Gary Shteyngart – Little Failure
- Niki Boyle
- 3 March 2014
A truthful and humourous memoir from the author of Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story
‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’. Philip Larkin’s most famous opening line doesn’t appear as an epigram for Gary Shteyngart’s memoir, but it wouldn’t be out of place. The novelist’s life, from early childhood in Soviet Russia to panic attack-stricken adulthood in America, is dominated by a physically assertive father (who at one point tells a girlfriend of the author, ‘I am big. My son is small’, while gesturing with a cucumber) and an emotionally manipulative mother, from whom the book gets its title: English-Russian hybrid ‘Failurchka’ is one of many diminutive nicknames given to the author.
The resulting grown-up is a man ridden with neuroses, flaws and addiction problems, but one who writes with wit and lashings (in the original sense of the word) of self-deprecation. In the first half of the book, Shteyngart presents a fascinating child’s-eye perspective of the USSR in its twilight, in which citizens are indoctrinated beyond their knowledge (his debut novel, written aged five, is titled Lenin and his Magical Goose, and is equally influenced by Selma Lagerlöf and state propaganda). The second half, in which the family decamps to the United States, takes on a theme of disenchanted adolescence: Shteyngart is bullied at his first school, struggles academically in his second and only finds solace during his college years in excesses of weed and alcohol.
It’s a happily adjusted, post-therapy Shteyngart who relates the story now, who doesn’t shirk on moments of shame and who is capable of crafting beautiful, delicate turns of phrase (one character ‘recently died of a terribly well-known disease because, in local parlance, “He liked theater”’). If there’s one criticism of the book, it’s that Shteyngart’s novels are only briefly alluded to, but this is very much a conscious decision: Little Failure succeeds not on the merits of the author’s (semi-)celebrity, but through truth, humour and the love, however ill-expressed, of his family and friends.