Little Failure: A Memoir, by Gary Shteyngart
“In order for me to be born,” Gary Shteyngart says early on in his memoir, “all four branches of my family have to end up in Leningrad, trading in their tiny towns and villages for that somber, canal-laced cityscape. Here’s how it happens.”
Voice, more than anything, can drive a story and make a book impossible to put down. The immediacy, the candor, the variations in tone that can run from ironic to wry, to the insightful and even lyrical—as readers, we hear the words more than read them, and the best narrative voices create a persona in which there is no discernible line between the speaker’s character and the reader’s ear. The voice in Little Failure achieves this with ease. It’s all there, candid, skewed and idiosyncratic, a knowing, examining, confessing self that doesn’t hold back. Though let’s be clear, Gary Shteyngart is a master storyteller, one who, in this memoir, holds up his own and his family’s history and presents all the facets.
Shteyngart is the author of three previous books—the novels The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story—and Little Failure is his first book of nonfiction. As evident from the opening quote, it tracks the family history that led to Gary, but the central story is one of immigration, assimilation and (for the only son), the coming-of-age story of a writer.
The memoir’s title is taken from the pet name his mother bestowed, a mash-up of Russian and English, Failurchka, in its way, meant affectionately. Its derivation can be traced back to the endearment Soplyak, or Snotty, which came via his father, inspired by the runny nose that plagued Gary in childhood. This layer of disappointment beneath love drives the memoir’s voice and the tone, a humming tension beneath the portrayal family love and its complexity.
The book is also about growing up as an outsider in the boroughs of New York. It’s 1979, and young Gary (or Igor, as he’s still going by his Russian name then), has arrived in Queens with his parents and grandparents:
The first momentous thing that happens to me in Kew Gardens, Queens, is that I fall in love with cereal boxes. We are too poor to afford toys at this point, but we do have to eat. Cereal is food, sort of. It tastes grainy, easy and light, with a hint of false fruitiness. It tastes the way America feels.
The voice is central to the young, sensitive and impressionable Gary. “A writer,” he says, “is just an instrument too finely set to the human condition.” As the only child, he is both the center of his parents’ world and a stranger to it. “I needed my mother,” he writes, “needed her company and her dark hair to braid during the moments when I was too tired of reading a book. But I felt the explosive nature of my father’s love for me…and his fire both scared and entranced me.”
We see Gary enter Hebrew school, and he doesn’t dress or speak or act like his classmates. “Here, at age seven, begins my decline.” He makes friends whose glorious American homes he “lacks the vocabulary to describe.” It’s this exposure, one that comes with going to school, that separates and defines immigrating generations, a divide that occurs between Gary and his parents—beginning with Hebrew school in Queens, then the prestigious Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, to Oberlin College.
Coming of age in the 1980s, Little Failure tracks the Reagan era, a time of a particularly avid kind of Americanism, defined by the nuclear bomb television saga, “The Day After,” and Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” drug campaign, by Duran Duran and Billy Idol. The excesses of the decade make for great contrast to the Russian émigré experience, and in their way, form the basis of sixteen year-old Gary’s burgeoning Republicanism:
On election day 1988, I come to the Marriott Marquis ballroom thinking, This is the day. The day I will finally get laid.
Sure, there’s plenty of irony, and 1980s culture, amid the experience of leaving Cold War Russia and navigating the alarming wonder of capitalism. But it’s also a family story, and the story of a writer. Near the memoir’s end, Shteyngart writes:
After finishing the book you hold in your hands, I went back and reread the three novels I’ve written, an exercise that left me shocked by the overlaps between fiction and reality I found on those pages, by how blithely I’ve used the facts of my own life, as if I’ve been having a fire sale all along—everything about me must go!
That voice is one I want to keep reading, fiction and nonfiction, disappointments and all. Little Failure is out in paperback this week.