I have never been an ardent fan of memoirs. I find most of them to be either ostentatious tales of a grandiosity that look suspiciously unreal; or very depressing accounts of a miserable life. I’m even less fond of memoirs about an immigrant family adjusting to life in a Western country because they tend to be both fantastical tales of overcoming adversity and depressing accounts of a miserable life. But then, every reader is fickle and so am I. Picking up Gary Shteyngart’s Little Failure was a no-brainer because I really liked all his previous work and thought if he could inject some of that levity in his memoir, it would not be half bad. I am glad to say that I was right.
Little Failure is everything I wanted it to be and more. It was insightful; at times funny, at times sad, at times poignant and nostalgic, and at times all of that. Yes, it has both the elements that I don’t like in memoirs – the overcoming adversity and the fantastical – but Shteyngart make them work with his self deprecating humor and honesty. So while you want to wonder about how many crazy girl friends a man can have in one lifetime, the absurdity of it all and his perfect prose would not let you wonder for long and you stay immersed in the story unfolding on the pages.
The book is not just an account of Gary Shteyngart’s life; it is also an ode to his relationship with Russia, his motherland. Most immigrants have this strange relationship with their home countries where nostalgia plays a great part in coloring the memories in certain — at times unrealistic — ways. Shteyngart the writer seems very conscious of that nostalgia and has managed to be both detached and engaged when he writes about Russia. For instance, he writes about his seven-year-old self who was obsessed with Stalin and the Red Army with the indulgent tone that an adult reserves for a child. But when he writes about the Russia that he visited as an adult or the Russia his parents remembered, his connection with his roots cannot be severed, despite his affection for his adopted country.
Though the book is about Shteyngart’s life, his parents feature rather heavily in it and he writes them as multi-layered characters; another rarity, I feel, among memoirs. Yes, they are Gary’s parents but they are also people, with their own sets of qualities and flaws. The distinction that Shteyngart makes in the book between his mother’s and grand mother’s love — one was conditional and the other was unconditional — also indicates his honesty as a writer. If Shteyngart had been more conscious about his public persona — he teaches at Columbia — a lot of things in this book would not have made the final cut. He is either not really concerned about preserving the façade of a serious writer and teacher, or perhaps he is too concerned with creating the image of an unconcerned writer who is not concerned with his image at all. Whatever the case may be, it works for him and this book.
The book is honest and there was no self censor at work, probably because he is a satire writer and for a true satirist, nothing is off limits, not even his own life, especially his own life. Reading his biography would make it abundantly clear how heavily he borrowed from his own life when he wrote his earlier novels.
A particularly beautiful and poignant account is his first visit to a psychiatrist. Shteyngart is certain that therapy does not work. His utter resistance to getting help, despite knowing that he needed that help, is rather magnificent and oh-so-human.
Other memorable vignettes include his struggle with the new languages he had to learn as a kid (English to survive in USA and Hebrew to survive Jewish school), his relationship with his religion, and his substance abuse problems. His parents make a few misguided attempts to make him sophisticated — once it involved a trip to a local theatre to watch a French film, because his father thought it would make him cultured; as it turned out, the film was a pornographic one. His mother has nagging doubts about his career choice; her exact words are: “But what kind of profession is this, writer?” Shteyngart is careful not to overwhelm the reader with details, letting her take the journey along with him, employing prose laced with humility.
Another striking quality of Shteyngart was his detachment with his life. He is an insider to both the countries and cultures after having lived there but he writes about both with a certain degree of detachment – as if he was looking at his life from some vantage point and knew where he was going even though we – the readers know he was floundering and confused at that stage of his life. I guess that comes with having lived that part of life and becoming successful afterwards but not many develop that at any stage of their life and Shteyngart deserves all the kudos for that.
Little Failure is also the story of how U.S.A has moved forward as a country, from the McCarthy era, where expressing left-leaning views could land a person in jail, to 2014 where a Russian Jew immigrant is one of the most celebrated writers in the country; despite having professed his childhood love for Lenin, the Red Army and all things Soviet.
Even though the first half could do with some serious editing, the book is highly recommended for readers who must have their sentences crisp and perfectly formed; anything else that you take from the book — the humour, the poignancy, the nostalgia, the issues with identity and self- actualisation — is a bonus.
PS: His book trailer — yes that is a thing in publishing world these days — was hilarious. It featured James Franco, Rashida Jones, and Jonathan Franzen and mocked everything; the publishing industry – including his own publisher, hipsters in New York, free trade coffee and the judgment that comes with ordering non-free trade coffee in a hipster café, the angst of a college-educated white man, the use or abuse of the word zeitgeist in literary criticism, Canadians and of course James Franco. I am impressed that he managed to get hold of Jonathan Franzen to play his therapist. I mean, Franco would do anything, but to get Franzen on board was rather impressive — almost as impressive as writing this book.
First published in Sunday Guardian