Little Failure: A Memoir
- By Gary Shteyngart
- Random House
- 368 pp.
- Reviewed by Rimas Blekaitis
- January 14, 2014
A novelistic and immensely readable account of the author's early life.
It is the late ‘90s and Gary Shteyngart’s mother has come up with a new nickname for him, fittingly part Russian and part English: Failurchka, or Little Failure. As much prod as expression of disappointment, it may fit: he has recently graduated summa cum laude from Oberlin College but is still years away from success as a novelist. His mother finds him a full-time job which doesn’t pay well but only requires “maybe thirty minutes of work a year,” leaving him plenty of time to polish off that first draft, drink and chase after a beguiling bedmate who has a boyfriend who doesn’t sleep with her. To make matters worse, a certain writing program in Iowa has rejected his fiction.
In Shteyngart’s immensely readable memoir, Little Failure, he creates a novelistic account of his early life, choosing to frame it all around the question of “what happened at Chesme Church.” In fact, his panic attack at seeing a photo of the Chesme Church in Leningrad leaves readers curious to know more about what happened there, how the author has gotten into his current predicament and what happens next.
To answer these questions, Shteyngart takes us back to the hard lives of his grandparents, who were forced to escape Stalin’s starvation of the Ukraine and then endure (or not) the German invasion of Russia. He writes, “As I march my relatives onto the pages of this book, please remember that I am also marching them toward their graves.” His story about these people cannot be separated from his own — a story about how a comic novelist’s outsider, absurdist sensibilities came to be.
Chapter by chapter, Shteyngart describes his fascinating, multi-polar life: the early, sickly childhood in St. Petersburg, his family’s sudden departure to the West (made possible by President Carter’s deal with Brezhnev that exchanged American grain for the freedom of emigration of Soviet Jews), his troubled assimilation into Queens and so on to adult life. He deftly cleaves it all into chapters that can stand alone, craftily planting questions that will keep us reading until — finally! — we find out “what happened at Chesme Church.” Even though the payoff of this discovery is not as great as the author leads the reader to believe, another major revelation about his father that movingly links the two men more than makes up for it.
Throughout Little Failure, the reader learns of the awkwardness of Shteyngart’s Soviet émigré life in Queens. The young, newly renamed-for-America “Gary” longs for approval and acceptance from his classmates at a Hebrew school in Queens where he learns that reading serialized excerpts from his sci-fi novel gains him some street cred. At Stuyvesant High, Gary still longs for acceptance from his peers who take him under their exotic American wings and, amid bacchanalian parties in glamorous Manhattan apartments temporarily abandoned by one very rich kid’s parents or another, kindly shape him into a world-class drinker, stoner and clown.
Shteyngart also guides the readers through moments of his own personal growth. He humorously describes his rebellious act of choosing to play in Central Park with non-Jewish boys while his mother, who considers New York “the world’s second most dangerous city after Beirut,” anxiously waits for him behind bushes outside his far-away high school. After this act of defiance, Shteyngart proudly exclaims, “Where am I? I am in Manhattan, the chief borough of New York, the biggest city in America. Where am I not? I’m not in Little Neck; I’m not with my mother and father.”
Eventually, the readers will encounter Shteyngart in the act of writing the memoir they’re reading. And at that moment, Shteyngart will just be discovering an old family secret he uses both to frame the story and to melt his own life into that of the man he loves so much, his father. In this way, the memoir might even be a writing lesson: he had to write the story to find the story he was trying to write.
Shteyngart only briefly takes note of two key events in his writing life: Chang Rae Lee introducing him to a publisher which results in a book deal and then the angry, betrayed reaction of his parents when they recognize themselves in the ensuing novel. Shteyngart, quoting Czeslaw Milosz, states that “when a writer is born into a family, that family is finished,” but he adds, “if the family isn’t finished, then the writer is.” Perhaps Little Failure, which tenderly depicts his family,is a way of making up for that earlier work.
Shteyngart’s life is too expansive to fit into a book of workable size, so at times the chapters feel rushed. There is also a problem with proportions: more than two-thirds of the book covers his childhood, leaving very little time to discuss his life as a writer and teacher. At times the book’s dual purpose of simultaneously creating a traditional coming-of-age memoir and examining the forces of cultural assimilation both he and his parents must navigate in their own ways is counterproductive. Both of these elements feel only partially realized, and I was left frustrated at the possibility of how much more Little Failure could be because the glimpses Shteyngart offers into the tugs of those forces are insightful and fascinating.
Having vicariously suffered the joys and sorrows of the relationships he depicts between himself and his parents, I was, until the end, left wanting to know what his parents look like. And at the end, the author kindly granted that wish with a photo of his intelligent and mischievous father roguishly posed next to the still-charming and pretty Mrs. Shteyngart. The picture makes readers fall in love with this couple, but readers should not steal a glance until they too have experienced the joys and sorrows of the relationships portrayed in this memoir.
Shteyngart’s writing is moving and laugh-out-loud funny and throughout demonstrates his gift of getting people’s attention and holding onto it. In the end, despite not fully delivering on its possibilities, Little Failure provides readers with a ride they will not regret. Shteyngart can revisit this rich material in more depth in future novels.
Rimas Blekaitis recently completed his MFA in Fiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. He lives in Washington, DC, where he writes fiction and poetry when he can.