Shteyngart, Shteyngart: this guy is a literary superstar and wunderkind (even though he’s in his forties and didn’t publish his first novel until he was thirty, he still gets wunderkind status because he signed the deal for that novel before he even started his MFA programme) who doesn’t seem to be a fraction as well-known in the UK as he ought to be, given how smart and frenetic and hilarious and humane and (to get all clichéd) just damn readable his novels are. If you’re in the apparent minority who’ve read him, you’ll get it, and if you’re not, then here’s a chance to hop on the bandwagon before it gets its official British bandwagon certification stamp. Sure, Little Failure is a memoir, and it might seem odd to read the memoir of a writer you haven’t heard a whole lot about, but trust us on this: it’s a properly funny, poignant and engaging read. And although in this cloistered corner of Bookmunch Towers, we’re not big on memoirs, this is the kind of non-navel-gazing, non-predictable, non-name-dropping piece of non-self-promotion – an all round good read – that made us sit up mid-paragraph about a million times per chapter and beam happily at whatever misfortunate person happened to be sitting opposite us: read this. It’s excellent.
Backing up a little: so, Gary Shteyngart is a Russian-American Jewish novelist – that is, he moved to New York as a kid with his parents back in the late seventies. The book starts, typically enough, with his childhood memories of Leningrad and his parents’ backstories (WWII, deprivation, Christianity hooking up with Judaism, the young Gary’s fascination with Lenin, his asthma) and runs through his childhood in Queens (his thick accent and unpopularity; his semi-integration as the nerdish class clown, Gary the Gnu; his fear of his parents’ seemingly impending divorce; his mother’s ‘wolfish relations’); his teenage years at Stuyvesant (unrequited loves and booze); his years at university in Oberlin; his relationships with women; his fledgling writing career (three novels now and counting) and problems with alcohol; his fraught relationship with his mentor, a TV writer; and, over and above everything, his relationship with Russia, the Soviet Union, his parents, and with his (and their) immigrant status.
It sounds like your average memoir story arc, but it surpasses that: there’s no sense of self-congratulation, of woe-is-me-but-see-the-lessons-I-have-learnt, of now-I’m-in-the-Golden-Years about Little Failure, and neither does it cash in on the Hey-I’ve-Eaten-Lunch-With-David-Renmick school of celebrity life stories (yo, Paul McCartney!), even if, in fact, DR does briefly feature. So what makes this one special? There’s not a single sentence here that hasn’t been crafted with the same literary sensibility, humour and self-awareness as his novels, and at the same time there’s nothing overly crafted, too fictionalized or fake about it: the whole book’s suffused in a kind of questioning sadness and poignancy (about his family life, about his anger, about the cultural situation of the migrant) that rings very true and doesn’t get tidily fixed up and resolved by the final page. So instead of feeling like you’re being preached at by a self-satisfied Success who’s had an officially Interesting Life, you feel as though you’ve truly had a good sift through somebody’s pretty messed up, but generous, self-questioning brain. This isn’t a simple presentation of the life of an Immigrant Done Good, but an open-ended exploration of what it’s like to live with a set of expectations that you don’t know how to fulfill, whether those expectations are foisted on you by your relatives, your peers or yourself. And if that does sound navel-gazing (and it probably does), it really, actually, isn’t: Shteyngart’s representation of himself is more that of a confused, struggling normal (though ultra-talented) guy than that proselytizing dude who’s come through therapy and wants you to know how well he’s done. The complex and changing relationship he has with his parents, particularly including their reactions to his writing, is so honestly drawn it makes quite painful reading; the way he pinpoints how and when he’s mined his own life, and others’, to use in his fiction, and the way he describes his own sometime cruelty towards weaker kids, the bullied kid turned tormenter, is all done so thoroughly and analytically and yet with such humour that even while you’re seduced by the story of it, by the superb characterization, by the glorious and hilarious vibrancy of the settings, you’re aware that this is a guy still caught up in these battles, who still hasn’t got it all figured out – that he might be racking up book after brilliant book, but he’s still as messed up as any one of us.
And yeah, sure, he’s a smart cookie, and writers are manipulative bastards, so maybe the real GS isn’t anything like the Little Failure (his mum’s nickname for young Gary, or Igor as he was before they left Russia) and maybe this isn’t the most convincing memoir you’ll read between now and next Christmas. But we think otherwise, and all that besides, it’s a damn good story and a belly-laugh-inducing read.
Any Cop?: Shteyngart for President!