Gary Shteyngart’s memoir Little Failure makes me feel. It throws me back to being raised in Queens by immigrant parents and falling behind in school because I couldn’t speak a word of English. And like Shteyngart, how I loved storytelling so much that I learned English quickly, just so I could write (nerd alert). Shteyngart takes me back to how uncomfortable it was to be myself, having an ethnic-sounding name and face. How embarrassed I was by my parents’ non-Americanness. How I felt like a Harry Harlow monkey re: my parents’ love-hate Tiger “parenting techniques.” What a disappointment I felt to them when it became clear I would never become an Ivy Leaguer. But whatever, none of that actually fucking matters, because Shteyngart’s memoir tells a story of how you can still turn into the person you want to be. You don’t have to be a Russian Jew or a First Generation child to relate to Little Failure. You’ve been a teenager before, right?
What Shteyngart delivers in the story of his life is a wide-angle view of growing up as the ultimate underdog when cultural identity gets in the way. His goofiness and acute humor never dulls as they integrate seamlessly with the tragic and heartbreaking tales of parents’ haunting past in Russia. Like all good coming-of-age stories, Shteyngart’s life is heightened by lust, drugs, love, political homelands, Asian culture discovery, therapy, a brush of gayness, and of course, literature. Young Shteyngart starts his career as a creative writer early in life, paid in slices of cheese by his supportive grandma. He takes the reader to all the nooks and crannies of his life, from his snip at eight years-old (“The next year I get the present every boy wants. A circumcision.”) to the swelling violin-sounds of his Big Time Book Deal (“What just happened to me? Something happened that was the opposite of failure.”). From Leningrad to Queens to Oberlin to Russia and back again, he’s now four books deep, developing a TV series based on his last bestseller Super Sad True Love Story, married to a beauty of a Korean wife (from what I can tell on Google Images), and he’s also a first-time dad to a newborn. Gary Shteyngart: An inspiration and international treasure, a poster child for “Everything Will Be Okay — But Work At It.”
Shteyngart’s forte as a storyteller has always stemmed from his Russian-Jewish-American influences, and with Little Failure, you get the origin story for his references in previous novels. For instance, “Little Failure” is also the nickname of the protagonist in The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and just like his own reality, Shteyngart’s Russian hero in Super Sad has a Korean-American love interest. If you’ve read Shteyngart’s books already then Little Failure is a no-brainer worth queuing up because there’s no way you won’t like it. You could also read the book simply for laughs. And if you’re completely unfamiliar with Shteyngart all together, then I don’t know why you’re still reading this. Start one of his novels immediately. The only thing now is, the cow that is Shteyngart’s “My Russian Immigrant Thing For Books” has been milked dry to the bone — I don’t know what else more there is for him to say about this topic. That said, I’m especially looking forward to what’s in store for Shteyngart next, because I have no idea what he’ll roll out with. Too bad for all of us, we’ll just have to wait a while.