Little Failure: A Memoir

Image of Little Failure: A Memoir
Release Date: 
January 8, 2014
Random House
Reviewed by: 

“That ability to deal with it—a staple in stories of charming North American nebbishes like Herbie Bookbinder, Augie March, and Duddy Kravitz—may be what endears us most to the perennially woebegone young underdog Gary . . .”

Opening Night of the Sochi Winter Olympics 2014, cast as broadly as current worldwide media could manage, elicits this from Soviet-era renegade/favorite satiric son Gary (né Igor) Shteyngart on Facebook:  “Please join me in celebrating 41 years of not giving a damn about the Winter Olympics.” 

Polite (“Please”), but, finally, brash; inviting (“join me”), but profane in a low-octane traditional way (“not giving a damn”); timely, but having worked itself loose from time constraints (at least from the TV schedule): it’s an utterance in keeping with his recent memoir Little Failure, which itself is in keeping with his previous work, the surprisingly ingratiating satirical novels The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Absurdistan, and Super Sad True Love Story

From the opening pages of Shteyngart’s new book you get an equally clear sense that there are some damns in there waiting to be given. He opens with a cliffhanger that won’t be unhung until the final pages, a panic attack at the Strand Annex in Manhattan prompted by an image in a coffee table book of the Chesme church in St. Petersburg, where a moment of unforgivable abuse when the author is five years old sets the stage for potential emotional haunting.

Vot buton rozy. There you go: the Rosebud. (Shteyngart often supplies some nice hunks of transliterated Russian, obligingly translated.) And in the course of retrieving that memory on a trip back to St. Petersburg with his parents, Gary finds out that one of his parents underwent psychotherapy, too, albeit the harrowing Soviet kind. On that culminating trip Gary also learns what a toll his family writings have taken on his folks.  Hardy, loving souls—they can deal with it.

That ability to deal with it—a staple in stories of charming North American nebbishes like Herbie Bookbinder, Augie March, and Duddy Kravitz—may be what endears us most to the perennially woebegone young underdog Gary and makes it totally surprising when, late in the book, he starts telling us how everybody thinks he’s a jerk. 

Of course by then he has moved on from the tough-loving cocoon of the Solomon Schechter School of Queens and begun to act up a bit at Oberlin. Maybe the surprise comes because we like him for entertaining us so much—also because he has really soft-pedaled anything truly unsavory. 

The funniest moment in the book may be turning a page and finding a photo of Gary the goofy high schooler so quickly replaced by one of Gary the long-haired, bearded, lotharesque undergrad, almost leering with small-liberal-arts-college cosmopolitesse. 

Much as this photo is appealing, the keeper is one of little Igor, lonely at Hebrew School but kept at home after a bad asthma attack, yearning to return to Leningrad and amazingly enacting in real time, with a toy plane, his and his family’s return trip:

“I launch my plane down the runway of our cluttered apartment, then I sit there with the plane in my hand for the eight and a half hours it takes to get to Rome, humming to myself the sounds of the jet engine. . . . Finally I land the plane on the green army cot (also known as Leonardo da Vinci Airport) and the next day resume the journey to Leningrad.” 

Here’s more: “Soviet refugees do not freely use the diagnosis obsessive-compulsive disorder. All I know back then is that my plastic plane must never touch the floor until it is time to land, else all the passengers, my whole family, will die.  When my asthma reappears and I can no longer zhhh and mmmm, I will tie the plane to a string hanging from the army cot so that it is technically still in the air, then sit there and watch it like the obedient child that I am, while family life takes off and crashes all around me.” 

Shteyngart doesn’t seem constitutionally capable of writing two unentertaining sentences in a row, but mistakes do happen. “The middle half of his twenties are a wasteland of depression and anxiety.” “I can’t raise up against . . . my parents. . . .”  “He also has no children, which is fortuitous for me . . .”  “. . . a millennia . . .”   “. . . untrammeled Russian bread . . .”   “Is impossible to walk down Nevsky, alone or with my parents, and not feel the oppression of history . . .”  (maybe just a typo, but a charming one). Such blemishes are infrequent; few writers in his age cohort write with such glorious finesse.

Like his great forbears Twain and Waugh, whose Connecticut Yankee and Vile Bodies end in painfully damaged worlds, Shteyngart is not averse to facing dire outcomes. His Super Sad True Love Story brings us finally into a New York that has been cruelly shocked and to some extent awed by invading Venezuelans. His own memoir ends with his version of the mourner’s Kaddish in St. Petersburg, where there is no more deserving place to do it.

And what do he and his parents hear? “A small airplane, surely our heraldic symbol, is landing nearby.” 

He deserves some credit and thanks for the extraordinary lengths to which he has gone to keep his little plane in the air and keep his family alive. It works. Little Failure is not one.