January 21, 2014

From the gifted novelist Gary Shteyngart, a hilarious memoir

hilarious memoirLittle Failure: A Memoir by Gary Shteyngart

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Memoirs are not my thing. I rarely read them unless I’m heavily invested in the author, either as an historical figure who can cast light on events I want to understand better, or as a writer whose work I love. The latter explains why I couldn’t wait to read Gary Shteyngart‘s new mid-life memoir, Little Failure.

Shteyngart’s three previously published books, all novels, are The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Absurdistan, and Super Sad True Love Story. I’ve read and enjoyed all three, especially the third one. (You can access my review of the book through the link embedded in its title.) It seems that, no matter what he’s writing, the man can’t help but be hilarious. The novels also suggest that Shteyngart’s life has been wracked with disruption and pain. (Isn’t that the lot of all our best humorists?) Yet this book is truly a hilarious memoir.

Born Igor Semyonovich Shteyngart in Leningrad 41 years ago, he was seven years old when he immigrated with his parents to New York City in 1979 as part of the huge wave of Soviet Jews who left the USSR for Israel or the USA in the late 1970s. He attended Hebrew school; the elite New York science high school, Stuyvesant; Oberlin College as an undergraduate; and finally Hunter College for an MFA in creative writing, studying under Chang-Rae Lee. He now teaches creative writing at Columbia University. Of course, you can learn all this from Wikipedia or other sources online — but you won’t understand what was going through Gary Shteyngart’s wildly creative mind and his oh-so-badly f***ed-up life unless you read Little Failure.

In Little Failure, the author dwells on his childhood as a young immigrant locked in a desperate love-hate relationship with his parents. He then describes in lesser detail his high school experiences as a doper and an alcoholic and his continuing travails in college. There’s little in the memoir about his life following his departure from Oberlin: other than vignettes from his troubled relationships with women, there are only hints and echoes from his work for nonprofits as a grant writer, his graduate studies, his teaching, and his much later life in the limelight as a distinguished novelist, the winner of many literary awards.

Little Failure is hilarious, but it’s a lot more than that: it’s brutally honest — often with an emphasis on brutality — and no one, least of all Shteyngart himself, escapes unscathed. It would be difficult to pigeonhole this memoir as the tale of an immigrant growing up in New York, or of the Jewish experience, or of a boy’s coming-of-age late in the 20th Century. Gary Shteyngart is sui generis. Read Little Failure. You’ll understand exactly what I mean. And isn’t that a sign of a truly successful memoir — one that helps you understand the human condition by delving deeply into one unique and interesting life?

For another memoir about Russia, but much more serious, see A true story of high finance and murder in Putin’s Russia.

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Mal Warwick