Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart (5 out of 5)
I like Gary Shteyngart. I read his first book, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, and loved it so much I put it up on the recommends at the other bookstore I used to work at. I read and enjoyed Absurdistan, although not as much as the Debutante. I did not read Super Sad True Love Story, but my coworker Dan did and he loved it, so that’s enough to tell me that I will get to it someday. In the meantime, here comes this little memoir into my hands sometime in the last month (holidays, blur, no idea when I received the advance). I won a giveaway for it. I’m glad I did, for it now becomes my first 5 star book of 2014.
Gary Shteyngart’s isn’t a super sad, normal childhood tale. Nor is it filled with the infectious joy of one who chased rainbows, unicorns, and ice cream trucks. He’s born in Leningrad to a family of Jews, and at the tender age of 9, moves to the United States (Queens, New York, to be exact- talk about a hell of a reality check). WWII was brutal on the Russians, and Shteyngart’s parents grew up in that time. Melancholia and paranoia pepper his childhood. His parents have childhood monikers for him- Snotty and Little Failure. It’s hard to climb out of that boat of dark thought when you’re sailing on those waters on a daily basis. His parents continue to influence him through life, and not in the ways a parent should influence their lost-at-sea son. His mother continually doubts his career desire to be a writer; his father delivers stern and often mocking soliloquies to Gary and those who end up in his life (watch for the cucumber story, it gives a good indicator of the type of walls that Gary tried to knock down through the years). Despite all of these demoralizing paternal testimonies, Shteyngart somehow manages to keep his self-deprecating humor throughout the book. There are many parts where I was genuinely sad for what he went through, then moments later, reading his take on it, I was laughing aloud. That memorable humor is what keeps this book from Oprah Book Club Status (ie: so depressing that you often think of listening to Foreigner’s Greatest Hits on repeat for the rest of your life rather than read another gut-wrenching sentence).
Shteyngart heads off to high school, and then to a college in Oberlin, Ohio (not as exciting as you would hope) where he becomes friends with substances far and wide. Most of his education is blown off at the mercy of a glass of something strong and the closest bong, and as upfront as he is about this fact, you can sense some regret that it worked out that way. You’re with Shteyngart when he stumbles trying to learn English while reading parts of his stories aloud to class. He discusses with forthrightness his sexuality and attempts at romances are nothing short of entertaining. This is normally the part where I would get bored; but again, Shteyngart offers no excuses for his behaviors; only admitting them and as usual, keeping his humor and quirkiness at the forefront. Shteyngart’s writing is a mistress waiting patiently in the shadows all the way through the memoir; from his first attempt, a fictional tale of Lenin and a goose. He has his moments of douchebaggery, namely bullying a kid who isn’t as popular as him, but overall, he has a dark side there that seems at moments to overtake him. However, the writing keeps him going; he never loses that beacon in front of him, no matter how hard life is. He also never loses his sharp wit, and that really keeps the balance in this book.
There’s honestly nothing about this book that I can find wrong. I wish there had been more time spent on cultivating his current craft. I love his sense of humor and mastery of sarcastic bon mots. In fact, there isn’t a single damn thing I didn’t enjoy about this novel. Go get yourself a copy, sit down, and prepare to be captured by his story.