Gary Shteyngart’s ‘Little Failure’ Is a Big Success


Writer Gary Shteyngart's 2014 memoir, Little Failures, is a study of culture, family and religion.

Like parents have done since time immemorial, Gary Shteyngart’s mother and father bestowed nicknames upon him when he was a little boy. Unlike the more typical sobriquets like “Pumpkin,” “Dumpling,” or “Cowboy,”  his father called him “Snotty;” his mother, “Failurchka,” Russian for “little failure.”

Since the age of Greek mythmaking, we have been taught that names have power, and Shteyngart’s latest book, a memoir titled Little Failure, is suffused with examples of how this axiom has impacted his life.

Monikers both kind and cruel were tossed his way by his classmates at the Solomon Schechter School of Queens he attended after his family emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1979; affectionate diminutives crafted for him by college friends and his first girlfriend; and, of course, those first given to him by his family.

Shteyngart’s mother could never have known her nickname for him would one day grace the cover of a best-selling book — and also provide the first of many humorous moments in a series of recollections that traverse a constantly shifting emotional landscape of the now acclaimed author’s life. He recounts his path from the de rigueur deprivations of his childhood in Leningrad to the eye-watering cornucopia of the Lower East Side; the seismic shift from loving Lenin to revering Reagan; and the journey from being an ostracized immigrant in a Jewish day school to being just one of hundreds of non-native born students at Stuyvesant High School in lower Manhattan.

Those who have read any of Shteyngart’s previous three novels — The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story — or his work for the The New York Times, The New Yorker and GQ, among other publications, will be familiar with his engaging narratives that incorporate elements of his life into whatever topic he is writing about.

He says that one of the reasons he wrote his memoir, part of which is culled from some of his magazine articles, is so that he could move on to write differently in the future. “I have used so much material from my own life in previous books, I kind of wanted to write a book that would use so much of that material that I could write something else in my life, not just my typical Russian Jewish nebbish character,” he says, speaking recently in advance of an appearance next week at the National Museum of American Jewish History.

“I started thinking, I’m 42 — that’s like 78 in Russian years — it was time to put that stuff down for posterity’s sake.”

As Shteyngart himself points out, his life story is “really the story of the 20th century in some ways.”

The program, sponsored jointly by the museum and Temple University’s Feinstein Center for American Jewish History, is not part of a book tour; Little Failure was first published in January 2014.

“But we weren’t going to say ‘No’ just because the book came out a year ago,” emphasizes Emily August, the museum’s director of public programs. “He is so funny, so poignant, and his way of talking about the contemporary immigrant story straddles these two worlds.”

The opportunity to present Shteyngart at the museum arose when Lila Corwin Ber­man, director of the Feinstein Center, asked August if she would be interested in hosting a conversation between Shteyngart and his friend and interlocutor, Sasha Senderovich, an assistant professor of Jewish studies at the University of Colorado.

Berman had been working with Senderovich on creating a national initiative for a shared Jewish studies course on humor. Bringing the two of them in for a conversation, she says, would “bridge the gulf between public scholarship and public conversation. We don’t know a lot about the people we ‘freed’ and these people are now writing about what the experience meant to them,” Berman says, referring to the tens of thousands of Soviet Jews who came to this country. “They are creating a whole new genre of Jewish immigrant literature — what it meant to leave the Soviet Union and come to America.”

Shteyngart's instrumental role in sparking that genre came from a lightning-bolt moment, when he realized there was no literature on the Russian Jewish immigrant experience of the latter part of the 20th century. It has propelled him to publish thousands of pages on the subject — all of which, he notes in Little Failure, were written without a single instance of writer’s block — an acknowledgement tantamount in superstition protocol to a baseball position player talking about his pitcher’s no-hitter.

The Manhattan-based Shteyn­gart laughs when asked about this. “Well, now that I have started a book that is so different from any experience I have ever had, I bet” that writer’s block “is really going to start. I’m not going to have this fallback of, ‘Oh, I remember this very vivid story, I can just launch into this.’ I spoke too soon, perhaps.”

The author wouldn’t reveal specifics of his next project, but it would be a shame if his new trajectory takes him too far from what comprises the densely fraught, messily beating heart of Little Failure — the relationship between him and his parents. Despite their shortcomings, many of which are detailed in painfully evocative prose, his love for them as a unit and as individuals imbues the pages of the book. “Many people have pointed out that the book functions as a kind of love letter to my parents, and I agree with that,” he affirms. “The only way you can express love and admiration for people is to write about them as honestly as you can. A Hallmark love letter doesn’t work; you need to be as truthful as possible.”

Asked about the ramifications of being so truthful in print, especially knowing how upset his parents have gotten previously over what they felt were unfair characterizations of them, Shteyngart says that it hasn’t been a problem this time around.

“They have never read it,” he responds. “All of my books have been translated into Russian, but this one hasn’t — no one has bought the rights to it yet. Their English can’t keep up with it, so I got a free pass!”

As a relatively new father himself — his son, Johnny, was born to Shteyngart and his wife, Esther Won, in 2013 — Shteyngart’s desire to be a parent informed and influenced his decision to write Little Failure. “I wanted to make sure I understood the good and the bad about my own childhood — and would be able to replicate the first and not the second,” he says.

And what about a nickname for his son?

“I haven’t picked one out yet,” he answers before pausing for comedic effect. “But it will be respectful.”


Little Failure: An Evening With Gary Shteyngart
May 12 at 7 p.m.
National Museum of American Jewish History
Fifth and Market streets, Philadelphia; 215-923-3811


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