Monday, March 24, 2014


Little Failure, Gary Shteyngart, Random House, 2014, 368 pp

Gary Shteyngart has written a possibly perfect memoir, in which we learn about the tears and sorrows behind his Russian clown persona. Though many authors have woven the immigrant experience into their development as writers, he adds accents I've not read before.

"Like most Soviet Jews, like most immigrants from Communist nations, my parents were deeply conservative, and they never thought much of the four years I had spent at my liberal alma mater, Oberlin College, studying Marxist politics and book writing. On his first visit to Oberlin my father stood on a giant vagina painted in the middle of the quad by the campus lesbian, gay, and bisexual organization, oblivious to the rising tide of hissing and camp around him, as he enumerated to me the differences between laserjet and inkjet printers, specifically the price points of the cartridges. If I'm not mistaken, he thought he was standing on a peach."

That quote is only the second half of a paragraph and there I heard the voice of the author who could write The Russian Debutante's Handbook. I expected to be entertained in a novel with such a title but had no idea I would be as entertained in a memoir called Little Failure.

And so it goes. His asthmatic early childhood in a cold one-room Soviet apartment; his parents' mystification once they made it to the United States in 1979; his miserable years in a Hebrew elementary school. The only hope you have for his survival is that he has lived for over 40 years and published three acclaimed novels.

It took Oberlin, lots and lots of drugs and alcohol, but also as we learn, the secret love of his father (secret because of all the beatings) to raise Mr Shteyngart up from his mother's curse when she named him Failurchka or Little Failure. I got the idea that no one was more surprised about this than the author himself.

My happiest moment (and Gary's luckiest) was when Chang-rae Lee read a draft of The Russian Debutante's Handbook and convinced his agent to represent Gary. I wondered if it was the immigrant connection, since these two authors write so differently: Chang-rae Lee with his serious measured prose and Gary Shteyngart who writes like a guy riding a unicycle, always on the verge of taking a tumble. I suppose it takes balance to write either way.

In 1996, Shteyngart had a panic attack while in Strand's looking at a photograph of the Chesme Church in Leningrad, a place he passed and marveled at daily as a toddler. In 2011, he made his sixth or seventh trip to Russia, trips that began in 1999. He had his parents with him and they tour their former life in the former Soviet Union together.

In Little Failure, Chapter 25, called "The Final Revelation," reads like the greatest of Russian novels as written by Gary Shteyngart. Somehow I had not realized that was where he was going with this memoir, but he so generously shares his revelations with us. 

A life is not a straight line.

(Little Failure is available in hardcover and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. The paperback will be released in September, 2014.)

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