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Little Failure

Gary Shteyngart takes a dark, funny look at his Soviet-Jewish roots.

By Heller McAlpinContributor / January 6, 2014

Little Failure: A Memoir, by Gary Shteyngart, Random House, 357 pages

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Little Failure, Gary Shteyngart’s alternately hilarious and surprisingly sincere memoir, is written very much from the vantage point of success. Shteyngart has already published three highly acclaimed, scathingly funny satirical novels – “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook,” “Absurdistan,” and “Super Sad True Love Story” – and has been hailed as a successor to no less than Saul Bellow and Philip Roth.

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“Failurchka” – “Little Failure” – is a hybrid English-Russian “endearment” Shteyngart’s tough-love Soviet-born parents coined for their asthmatic, anxious only child after they emigrated from Leningrad to the United States in 1979, when he was 7. Another moniker was “Soplyak,” which translates as “Snotty” – hardly catchy-title material.

Shteyngart’s self-deprecating memoir takes apart and reassembles what he calls the “nesting doll of memory” to chronicle his path from a sickly “Marcel Proust-looking boy” obsessed with cosmonauts and Lenin to an aspiring Republican and awkward misfit at a conservative Hebrew day school in Queens, N.Y., where he learned to wield humor and storytelling to gain acceptance.

Although he managed to shed his Russian accent, his loneliness and sense of alienation clung to him through his years at Manhattan’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School, flannel-clad Oberlin College, and early jobs writing for nonprofits in New York City. He is unsparing in his description of the steady infusion of alcohol and marijuana with which he anesthetized himself. His extended, inebriated blue period is not only less unique than his earlier childhood, but, not surprisingly, also makes for less scintillating reading.

Shteyngart’s downward spiral was finally arrested in his late 20s when a mentor insisted he start psychoanalysis. Twelve years of intensive therapy gained him the perspective to turn “the rage and humor that are our chief inheritance” into literature – and, with this memoir, correct the “unfaithful record” of his life presented in his novels.

Readers eager for Shteyngart’s trademark caustic humor need look no further than the captions under family photographs, including this howler: “To become a cosmonaut, the author must first conquer his fear of heights on a ladder his father has built for that purpose. He must also stop wearing a sailor outfit and tights.”

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