Little Failure: A Memoir, by Gary Shteyngart. Random House. 368 pages. Hardcover $27.00.
When President Carter traded grain for the freedom of Soviet Jews in the late 1970s, young Igor Shteyngart, along with his parents and other family members, was transplanted to the Borough of Queens in New York City. A dreamer and a loner, Igor – now Gary – continues to contend with the clumsy way his parents have of showing love. The books’ title phrase is a painful parental term of endearment. “Snotty” is another unsettling nickname for their asthmatic child. His mother alternates between smothering him and not talking to him at all; his father is way too quick to smack him.
In 1979, soon after arriving in Queens, the seven year old is enrolled in a Solomon Schechter Jewish Day School, where he feels doubly or triply misplaced. The comforts of habit and the strong Soviet identity developed in his early years in Leningrad are gone. He arrives without the crucial tool for early success – the survival level of English that immigrants need to begin their ascent. Soon, he is dropped a grade below the level at which his age and Soviet education would otherwise place him. It’s really tough learning Hebrew from scratch when the teaching language is also one you don’t know.
Beyond that, Gary was one of those kids who draw attention in the worst way. His personal mannerisms were easy to make fun of. Once he became a target, it was hard to build a positive identity. Fortunately, the oversized head that tottered on Gary’s flimsy shoulders was filled with brains. He was able to get through, occasionally excel, without ever become a very conscientious student. Few recognized his promise, and his parents were not among this few, though they harbored great expectations.
Maybe labeling him “Little Failure” was his parents’ idea of a challenge.
After finishing the eighth grade at the Schechter School, Gary attended selective, demanding Stuyvesant High. His despair about not fitting in, perhaps not deserving to fit in, increased. His dreams of having some appeal to the young women he met there were frustrated. Slowly, the idea that he might become a writer infiltrated his shaky identity. Getting accepted to Oberlin was another sign of failure to his parents, who held nonsensical Ivy League aspirations for him, but for Gary it ended up being a great blessing in spite of Gary’s extreme addictions to alcohol and narcotics.
Perhaps it’s not important to tell more of the story, the story of making friends, finding his first true love, having his talent recognized, continuing a complex relationship to his Jewish identity, dedicating himself to his writing, adjusting to his parents’ endlessly unproductive means of having a fulfilling relationship with their only child. Eventually, the award-winning novels.
The story, magnificent as it is, remains only one dimension of this memoir’s uniqueness and power. The writing itself is everything else, including the structure.
From the acknowledgments, it is clear that many of the chapters were first published separately in periodicals. Though relatively self-contained vignettes, they certainly interact with one another beautifully, many of them moving back and forth (and sometimes back again) in time. Shteyngart is concerned with the presence and power of the past, and he structures his individual units and the entire work to juxtapose various stages of his own and his family’s journey.
Among the book’s many important themes, one resonates quite strongly: Jewish dread. When Gary asks his mother why he is so often afraid, she attributes his experience to something almost genetic, Jewish fear. This suggests a timeless condition of Jewish experience amplified in the diaspora and especially in the modern European era of Jewish history, the age of pogroms and genocide.
Jewish dread is passed on from parents to children, much like a predisposition to a disease. It crosses borders. Shteyngart’s power as a wordsmith includes his ability to make readers feel this emotional truth, this constant shadow that darkens success, circumscribes happiness, and feeds like a vulture at the heart of relationships. It’s personal, but not only personal.
The brooding tone of Little Failure is constantly punctuated by wit and hope. It is a remarkable accomplishment: self-absorbed and generous, petty and cosmic. With half a life to go, Gary Shteyngart stands on a sturdy plateau of achievement. The cures he has taken for his particular version of Jewish dread seem to be working, moving him far beyond paralysis.
This review appears in the March 2014 issue of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).