When they fled to this country from the Soviet Union, Igor Shteyngart’s parents thought they should Americanize his given name. A sickly Jewish kid from the Evil Empire, he already provided a target rich environment for bullies. They settled on “Gary,” which, if one is to trust Wikipedia, has its origins in the Germanic word for “spear,” an apt choice for a future novelist whose piercing satire was sharpened on the whetstone of a dysfunctional upbringing.
Now Shteyngart turns his honed prose on his parents and himself in a flayingly forthright memoir that should become a classic of the immigrant narrative genre. He may no longer answer to Igor, but Shteyngart’s father still struggles not to treat him like a shambling, dimwitted hunchback. Over dinner he belittles the famous author. “I read on the Russian Internet that you and your novels will soon be forgotten.” A mechanical engineer who once dreamed of becoming an opera singer, he admits to the basest of motivations. “I burn with a black envy toward you. I should have been an artist as well.”
Shteyngart’s mother is a piece of work too. Silence was her weapon of choice; whenever Gary displeased her, she pretended he didn’t exist. She wasn’t sure this occasionally invisible boy would ever amount to much. The memoir’s title, Little Failure, comes from her nickname for him in Russian, “Failurchka.”
But when his first novel is published to wide acclaim, she doesn’t apologize. Instead she chews him out. How dare he incorporate autobiographical elements in his novel! She never wants to hear from him again. Fine by me, he thinks. He is fed up with this crazy couple, who have done him real psychological damage.
As the years pass, however, a reconciliation of sorts is reached. He begins work on the memoir, a self-exorcism. It helps him understand his parents better, the history and hardships that shaped their neuroses. After surviving the Siege of Leningrad and Stalin’s homicidal paranoia, they are stuck in a failed, anti-Semitic Third World nation with superpower status due solely to its nuclear stockpile.
In 1979, they are finally granted exit visas after President Carter strikes a deal with the Soviets, exchanging so-called “refuseniks,” many of whom are Jews, for much needed grain. The Shteyngarts take up residence in Queens, where they struggle financially and emotionally (Gary’s parents fight constantly; the abuse they hurl at each other makes the Tolstoys look like starry-eyed lovebirds).
A lonely, awkward, asthmatic nerd who speaks broken English with a comically heavy accent, Gary has only TV and books to keep him company. But there are funny moments. His father wants to expose him to culture, so one day he takes him to a French movie called Emmanuelle. For the next 90 minutes, Gary writes, a “hairy hand” tries to shield his eyes. But he still manages to see “seven vaginas on the big screen that day, seven more than I will see for a very long time.”
Things improve slightly for Gary in his teens, when he loses his accent and attends a multicultural high school in Manhattan. Slowly, he moves away from the right-wing racism that warms so many Russians like a lice-ridden blanket.
Still a virgin, he follows a girlfriend to Oberlin College, a Midwestern bastion of political correct liberalism (of course, she breaks up with him shortly afterward). At Oberlin, he becomes a new man, a goateed, Jesus-haired, pot-smoking, heavy-drinking partier with whom a female would be willing to sleep. Despite his newfound popularity, he produces a daily word count (writer’s block is alien to him). But after he graduates he begins a downward spiral that will culminate in a nervous breakdown, requiring four trips a week to a therapist.
Readers expect Gary Shteyngart to bring smiles to their faces. His three novels — The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story — encourage us to laugh at darkness, even when it emanates from within ourselves. Little Failure reveals how he learned that lesson. As he writes, “I write because there is nothing as joyful as writing, even when the writing is twisted and full of hate, the self-hate that makes writing not only possible but necessary.”
Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.