, piece by piece, until a clear portrait of a man, this author, is rendered.