Little Failure: A Memoir
By Gary Shteyngart
351 pages, $27
By Jeff Simon
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
“Little Failure” – or “Failurcha” in her exact word – was Gary Shteyngart’s mother’s Russian/English nickname for her son. It was her cheerful way of greeting the news that her son, the writer, had written a novel that failed to get him into the University of Iowa’s writing program.
“Snotty” – in tribute to his childhood asthma and the phlegm filling his little lungs – was his father’s nickname. His father loved to quote reviewers who thought Shteyngart’s career was over.
Which, of course, aren’t jokes at all in Shteyngart’s memoir of his life but Freudian assaults on the fragility of the ego of an immigrant Soviet Jew who, with this memoir, has unquestionably turned into one of the greatest younger writers we have.
As readers of his autobiographical novels (“The Russian Debutante’s Handbook,” “Absurdistan,” and “Super Sad True Love Story”) know, Gary Shteyngart is very funny. That and rage are the family legacy, he says. And with this book stressing its abundant hilarities would be doing it the sort of loving disservice that only an ego-marauding parent can do.
This is not just a funny book. Laughter, in fact, isn’t all that frequent reading it. Something far greater than an involuntary spasm of the diaphragm is the response to reading this memoir by one of those Soviet Jews whose immigration Jimmy Carter’s administration traded for grain. The old “Saturday Night Live” joke for the jingoistic version of the effort was “Save Soviet Jews, Win Valuable Prizes.” And there’s yet one more joke after that – one whose first knowing spasm turns out to be so very much grander and more profound than just being “funny.” If the Shteyngart family was “saved” from the grimness of Soviet Russia, Gary turned out to be the family’s inordinately valuable prize to us all.
In this very 21st century book, he is a brilliant and almost archetypal writer about an American experience most of us are many generations past: the immigration to America, the adjustment, the assimilation, the education, and immersion of it all.
The great wave of Russian Jewish immigration to America happened from 1880 to 1914. It’s when so many of our grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents came here.
And here, in the century of the new millennium and the selfie and the tweet, we have that old family story being told in a way that couldn’t be newer or more arresting.
Because that is the great truth that “Little Failure” brings to brilliant life in every exceptional page: Diasporas of all sorts are far from over. And we are still the end point of an immigrant experience which is one of the greatest stories in all humankind of the last two centuries.
Lest anyone think that Gary Shteyngart’s 1972 birth in Soviet Russia is the only salient point of his narrated life, there is the rest of the book about his father, who never became an opera singer, his mother the pianist, his Oberlin education (where he learned “the rich will rule even at places like Oberlin, where their kind is technically forbidden”).
Thank God, that novel he wrote never won him acceptance to the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop (think of Raymond Carver and Andre Dubus as leading examples of what might be thought of as the fictional house style of its alumni).
The rich, sometimes bursting polyglot prose of Gary Shteyngart bears little resemblance to any of it. It is more akin, in fact, to the prose of another immigrant, Junot Diaz. It is the 21st century Long Island equivalent of plush 19th century prose with brocade patterns and lavish attention to every verbal stitch beneath the luxuriant storytelling.
This is a zig-zagging book. There is, to be sure, a straightforward overarching chronology to it but within that structure there is a merry willingness to digress and leap from one generation’s narrative to another’s that Dickens – if not quite Sterne – would have mightily approved.
Add Shteyngart to all those Russians and Jews (and combinations of both) for whom childhood was proof that parental hostility was claimed to be an act of love.
He is devoted to his Jewish engineer father – a man who “burns with black envy” toward his own son. He, to him, should have been an artist too.
To Gary (his real name was Igor), the Hebrew school he first went to in America was a horror – the Solomon Schecter School of Queens.
Science fiction claims him, And American television. After doing his homework, he watches “Different Strokes” with Grandma, “the story of a rich white man who adopts many black children” which “makes no sense on cultural grounds … The more I watch, the more questions keep mounting. Just what is going on in this country of mine? And why won’t President Reagan do something about it?”
For instance, “On ‘Three’s Company’ ” he wants to know “what does it mean ‘gay’?’ Why does everyone think the blond girl is so pretty, when it is clearly the brunette who is beautiful?” And on “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?”
Hardly. Gary Shteyngart is the least bumbling of writers.
There are girlfriends. And a shrink. And the novels. And drugs and booze. And trips back to Russia, finally with his parents.
And the 400-page book we have in our hands which does, so compellingly, what American books once did and then, it seems, decided not to do while we were all busy being who we are and taking pictures of ourselves to prove it.
Without having the slightest idea how much that might also be how much we were – and the parents before us and the parents before them and …
Jeff Simon is the Arts and Books Editor of the Buffalo News.