Tuesday, May 13, 2014
'Little Failure': Coming of Age as a Jewish Russian Immigrant
It took me some time with this one. I don't know what my barrier was to Gary Shteyngart's memoir "Little Failure." It has everything I love - humor, an almost unbelievable coming of age tale involving immigrant parents and the less than perfect son, wanting to please and separate from parents all at once, embarrassing moments in elementary school and middle school, underachieving in high school and college, and then the quest to become a writer and lover and human being. I love that stuff. I love memoirs that are raw, honest, and ache with the quest to find one's truth.
It's all there, but something stopped me from jumping up and down every time I picked up this book. Something stopped me from laughing out loud in the funny sections (and there were so many that sometimes it's easy to overlook just how funny this book is). Now that it's over, I can appreciate the journey of the book even more as it meanders from Gary's Russian roots to his family's immigration to Queens, New York. From there it travels beyond his childhood to Gary's high school and college years where he decides he wants to be a writer and even beyond that into his adulthood of failed relationships and failed decisions. Finally it travels back to where it started, in Russia, as Gary sees new aspects of his father's life and puts together pieces of his own. This book truly is a triumph of a memoir even if I felt like I had to slog through it in order to finish it.
There is no doubt in my mind that Shteyngart possesses an amazing writing gift. These essays have been strung together in dizzying literary heft. At times the writing is dense with details and others light with humor and then back to a dark sense of self-deprecation. That self-deprecation (as the title suggests) stems from Gary's childhood. His mother's nickname for him was "Little Failure" (how sweet) and his father's lovingly called him "Snotty" due to Gary's serious asthma issues.
I loved portions of this book like when his family receives the Publishers Clearing House that they won $10,000,000 and they believe it until they "find out the truth quickly and brutally"and he ponders that "In Russia the government was constantly telling us lies . . . but we cannot imagine that they would lie to our faces like that here in America, the Land of This and the Home of That." I also loved his descriptions of The Solomon Schechter School of Queens and his painfully funny retelling of his circumcision at age 8 ("In school, my penis is trying to put on a brave face. It can't tell anyone what happened or they'll make fun of its owner, Igor, or Gary, or whatever").
At times, though, the writing felt a bit too dense with too much meandering back and forth and then the repetition of some details due to the essay format being pieced together into a memoir. The self-deprecation part of the memoir gets a little old, but honestly, that's just Gary coming to terms with himself. He isn't all that likable, but at the same time there is a quality of sincerity in "Scary Gary" at Oberlin College where he spends most of his days drunk and high and underachieving as much as possible as he listens to Beatles records for college credit. He's brutally real about his shortcomings and his life disappointments.
What I ultimately can take away from this book is that even our little failures (and in Gary's life there are many) can become huge successes when we are real about them. I learned Jewish Russian history and saw a side of New York City that I never saw before - the plight of the modern immigrant, the hopes and dreams of his family, their struggles, their failures, their intimate moments as a family trying to discover their new identity while retaining their culture and history. Gary sees himself as a flawed human being (as we all are) and can also recognize his own talent as a writer.
Did I laugh the way that I do when I read David Sedaris? No. Did I emote the way that I do when I read Frank McCourt's immigrant experiences? No. Did I feel that I had read an amazing literary voice that will be considered one of the greatest contemporary voices. Absolutely.