Sunday, August 31, 2014

Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart


While reading the book I started writing the review as the memories of a young immigrant unfolded on the pages. I thought it was excellent, experienced, eloquent writing, gracing the valuable hours I spent reading it. 

Many hours it turned out to be, for I constantly fell asleep, due to the fact that I was either tired of working physically hard and very long hours for weeks now, or did not have time for a good sitting with the book, or the subject matter turned stale. I was not sure where the book was taking me.

One of my thoughts, while hanging in there was: How many books do we have to read about the lost generations of the drug-induced eras of the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties, Nineties into ad infinitum, and it's getting worse. What was once cult books for the enlightened and the ambitious social climbers, rebellion against an old order, petered out to become endless repeats of the same dark, morose hell of dopey thinking. Like old bread ...

Another thought was: I feel like Balaam's Ass, writing this review. I could treat this memoir as the scribbles of a nerdy, narcissistic Jewish friend, a needy, demanding one, or delve deeper into the Jewish comedy phenomenon and totally lose my way among the plethora of labels billowing all over the globe.

A third sleep-induced thought was : I was wondering why a youngish person, thirty-eight-years-old, would want to write a memoir, when his parents are still alive, and most of his adult life still pirouette on the horizon. It is, after all, a huge embarrassment to the family within their cultural context.

Then I thought about the title of the book and realized I probably would have done the same if my parents called me
"Little Failure" and I had enough shutzpah as well as eloquence, to revenge myself on them. My reaction to something like that , in my own humble scribbles, would have been "It takes one to know one!" Not that I think it was the intention in this tale. Mmm, perhaps it was! 

Beyond the often hilarious, witty tale, lies the image of, and I am borrowing the words of Ralph Ingesoll, ' an elephant being dressed in a hooped skirt and ruffled pants to make her look like a crinoline girl'

In one instance, as a young boy, he wrote a story, "Lenin and His Magical Goose" in which Lenin gets off his granite pedestal, gets onto the goose , flies over to Finland and bombard the 'hapless Fins' with the thick Soviet cheese. 

Like all satire and comedy, the author's masterful mockery of something unbearable is well hidden if the reader is naive enough not to understand this kind of satire. For those of us who admire and enjoy it, we understand the shudder, masked behind the slapstick, quick-witted jokes, with which the sad tale of the American- Jewish history is told. 

The intellectual quick-wit and laughter conceal the tragicomedy it really becomes. The underlying wealth of the tradition of Jewish comedy supports this tale. How can we forget people such as Jack Benny, the Marx Brothers, George Burns, Bette Midler, Woody Allen, Joan Rivers, Jerry Seinfeld , Billy Crystal, Adam Sandler and probably the world's most beloved comedian, Robin Williams? 

Comedians are extraordinary entertainers, provide an endless parade of gags, an unstoppable flow of jokes, and a unique slant on life and society. They provide audiences with a diversion, they retell history to lighten up the struggles of participating in the human condition; offer laughter in times of distress. 

The game of wit in this book is played superbly. The reader laughs at language, at unexpected turns of logic, at improbable situations. Laughter becomes a weapon to confront life's unfairness. 

There is a slight dollop of screwball zaniness flowing through the text as well, with Gary's loving, mismatched parents, as well as his own love experiences. His parents are constantly competing for his attention, constantly threaten each other with divorce, yet stay glued to the family unit for survival. 

He struggles to maintain his loyalty of all things Russian, the lessons his parents taught him, while trying to adapt to a new life in America, where the cultural blend is staggering. He also has to prove himself - a sickly asthmatic child with no friends- to his family and the outside world. 

This memoir tells the story of Igor Semyonovich Shteyngart (the disobedient son and beloved grandson, to his parents and grandmother Ploya); Gary Shteyngart ( to his teachers at the Solomon Schecter School of Queens); Yitzhak Ben Shimon, 'or some shit like that' ( to the Hebrew teachers); Gary Gnu The Third (to his fellow pupils with their Macy's regalia at Stuyvesant); and Shteyn-dawg to his university friends at Oberlin College, Ohio). The various personalities are also the various stages in his development with the behavioral patterns associated with it. 

Yet another memo to myself: The tone of the prose reminds me of 'Lucky Us' by Amy Bloom. I am unsure why. Perhaps it is the detailed descriptions, the struggle for survival, I don't know. Perhaps it is the fact that I just enjoyed reading both books. 

The humorous side of Little Failure' also places itself in the company of Giovanni Guareschi's Don Camillo tales. An element of Captain Corelli's Mandoline by Louis de Bernières is also present. First the blatent, in-your-face wit, and then the honest underscore of sadness and challenges waiting for the author and his family. 

However, the book is not about the Holocaust, neither the Soviet Communist regime's atrocities against its own people. This part of the author's history serves only as reference to the rest of their adaptation to American life. His parents were part of the 'Grain Jews' whose permission to immigrate was negotiated by Jimmy Carter in the 1970s. 

Gary eventually becomes a successful writer, despite the marriage détente of two mismatched people whom he calls his parents and the negative attention he constantly had to endure from them. 

It is evident that love comes in different forms, like a few regular slaps against the head, the silent treatments that drives him insane, and the constant reminders of his failures. But not grandmother Polya. Grandma Polya's love manifest itself in the daily three-hour gorging process after school.

"Behind every great Russian child, there is a Russian grandmother who act as chef de cuisine, bodyguard, personal shopper, and PR agent. You can see her in action in the quiet, leafy neighborhood of Rego Park, Queens, running after her thick-limbed grandson, with a dish of buckwheat, fruit, or farmer's cheese..."

I haven't read the author's other books. However, I can clearly understand why his previous books won various awards. Apart from becoming an insightful, compassionate author, he also became another loud voice of all 'late-comers' to the American dream; all the immigrants from all over the globe. 

In his quest to be accepted, to be loved, and to conquer his various aspirations, he ultimately becomes more American than the Americans themselves, just because he was trying too hard! He starts right at the beginning of being American, arriving as an immigrant in a country for immigrants, and excel through all the stages of settlement fairly quickly, where as it took most of the established Americans several generations to do the same. As he progresses and develops into the person he aims to be, his need, to associate with the known world of his culture and parents, becomes weaker. 

Memo: As a writer it can be his strongest or weakest point, depending on how far he is willing to venture off into new territory in his personal life and writing. 

Memo to self again: His evolution is typical of immigrants to a country. The first generation still honors the old country in culture and language, identifies with it strongly. The second generation will have lesser knowledge and desire to identify with the old teachings, will only use the original language at home, and the third generation can no longer speak the original language, nor have the need to be associated with the original culture. The future will tell. 

So in this sense, there is nothing new to this immigrant tale. What makes it different is the author's honest, direct approach to his own strengths and weaknesses and the sense of humor, the irony, the satire, he harnesses for his self-mockery. He is no angel at all. In fact, sometimes he is totally unlikable!

He summarizes his writing himself very well.

P. 277: "I'm desperately trying to have a history, a past. I am flooding myself with memory, melancholy and true. Every memory I repressed at the Solomon Schechter School of Queens, where I pretended to be a good East German, is coming back to me. I write about eating pelmenidumplings with my mother by the mermaid statue in Yalta. I write about the mechanical chicken I used to play with in the Crimea. About the girl with the one eye in our first apartment in America, the one who played Honeycomb license plates with me. I proudly use words I just picked up, words like "Aubusson", writing next to it, in parentheses, "French rug." I stick the Aubusson into a kind of literary action story called "Sundown at the International", complete with 'jet-black Sikorsky helicopters." 

Fifteen years later, that story will be expanded into the novel Absurdistan.

Sometimes my writing sucks, but sometimes it strives for the truth and it works. My parents are fighting across the pages. I am learning English. I am learning to be second-class. I am learning Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad. Faced with an American pizza parlor, my "mother instructs me to order a pizza with meat on it so that I'll have a complete meal." My imagination is allowed to roam in all directions, even ones that fail (especially ones that fail). I hand in a truly strange character sketch of Nikita Khrushchev celebrating a lonely seventieth birthday on a collective farm. I write about my grandmother's fictional meeting with Pope John Paul II."
Refreshing, yes. Self-centered, for sure. It's a memoir.
" I knew I wanted to write a novel, and I knew what it would be about. When you're twenty-one there really is only one subject. It appears in the mirror each morning, toothbrush in hand."

In the end this book is not about revenge at all. It is an honest quest for understanding, for acceptance, and as a memoir, which ensures a stronger message, it is brilliantly done. In a memoir the truth can no longer be "an elephant being dressed in a hooped skirt and ruffled pants to make her look like a crinoline girl"

His friend John, who will help him develop his first novel, at one point told Gary what he could not see about himself in his writings:

"There is practically nothing writerly about your process. Your acute and omnipresent anxiety causes you to function much more as an accountant or a producer, with his eyes on the bottom line and no understanding of how artists function, rather than as as a young writer, trying to develop a first novel, a new career. In short, you are as mean and ungenerous to yourself as your parents are; they taught you well."

My final conclusion: This memoir is much more than just a colorful painting in which satire and irony was used as brushes. It's not only an intellectual, brilliant play with words. It's more than the sum total of a narcissistic brooding, or a self-pity partying memoir. 

In fact, I was sitting straight up, wide awake, when the ending unfolded. Yes, it was 3.30 in the morning. I gave up many hours of sleep to finish this book! 

How masterfully plotted! The Chesme Church on Moscow Square, introduces the author's memories to the reader, but surprisingly becomes the axes around which the memoir will return full circle and with good reason. There is even a touch of suspense created, which distinguish this memoir from any others I have read before. The young boy, then young man's struggle, apart from being an immigrant, could have been the story of all of us, if we can dish up the same guts to be THIS honest. In the end, it all came together and it was good. Very good indeed!



After three acclaimed novels—The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Absurdistan, and Super Sad True Love Story—Gary Shteyngart turns to memoir in a candid, witty, deeply poignant account of his life so far. Shteyngart shares his American immigrant experience, moving back and forth through time and memory with self-deprecating humor, moving insights, and literary bravado. The result is a resonant story of family and belonging that feels epic and intimate and distinctly his own.

Born Igor Shteyngart in Leningrad during the twilight of the Soviet Union, the curious, diminutive, asthmatic boy grew up with a persistent sense of yearning—for food, for acceptance, for words—desires that would follow him into adulthood. At five, Igor decided to become a writer, and his grandmother paid him a slice of cheese for every page he produced. He wrote Lenin and His Magical Goose, his first novel.

In the late 1970s, world events changed Igor’s life. Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev made a deal: exchange tankers of grain for the safe passage of Soviet Jews to America—a country Igor viewed as the enemy. Along the way, Igor became Gary so that he would suffer one or two fewer beatings from other kids. Coming to the United States from the Soviet Union was equivalent to stumbling off a monochromatic cliff and landing in a pool of pure Technicolor.

Shteyngart’s loving but mismatched parents dreamed that he would become a lawyer or at least a “conscientious toiler” on Wall Street, something their distracted son was simply not cut out to do. Fusing English and Russian, his mother created the term Failurchka—Little Failure—which she applied to her son. With love. Mostly.

As a result, Shteyngart operated on a theory that he would fail at everything he tried. At being a writer, at being a boyfriend, and, most important, at being a worthwhile human being.

Swinging between a Soviet home life and American aspirations, Shteyngart found himself living in two contradictory worlds, all the while wishing that he could find a real home in one. And somebody to love him. And somebody to lend him sixty-nine cents for a McDonald’s hamburger.

Provocative, hilarious, and inventive, Little Failure reveals a deeper vein of emotion in Gary Shteyngart’s prose. It is a memoir of an immigrant family coming to America, as told by a lifelong misfit who forged from his imagination an essential literary voice and, against all odds, a place in the world.


Genres: Autobiography, Memoir, Russia, American immigrants, Family, New York, 
Solomon Schecter School of Queens, Oberlin, Ohio, Stuyvesant School, Grain Jews

Formats: Hard cover , Paperback, Kindle,
Number of Pages: 351
Publisher: Penguin(USA)  Hamish Hamilton (UK) 
Publication date: February 27th, 2014
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0241146658
ISBN-13: 978-0241146651
ASIN: B00H7O86W6

Purchase links:  Amazon USA | Amazon UK |



Photo credit

Gary Shteyngart was born in Leningrad in 1972 and came to the United States seven years later. His debut novel, The Russian Debutante's Handbook, won the Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction and the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction. His second novel, Absurdistan, was named one of the 10 Best Books of the Year by The New York Times Book Review, as well as a best book of the year by Time, The Washington Post Book World, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, and many other publications. He has been selected as one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, GQ, and Travel + Leisure and his books have been translated into more than twenty languages. He lives in New York City. (Info Source)


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