Little Failure : A Memoir
by Gary Shteyngart

Overview -

After three acclaimed novels, Gary Shteyngart turns to memoir in a candid, witty, deeply poignant account of his life so far.  Read more...

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    Little Failure (Paperback)
    Published: 2014-10-01
    Publisher: Random House Trade

More About Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart

After three acclaimed novels, Gary Shteyngart turns to memoir in a candid, witty, deeply poignant account of his life so far. Shteyngart shares his American immigrant experience, moving back and forth through time and memory with self-deprecating humor, moving insights, and literary bravado. The result is a resonant story of family and belonging that feels epic and intimate and distinctly his own.
Born Igor Shteyngart in Leningrad during the twilight of the Soviet Union, the curious, diminutive, asthmatic boy grew up with a persistent sense of yearning--for food, for acceptance, for words--desires that would follow him into adulthood. At five, Igor wrote his first novel, "Lenin and His Magical Goose, "and his grandmother paid him a slice of cheese for every page.
In the late 1970s, world events changed Igor's life. Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev made a deal: exchange grain for the safe passage of Soviet Jews to America--a country Igor viewed as the enemy. Along the way, Igor became Gary so that he would suffer one or two fewer beatings from other kids. Coming to the United States from the Soviet Union was equivalent to stumbling off a monochromatic cliff and landing in a pool of pure Technicolor.
Shteyngart's loving but mismatched parents dreamed that he would become a lawyer or at least a "conscientious toiler" on Wall Street, something their distracted son was simply not cut out to do. Fusing English and Russian, his mother created the term "Failurchka"--Little Failure--which she applied to her son. With love. Mostly.
As a result, Shteyngart operated on a theory that he would fail at everything he tried. At being a writer, at being a boyfriend, and, most important, at being a worthwhile human being.
Swinging between a Soviet home life and American aspirations, Shteyngart found himself living in two contradictory worlds, all the while wishing that he could find a real home in one. And somebody to love him. And somebody to lend him sixty-nine cents for a McDonald's hamburger.
Provocative, hilarious, and inventive, "Little Failure" reveals a deeper vein of emotion in Gary Shteyngart's prose. It is a memoir of an immigrant family coming to America, as told by a lifelong misfit who forged from his imagination an essential literary voice and, against all odds, a place in the world.
Praise for "Little Failure
" A] keenly observed tale of exile, coming-of-age and family love: It's raw, comic and deeply affecting, a testament to Mr. Shteyngart's abilities to write with both self-mocking humor and introspective wisdom, sharp-edged sarcasm and aching--and yes, Chekhovian--tenderness."--Michiko Kakutani, "The New York Times
"Dazzling . . . "Little Failure" is a rich, nuanced memoir. It's an immigrant story, a coming-of-age story, a becoming-a-writer story, and a becoming-a-mensch story, and in all these ways it is, unambivalently, a success."--Meg Wolitzer, "NPR
"What a beautiful mess . . . Shteyngart has] not just his own distinct identity, but all the loose ends and unresolved contradictions out of which great literature is made." --Charles Simic, "The New York Review of Books
"As vivid, original and funny as anything] contemporary U.S. literature has to offer."--"Los Angeles Times"

  • ISBN-13: 9780679643753
  • ISBN-10: 0679643753
  • Publisher: Random House
  • Publish Date: January 2014
  • Page Count: 368

Related Categories

Books > Biography & Autobiography > Personal Memoirs
Books > Biography & Autobiography > Literary

Publishers Weekly Reviews

Publishers Weekly® Reviews

  • Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
  • Review Date: 2013-10-28
  • Reviewer: Staff

One afternoon in 1996, a book titled St. Petersburg: Architecture of the Tsars becomes Shytengart’s madeleine, carrying him back in time and memory to his childhood in Moscow and launching him on a career of writing about the past in his novels (Absurdistan). In his typical laugh-aloud approach, the acclaimed novelist carries us with him on his journey, from his birth in Leningrad and his decision to become a writer at age five to his immigration to America and his family’s settling in New York City in 1979. Adolescent misadventure, his days at Oberlin College, his psychoanalysis, and his struggles after college to wend his way through the workaday world of Wall Street toward becoming a writer round out the trip. Shytengart spends much of his pre-adolescence glued to the television set, watching shows like Gilligan’s Island, which causes him to ask himself questions about American culture: “Is it really possible that a country as powerful as the United States would not be able to locate two of its best citizens lost at sea, to wit the millionaire and his wife?” Shytengart’s self-deprecating humor contains the sharp-edged twist of the knife of melancholy in this take of a young man “desperately trying to have a history, a past.” (Jan.)

BookPage Reviews

From Russia, with love (& tears)

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.

BAM Customer Reviews