Random House: 1/7/2014
Hardcover, 368 pages
After three acclaimed novels, Gary Shteyngart turns to memoir in a candid, witty, deeply poignant account of his life so far. Shteyngart shares his American immigrant experience, moving back and forth through time and memory with self-deprecating humor, moving insights, and literary bravado. The result is a resonant story of family and belonging that feels epic and intimate and distinctly his own.
Born Igor Shteyngart in Leningrad during the twilight of the Soviet Union, the curious, diminutive, asthmatic boy grew up with a persistent sense of yearning—for food, for acceptance, for words—desires that would follow him into adulthood....
In the late 1970s, world events changed Igor’s life. Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev made a deal: exchange grain for the safe passage of Soviet Jews to America—a country Igor viewed as the enemy. Along the way, Igor became Gary so that he would suffer one or two fewer beatings from other kids. Coming to the United States from the Soviet Union was equivalent to stumbling off a monochromatic cliff and landing in a pool of pure Technicolor.
Shteyngart’s loving but mismatched parents dreamed that he would become a lawyer or at least a “conscientious toiler” on Wall Street, something their distracted son was simply not cut out to do. Fusing English and Russian, his mother created the term Failurchka—Little Failure—which she applied to her son. With love. Mostly....
Swinging between a Soviet home life and American aspirations, Shteyngart found himself living in two contradictory worlds, all the while wishing that he could find a real home in one. And somebody to love him. And somebody to lend him sixty-nine cents for a McDonald’s hamburger.
Provocative, hilarious, and inventive, Little Failure reveals a deeper vein of emotion in Gary Shteyngart’s prose. It is a memoir of an immigrant family coming to America, as told by a lifelong misfit who forged from his imagination an essential literary voice and, against all odds, a place in the world.
Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart is a very highly recommended memoir.
Many people only know Gary Shteyngart as a successful writer but in this humorous memoir, Little Failure, he proves he is gifted at whatever form his writing takes. Little Failure follows Shteyngart from his childhood to the present. Born Igor Shteyngar in Leningrad, at age 7 Gary immigrated to the USA with his parents in 1979. He was an asthmatic child and the struggle to handle this looms large in his early life. It was clear to him even before his mother gave him the American/Russian nickname "failurchka" or "little failure" that he was never going to live up to his parent expectations.
What he experienced would be a steep learning curve for any non-English speaking child. He had to try to learn English and Hebrew all in a new, foreign country while simultaneously listening to his parents seemingly fight constantly. Traumatic would be an understatement. Following, always with self-deprecating humor, his struggles in school, with classmates, with women, and on and on, Little Failure offers stories and insight into how Shteyngart views his family and the world around him. He always feels he is "A Little Failure of the first order" as he struggles with the dichotomy that is his life.
What Little Failure does best, beyond being an outstanding memoir, is show that Shteyngart is an exceptional storyteller whether the stories are fiction or nonfiction. Even if you have or haven't read Shteyngart, and/or love or dislike his writing, those who like to read memoirs are going to enjoy this one. It is certainly entertaining, but also emotional, honest, and poignant. It only helps establish the bond between writer and reader that the chapters open with cleverly labeled pictures from Shteyngart's life that add a personal touch.
I'm going to have to admit that I started Super Sad True Love Story and set it aside without finishing it. After reading Little Failure I think it's time to give it another try. He noted that after he completed this memoir, he reread his three novels and was "shocked by the overlaps between fiction and reality." His memoir could give me a new insight and appreciation for his fiction.
Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Random House via Netgalley for review purposes.