Memoir Monday: Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart

The book trailer for Gary Shteyngart’s memoir, Little Failure, would have you believe that the title comes from the author’s physical and commercial shortcomings. James Franco, outfitted in a light pink bathrobe, plays Shteyngart’s husband in the trailer, and Jonathan Franzen makes a cameo appearance as his therapist. The parodic nature of the video is an introduction to the self-deprecating humor found throughout Little Failure. If you’re not a fan of the book trailer, you’re probably not going to enjoy the memoir.

Early in the book, you learn that “Little Failure” is a translation of the term “Failurchka,” a moniker that Shteyngart’s mother gives him as a boy. It seems a harsh term of endearment until you learn that Shteyngart’s father nicknamed his son “Snotty” because his child was often “sick and runny nosed.” In the beginning of the story, Shteyngart and his parents are living in a small apartment off Moscow Square in the former Soviet Union. Fearing for their sickly son’s health and his certain future of being drafted into the Red Army, Shteyngart’s family immigrated to the United States in 1979 as part of a trade deal that brought a number of Jewish families to America in exchange for grain and technology.

Little Failure by Gary ShteyngartUpon arriving in America, Shteyngart’s parents change his name from the Russian “Igor” to “Gary” and enroll him in a Hebrew school near their new home in Queens, New York. Because Russian citizens were not allowed to practice Judaism, Shteyngart does not understand Hebrew, much less English, and has a hard time assimilating. That is, until he starts visiting his grandmother’s home in the afternoons for American junk food and quality time watching her television set.

Shteyngart, who wrote his first novel when he was five years old in exchange for slices of Russian government cheese, discovers that he can make friends by entertaining his classmates with his take on 1980s pop culture. He develops an alter-ego, Gary Gnu III, based on a puppet on the kids’ show, The Great Space Coasterand writes his own version of the Torah called the Gnorah.

Readers who enjoyed Shteyngart’s first three books (all novels)–Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story–will appreciate the moments in the memoir when he references the real-life events that found their way into his fiction. Little Failure introduced  Shteyngart to me. Since he and I are just a couple of years apart in age, I very much related to the pop culture and time periods referenced. And while there’s no arguing that Shteyngart is a gifted, funny writer, I grappled with whether or not I liked Gary Shteyngart as a person, probably because he struggles with the same thing in the true stories he shares in Little Failure. Still, there are passages like the following one about a gift he received from his first college girlfriend, Jennifer, that scratch through the layers of self-loathing and blustering to reveal his sweet side:

There’s a string around my neck with a single marble-like blue bead that I don’t dare take off, even in the shower, since it is a gift from her. For the next half decade, whenever I am anxious, I will spin the bead between my thumb and index finger. Even when she is gone. Especially when she is gone.

Terry Gross interviewed Shteyngart about Little Failure on her NPR program Fresh Air. Learn more about Gary Shteyngart at garyshteyngart.com.

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