In certain literary circles, Gary Shteyngart is known as the talented author of a handful of novels as well as a writing teacher at Columbia University, who famously had both then-student James Franco and friend Paul Giamatti appear in the book trailer for his last novel, SUPER SAD TRUE LOVE STORY, in which he portrayed himself as a Russian illiterate who has taken the New York City literati by storm. (Fun fact: Franco made another cameo in the recent book trailer for this book, where he and the author don matching pink bathrobes. You can see it here.) But did you know that Shteyngart comes by that Russian accent honestly? And while far from illiterate, as far as his parents are concerned, he wasn’t a doctor or a lawyer, so he might as well be.
The author is born Igor Shteyngart in Leningrad in 1972 (technically, the name means “Igor Stone Horn: I have clearly spent 39 years unaware that my real destiny was to go through life as a Bavarian porn star…”), but his name is quickly changed to the more American-sounding “Gary” once his family emigrates to the U.S in 1978, so that he “would suffer one or two fewer beatings,” Shteyngart spends much of his young life trying to reconcile the two: his Russian ancestry and his new American way of life. His father harbored dreams of being an opera singer, but like most responsible Russian men, he succumbed to the practical and became a mechanical engineer. He never let his son forget his lost dreams, or how he envied his son’s: “I burn with a black envy (chornaya zavist’) toward you. I should have been an artist as well.”
Encouraged in his writing at an early age by his loving Grandma Galya, who pays for every page he writes with a slice of cheese, Shteyngart pens his first "novel," LENIN AND HIS MAGICAL GOOSE, about the former Russian leader who meets a talking goose and their decision to invade Finland together. Not bad for a five year-old trying to earn his cheese.
After a move from Leningrad to Moscow, the family still struggles and soon realizes that leaving Mother Russia is the only option --- not an easy decision since many family members, including his mother’s mother, ill with dementia, and his aunt Tanya, who is her caretaker, will be left behind. Young Igor (soon to become Gary) doesn’t fully appreciate the gravity of what’s at stake:
“Unbeknownst to me, the Soviet Union is falling apart. The grain harvests have been terrible; there is hardly enough grain to feed the masses or keep them fully drunk. Meanwhile, in the United States, a grassroots movement to free Soviet Jews from their polyester captivity has gained momentum. And so, the American president Jimmy Carter has reached a deal with the Russians. In exchange for tons of grain and some high technology, presumably television sets that won’t explode with regularity, the USSR will allow many of its Jews to leave. Russia gets the grain it needs to run; America gets the Jews it needs to run: all in all, an excellent trade deal.” And so the Family Shteyngart will begin again in America, with stops in Vienna and Italy on their way.
When the Shteyngarts arrive in America, they settle in the Kew Gardens section of Queens, New York, and so begins young Gary’s immersion into all things American. It’s hard to relate to your schoolmates when you neither watch TV nor speak English very well. But slowly, over time, and with many missteps (some hilarious, some awkward), the author assimilates into American culture, attending Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan and, later, the liberal arts college Oberlin before stumbling into a writing career.
The title LITTLE FAILURE comes from the nickname bestowed upon Shteyngart by his mother, (his father called him “Snotty”), so you can see that the author already had a leg up on the self-deprecating department. But the title encapsulates the heart of the memoir: no matter how well we might think we are doing --- at our jobs, in our relationships --- all it takes is one barbed comment from a parent to strip away all the confidence you spent years trying to gain (or, in some cases, fake). But that’s not to say there isn’t love there. It’s just that complicated love you often witness between immigrant parents and their children largely raised in the U.S. It’s the old way vs. the new way; tradition vs. trend. And no matter how many literary laurels you may gather, this loving battle will always rage on.
Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on January 24, 2014