THERE’S a bit in Gary Shteyngart’s memoir, Little Failure, in which he recounts how his parents call him, distraught after a reporter suggests after meeting them, in a Jewish paper no less, that they resemble the parents of the hero of his novel. “‘Mudak,’ [my father] says. My mother’s howling takes up the rest of conversation. The Russian word mudak stems from the ancient term for ‘testicles’ and in a rural sense connotes a castrated piglet… ‘We don’t ever want to speak to you again,’ my mother is shouting at me. If you won’t speak to me, it is better not to live! Those are the traditional expected words on my end. But what I say instead is: ‘Nu, khorosho. Kak vam luchshe.’ Well, that’s fine. Do as you please. And that stops the howling.”
This is just one of the many, many, moving anecdotes — perhaps even relatable for those who have tough “I’m not budging until you marry that girl/boy” parents. But, as the writer explains to a girlfriend who asks why his parents are mean to him: “it’s just cultural.” Even the title of his memoir, the translation of the Russian word his mother called him, stems ostensibly from love, a notion that must seem appalling for many folks not used to the tough approach to parenting in this neck of the woods.
Shteyngart tells his story, and his parents’ too, from the time he left the USSR for the US as a seven-year-old highly asthmatic boy (a failure in itself), in what has rightfully been hailed as a delightful memoir. And yes, he’s a 40-year-old who’s written a memoir which doesn’t fall into the popular categories of leadership (US presidential hopeful), finding yourself (Eat Pray Love), what it was like to grow up in Africa (Boyhood) or surviving addiction (Million Little Pieces). Shteyngart has written a wonderful story about an immigrant family in America in the 1980s and the challenges they face as they desperately attempt to assimilate and forget all the prejudices they faced back home — but not necessarily shed all their prejudices: they fear the blacks.
They decide to settle in New York, Forest Hills, where they build their new life, shedding memories, accents and, in young Shteyngart’s case, his first name — Igor to Gary. And then we learn that he soon bids farewell to his foreskin in a circumcision ceremony. The book provides a rather hilarious remembering of it, though it’s not the only story that will make you laugh.
As we watch Shteyngart grow from an awkward Russian immigrant boy into an American slacker, complete with series of photographs to accompany each chapter, it’s clear that this boy who wrote his first story at the age of five — he received a bite of cheese from his grandmother for every page he wrote — was always going to be a writer. Even though this is an anathema to his (who else, but) parents who want him to take the course of law school. But he fails to get in and chooses to go to Oberlin where he pursues liberal arts. (And feels guilty about doing so because that is what rich kids do, not the children of immigrants.)
But what readers will appreciate most is the candour with which the writer uses his therapy sessions to introspect on the immigrant experience — he’s not American enough when he lands and then at college, he’s not an authentic Russian voice — and his relationship with his parents. He analyses it without any drama, anger or bitterness of the “why didn’t you hug me more, Mama / Papa” variety.
This must have been a difficult book to write because the subject matter is so close to the heart but it is a delight to read; a coming of age story, a coming to America story, a going back home story and a story that you’ll remember for a long time story.
Little Failure (MEMOIR) By Gary Shteyngart Random House, US ISBN 978-0-679-64375-3 368pp.