Little Failure: A Memoir
By Gary Shteyngart
Perhaps it is characteristic of our compacted times, when nostalgia is only decades deep, that an author born in 1972 writes his memoir. In Little Failure: A Memoir, Gary Shteyngart describes his childhood life in Leningrad; his immigration at age seven to Queens, New York; his inculcation into the American Jewish community at a day school; his passage onto hipster and substance-enhanced life at an elite high school and at Oberlin College; and, finally, his alcoholic launch into adulthood on the twin engines of novel-writing and psychoanalysis.
The travelogue of Shteyngart’s life is merely the bones of the narrative. He is writing about his parents and about being Russian. Igor (Gary is his American name) is a sensitive, asthmatic child, both constricted and deepened by his laboured breathing and his obsessive parents. His mother calls him failurchka (little failure), an English word with a Russian diminutive ending, after he does not conform to the model of the high-achieving Russian-Jewish student. His father calls him solpyak (snotty), because of his asthma.
In the early part of this memoir, the Russian language is as much a character as his family. Russian speech – the idioms, the forms of address, the caress and brutality – mirrors his relationship with his parents. His father insults him constantly with shutki (trenchant jokes), hits him – dal emu po shee (give one [a blow] across the neck) – but holds the young Gary’s mouth open with a spoon while he sleeps to ease his asthmatic breathing. When a day school teacher is impressed that Gary can read Dostoyevsky in the original Russian, his father responds by poo-pooing, “Only Chekhov.”
Of his mother, Shteyngart writes, “My mother is from a country of lies, and I am still one of its citizens. She can lie to me at will. She can lie to me without even using her imagination. And whatever comes out of her mouth I am supposed to accept as truth, a doubleplusgood.”
His father and mother fight, and he feels he is the glue that keeps them from a razvod (divorce). Eventually, he discovers he will need a divorce from them.
Evident in the first part of the memoir is how different Soviet Jews were from the immigrants who arrived in North America early in the 20th century. As a precocious child, Shteyngart played in front of a statue of Lenin, wrote juvenilia about Lenin and a magic goose, embraced Russian classics and lived daily in the memory of the 26 million Russians killed in the Second World War, including his grandfather.
When the Shteyngarts have the opportunity to emigrate during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, they join the Russian ex-pat community in Queens, embrace Judaism and pursue the American dream through frugality and hard work with the expectation their son will excel and eventually be a doctor or lawyer.
The fulcrum of this transformation for Shteyngart from a Russian-experiencing-America to an American writer reflecting on his Russian past is when he realizes that “We are the enemy.” He is called the “Red Gerbil” by his classmates, since he comes from what then-U.S. president Ronald Reagan called the “evil empire.”
As Shteyngart becomes more assimilated, he loses his accent and engages his prodigious intellectual and creative abilities. The narrative becomes a more conventional story of an outcast hoping to fit in – an alcoholic, druggy slacker and sexually frustrated adolescent, a Russian-Jewish version of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
When Shteyngart finds his vocation in writing, his Russianness re-emerges as a fictionalized reflection of Russians in America in The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (2002) and of Russian-Americans returning to the former Soviet Union in Absurdistan (2006). Little Failure provides a sort of Coles Notes summary of the characters and incidents in his young adult life that were transformed into fiction.
Whether in memoir or fiction, Shteyngart’s writing is funny, deft and charged. His control of language is formidable and, in Little Failure, he mixes his characteristic humour with the dolour of being Russian for the perfect sweet-and-sour piquancy.