Rambling, indulgent, slapdash, Gary Shteyngart’s new memoir is frenetically funny, even overwhelmingly enjoyable. It recounts the life and times of the hothouse delicate son of explosive, eccentric Russian Jews who immigrate to the US in the late 1970s and, in their histrionic approach to parenting, inadvertently prepare that son to become an American literary success story. The success happens even if they always regard Gary, as per the book’s title, as a little failure – in Anglo-flubbed Russian, Failurchka is his mother’s pet name for him.
The title is especially ironic, because Shteyngart is one of the most prominent and popular writers in contemporary American letters. A frequent contributor to the New Yorker and other top-flight publications, he has written three critically acclaimed novels that variously transform his personal experiences of mashed-up Russian, Jewish and American culture into the stuff of riotous fiction. In bringing out a memoir, Shteyngart has set a more exacting task for himself. He admits that with his fiction, he has often taken refuge in humour to avoid reckoning with serious matters. But here he vows, for himself as much as his readers, to attempt just such a reckoning: “On so many occasions in my novels I have approached a certain truth only to turn away from it, only to . . . laugh at it and then scurry back to safety. In this book, I promised myself . . . laughter would be intermittent. There would be no safety.” He mostly fails to keep this promise. It is hard not to find cause to laugh every few pages, with the exception of the memoir’s very different final section.
The book covers Shteyngart’s entire life up to the present, beginning with his experience of an early childhood in late cold war Leningrad, where he and his father played hide-and-seek by a monumental statue of Lenin; and moving on to his family’s migration to Queens, where reflexive Russian chauvinism quickly gives way to reactive American patriotism, Reaganite conservatism and, most immediately, fearful wonder at the easy excesses of life in their new country: “Everything is revelation. On the ride from the airport, I am shocked by my first highway overpass, the way the car (a private car bigger than three Soviet Ladas) leans into the curve hundreds of feet above the greenery of Queens. Here we are floating through air but in a car . . . I feel the same emotions I will experience when choking upon my first cheesy American pizza slice months later – elation, visceral excitement, but also fear. How will I ever measure up to the gentle, smiling giants strolling this land who launch their cars like cosmonauts into the infinite American sky and who live like lords in their little castles?”
Shteyngart’s inability to measure up as he grows up forms a key theme of the book: he is a weird-accented social outcast as a New York City schoolboy; a drunken, drugged-up, lovelorn clown in high school; and a drunker, more drugged-up, romantically and intellectually flailing basket-case at college and thereafter. In each of these cases, Shteyngart excessively details his incapacities: he makes fun of himself before anyone else can, as when, for instance, he sits at a dorm room party in total stupefaction, holding the hand of a pretty girl while she makes out voraciously with another guy. He finds a great deal of creative and humorous potential in his personal failures, and he is especially adept at transforming such experiences into rich literary material.
As significant as his experiences in the world at large prove, they are secondary to his experiences of family life. His parents exert an outsized influence on him in their standard-issue immigrant expectations (be a loyal and obedient son, become a lawyer etc), and in their aggressive oddities. His mother smothers him with a love that imprisons him, at least when she is not withholding it to his emotional devastation – and she habitually charges him for the chicken cutlets she bakes. His father jovially bullies him in his early years, sports too-short shorts that show off his testicles when Shteyngart brings a girlfriend home from college, and, when his son later enjoys renown as a writer, matter-of-factly informs him, “I burn with a black envy toward you. I should have been an artist as well.”
Shteyngart himself has had life-long artistic ambitions. He decides to become a writer at the age of five, encouraged along by a bribe-offering grandmother. His first effort is a novel about a giant statue of Lenin who befriends a giant talking goose: together, they invade Finland. From then on, Shteyngart turns to writing as a means of anguished self-expression and as the elaboration of his fecund imagination; as a form of social and familial escape; and eventually as an opportunity for professional success. The latter happens at New York’s Hunter College, under the tutelage of novelist Chang-Rae Lee, who introduces Shteyngart to his editor, who loves his early work, and off Gary goes. And it is here that Little Failure poses the first of its two challenges. For the book to work in its obsessive detailing of all that is congenitally hapless and pathetic about Shteyngart, we have to ignore the inconvenient fact of his impressive literary accomplishments and popularity, which too much depend upon the cultivation of this image: indeed, the very funny video trailer for Little Failure is all about Shteyngart’s status as the literary world’s greatest loser, but it happens to feature the hangdog author hamming it up alongside buddies James Franco and Jonathan Franzen.
Of course, authors write from and to confected personae all the time and readers can choose whether to affirm or resist such premises. The greater challenge of Little Failure concerns Shteyngart’s ultimate ambition to be taken seriously, even solemnly: the final section is an account of a trip to Russia that he made, as an adult, with his parents. The journey exposes family secrets and inspires moving confessions of regret and love. It’s fine stuff, but because of how frequently, and finally tiresomely, Shteyngart bends the serious into the satirical and silly elsewhere in the book, you find yourself waiting for the literary equivalent of a whoopee cushion to go off. In the end there are no cheap jokes, only a very talented writer risking far more than he has prepared you to expect, which is, alas, its own kind of Failurchka.
Randy Boyagoda is author of ‘Beggar’s Feast’ (Viking, Pintail)