Shteyngart was 7 when he left Leningrad, but he claims to remember every detail of his early childhood, from playing hide-and-seek with his father in Moscow Square to the omnipresent smell of cabbage: “My recall of these years is attuned, vibrant, and frighteningly perfect.” His early career goal was to become a cosmonaut, but given that skinny, wheezing Igor was deathly afraid of heights — not to mention practically everything else, including fur hats and the ceiling fan in his apartment — becoming a writer seemed a better fit. His doting grandmother gave him a bite of cheese for each page he penned, and a writer was born — one whose goal is always to win love and approval, as it was when he regaled his depressed father with the tales he called “The Planet of the Yids.”
Mama, Papa, Grandma Polya and Igor settle in Forest Hills, N.Y., and set about trading Soviet poverty for American prosperity. Rechristened Gary, Shteyngart is enrolled in Hebrew school, where he is resoundingly bullied for his bad English and bad clothes. How popular can a kid be if his
grandmother stuffs him fuller than a foie gras goose until he has boy-boobs and insists on holding his hand on the way to school until he is 15? Shteyngart remakes himself as a comedian, “humor being the last resort of the besieged Jew, especially when he is placed among his own kind.” As in his fiction, his specialty is “supposedly funny banter with a twist of the knife.”
There are plenty of laugh-out-loud passages in “Little Failure,” the kind of cultural criticism that Shteyngart’s fans will recognize and appreciate. See, for instance, young Gary’s befuddlement about “Gilligan’s Island”: “Is it really possible that a country as powerful as the United States would not be able to locate two of its best citizens lost at sea, to wit, the millionaire and his wife? Also, Gilligan is comical and bumbling like an immigrant, but people seem to like him. Make notes for further study? Emulate?” As in his fiction, he’s attuned to absurd juxtapositions, such as what he sees in his revered Moscow Square when he returns to Russia as an adult: a somber World War II memorial next to a spanking-new ATM machine.
However, in the memoir he attempts to stop using humor as a crutch — to confront both his past and his parents’ with unvarnished empathy. “After finishing the book you hold in your hands,” he relates, “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. . . . On so many occasions in my novels I have approached a certain truth only to turn away from it, only to point my finger and laugh at it and then scurry back to safety. In this book, I promised myself . . . there would be no safety.” Indeed, “Little Failure,” which follows the author through his post-college years, is a much more straightforwardly soulful account than many of his readers might expect.
In particular, he puts his years of psychoanalysis to good use in exposing and coming to terms with his family’s dynamic: his father’s verbal and physical abuse; his mother’s sometimes-epic distance; his parents’ bickering; their wonky, non-Spock-approved parenting style of both over- and under-attentiveness. Any memoirist will attest that it takes a lot of care and courage to present people close to you in this way — especially if you still love them, if your goal isn’t simple “Mommie Dearest”-style revenge. “Little Failure” is dedicated to Shteyngart’s parents, and his nuanced portrait of them is a gift.
So, too, is his analysis of the immigrant’s inability to escape citizenship in a “shadow society,” one in which “we always seem to be at the margins of places.” Desperate to fit in, Gary always gets it a little wrong — as when he’s a young Republican at Oberlin College. “In Hebrew school . . . I was ridiculed for being an inauthentic American, and now [in college] I am being charged with being an inauthentic Russian. I do not yet understand that this very paradox is the true subject of so-called immigrant fiction.”
In his classic 1951 memoir,
“Speak, Memory,” Vladimir Nabokov confesses that “the nostalgia I have been cherishing all these years is a hypertrophied sense of lost childhood.” Shteyngart’s story couldn’t be more different from Nabokov’s, but he nimbly achieves the noble Nabokovian goal of letting sentiment in without ever becoming sentimental.
Lisa Zeidner is the author of five novels, most recently “Love Bomb.” She is a professor in the MFA program in creative writing at Rutgers University at Camden.