Near the end of his entrancing and unsparing memoir, Gary Shteyngart —author of three exuberant, award-winning novels—writes, “On so many occasions in my novels I have approached a certain truth only to turn away from it, only to point my finger and laugh at it and then scurry back to safety. In this book, I promised myself I would not point the finger. My laughter would be intermittent. There would be no safety.”
Shteyngart—being Shteyngart—cannot not be funny. In one example drawn at random from Little Failure, he introduces his Grandmother Polya, with whom he is parked after school every day while his parents work (and whose TV he hopes will provide him with new story ideas for entertaining his classmates, who would otherwise despise the slight, poorly dressed Russian immigrant boy): “Behind every great Russian child, there is a Russian grandmother who acts as chef de cuisine, bodyguard, personal shopper, and PR agent.” He begins another chapter: “The next year I get the present every boy wants. A circumcision.”
But the flip side of this sharp sense of humor—an inheritance from his traumatized Russian Jewish family, he says—is rage. A sweet, sickly, incredibly bright only child born in Leningrad in 1972, Shteyngart became a “kind of tuning fork for my parents’ fears, disappointments, and alienation.” Those fears and disappointments ripened when the family left Russia and came eventually to Queens, New York. Shteyngart’s vividly recounted immigrant’s tale tells a parallel story of family dysfunction and a growing self-hatred that, during his years at Oberlin College, manifested in out-of-control behavior that earned him the nickname Scary Gary and, later, led him to regrettable cruelties visited upon people who tried to help him.
Little Failure is also an account of Shteyngart’s growth as a writer. At important junctures in his life, his ability to write helped him overcome his social awkwardness to gain appreciative attention from his peers. “There is nothing as joyful as writing, even when the writing is twisted and full of . . . the self-hate that makes writing not only possible but necessary,” he says at one point. His need to succeed as a writer led Shteyngart at long last to enter psychotherapy, and the result, as the final chapters show, was transformative. Few writers have written about the soul-scorching experiences of their lives with such wit and ferocity as Shteyngart does in Little Failure. There is certainly no scurrying to safety here.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our Q&A with Shteyngart for Little Failure.