Little Failure: A Memoir

Little Failure: A Memoir

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by Gary Shteyngart

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Little Failure is the all too true story of an immigrant family betting its future on America, as told by a lifelong misfit who finally finds a place for himself in the world through books and words. In 1979, a little boy dragging a ginormous fur hat and an overcoat made from the skin of some Soviet woodland creature steps off the plane at New York’s JFK International Airport and into his new American life. His troubles are just beginning. For the former Igor Shteyngart, coming to the United States from the Soviet Union is like stumbling off a monochromatic cliff and landing in a pool of Technicolor. Careening between his Soviet home life and his American aspirations, he finds himself living in two contradictory worlds, wishing for a real home in one. He becomes so strange to his parents that his mother stops bickering with his father long enough to coin the phrase failurchka—“little failure”—which she applies to her once-promising son. With affection. Mostly. From the terrors of Hebrew School to a crash course in first love to a return visit to the homeland that is no longer home, Gary Shteyngart has crafted a ruthlessly brave and funny memoir of searching for every kind of love—family, romantic, and of the self.

BONUS: This edition includes a reading group guide.

Praise for Little Failure

“Hilarious and moving . . . The army of readers who love Gary Shteyngart is about to get bigger.”The New York Times Book Review
“A memoir for the ages . . . brilliant and unflinching.”—Mary Karr
“Dazzling . . . a rich, nuanced memoir . . . It’s an immigrant story, a coming-of-age story, a becoming-a-writer story, and a becoming-a-mensch story, and in all these ways it is, unambivalently, a success.”—Meg Wolitzer, NPR
“Literary gold . . .  [a] bruisingly funny memoir.”Vogue
“A giant success.”—Entertainment Weekly
“[Little Failure] finds the delicate balance between sidesplitting and heartbreaking.”—O: The Oprah Magazine
“Should become a classic of the immigrant narrative genre.”—The Miami Herald
“As vivid, original and funny as any that contemporary U.S. literature has to offer.”—Los Angeles Times
“The very best memoirs perfectly toe the line between heartbreak and humor, and Shteyngart does just that.”—Esquire
“Touching, insightful . . . [Shteyngart] nimbly achieves the noble Nabokovian goal of letting sentiment in without ever becoming sentimental.”—The Washington Post
“[Shteyngart is] a successor to no less than Saul Bellow and Philip Roth.”—The Christian Science Monitor

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Editorial Reviews

At the age of five, Igor Shteyngart became a professional writer. For his first novel, entitled Lenin and His Magical Goose, this diminutive Leningrad native received from his patron grandmother exactly one piece of cheese per page. Unfortunately, greater fame and sustenance would have to wait for the future novelist (Super Sad True Love Story; Absurdistan). Until then, he would become a major disappointment for his loving, but materialistic mother, who crowned him with the neologism Failurchka. Little Failure recaptures the excitement, expectations, and steep learning curve of the family's move to the United States when Igor (soon to be Gary) was only seven. Combining hilarious stories and refreshing insights, this memoir reinforces Shteyngart's reputation as a talented storyteller.

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Little Failure

A Memoir

By Gary Shteyngart

Random House LLC

Copyright © 2014 Gary Shteyngart
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8129-8249-7


The Church and the Helicopter

A year after graduating college, I worked downtown in the immense shadows of the World Trade Center, and as part of my freewheeling, four-hour daily lunch break I would eat and drink my way past these two giants, up Broadway, down Fulton Street, and over to the Strand Book Annex. In 1996, people still read books and the city could support an extra branch of the legendary Strand in the Financial District, which is to say that stockbrokers, secretaries, government functionaries—everybody back then was expected to have some kind of inner life.

In the previous year I had tried being a paralegal for a civil rights law firm, but that did not work out well. The paralegaling involved a lot of detail, way more detail than a nervous young man with a ponytail, a small substance-abuse problem, and a hemp pin on his cardboard tie could handle. This was as close as I would ever come to fulfilling my parents' dreams of my becoming a lawyer. Like most Soviet Jews, like most immigrants from Communist nations, my parents were deeply conservative, and they never thought much of the four years I had spent at my liberal alma mater, Oberlin College, studying Marxist politics and book-writing. On his first visit to Oberlin my father stood on a giant vagina painted in the middle of the quad by the campus lesbian, gay, and bisexual organization, oblivious to the rising tide of hissing and camp around him, as he enumerated to me the differences between laser-jet and ink-jet printers, specifically the price points of the cartridges. If I'm not mistaken, he thought he was standing on a peach.

I graduated summa cum laude and this improved my profile with Mama and Papa, but when I spoke to them it was understood that I was still a disappointment. Because I was often sick and runny nosed as a child (and as an adult) my father called me Soplyak, or Snotty. My mother was developing an interesting fusion of English and Russian and, all by herself, had worked out the term Failurchka, or Little Failure. That term made it from her lips into the overblown manuscript of a novel I was typing up in my spare time, one whose opening chapter was about to be rejected by the important writing program at the University of Iowa, letting me know that my parents weren't the only ones to think that I was nothing.

Realizing that I was never going to amount to much, my mother, working her connections as only a Soviet Jewish mama can, got me a job as a "staff writer" at an immigrant resettlement agency downtown, which involved maybe thirty minutes of work per year, mostly proofing brochures teaching newly arrived Russians the wonders of deodorant, the dangers of AIDS, and the subtle satisfaction of not getting totally drunk at some American party.

In the meantime, the Russian members of our office team and I got totally drunk at some American party. Eventually we were all laid off, but before that happened I wrote and rewrote great chunks of my first novel and learned the Irish pleasures of matching gin martinis with steamed corned beef and slaw at the neighborhood dive, the name of which is, if I recall correctly, the Blarney Stone. I'd lie there on top of my office desk at 2:00 p.m., letting out proud Hibernian cabbage farts, my mind dazed with high romantic feeling. The mailbox of my parents' sturdy colonial in Little Neck, Queens, continued to bulge with the remnants of their American dream for me, the pretty brochures from graduate school dropping in quality from Harvard Law School to Fordham Law School to the John F. Kennedy School of Government (sort of like law school, but not really) to the Cornell Department of City and Regional Planning, and finally to the most frightening prospect for any immigrant family, the master of fine arts program in creative writing at the University of Iowa.

"But what kind of profession is this, writer?" my mother would ask. "You want to be this?"

I want to be this.

At the Strand Book Annex I stuffed my tote with specimens from the 50-percent-discounted trade paperbacks aisle, sifting through the discarded review copies, looking for someone just like me on the back cover: a young goateed boulevardier, a desperately urban person, obsessed with the Orwells and Dos Passoses, ready for another Spanish Civil War if only those temperamental Spanishers would get around to having one. And if I found such a doppelganger I would pray that his writing wasn't good. Because the publication pie was only so big. Surely these blue-blooded American publishers, those most Random of Houses, would see right through my overeager immigrant prose and give the ring to some jerk from Brown, his junior year at Oxford or Salamanca giving him all the pale color needed for a marketable bildungsroman.

After handing over six dollars to the Strand, I would run back to my office to swallow all 240 pages of the novel in one go, while my Russian coworkers hooted it up next door with their vodka-fueled poetry. I was desperately looking for the sloppy turn of phrase or the MFA cliché that would mark the novel in question inferior to the one gestating in my office computer (idiotic working title: The Pyramids of Prague).

One day after courting gastric disaster by eating two portions of Wall Street vindaloo I exploded into the Strand's Art and Architecture section, my then $29,000-a-year salary no match for the handsome price tag on a Rizzoli volume of nudes by Egon Schiele. But it wasn't a melancholic Austrian who would begin to chip away at the alcoholic and doped-up urban gorilla I was steadily becoming. It wouldn't be those handsome Teutonic nudes that would lead me on the path back to the uncomfortable place.

The book was called St. Petersburg: Architecture of the Tsars, the baroque blue hues of the Smolny Convent Cathedral practically jumping off the cover. With its six pounds of thick, glossy weight, it was, and still is, a coffee-table book. This was in itself a problem.

The woman I was in love with at the time, another Oberlin graduate ("love who you know," my provincial theory), had already criticized my bookshelves for containing material either too lightweight or too masculine. Whenever she came by my new Brooklyn studio apartment, her pale midwestern eyes scanning the assembled soldiers of my literary army for a Tess Gallagher or a Jeanette Winterson, I found myself yearning for her taste and, as a corollary, the press of her razor-sharp collarbone against mine. Hopelessly, I arranged my Oberlin texts such as Tabitha Konogo's Squatters & the Roots of Mau Mau next to newly found woman-ethnic gems such as Lois-Ann Yamanaka's Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers, which I always imagined to be the quintessential Hawaiian coming-of-age story. (Someday I should read it.) If I bought Architecture of the Tsars I would have to hide it from this girl-woman in one of my cupboards behind a scrim of roach motels and bottles of cheap GEOGI vodka.

Other than failing my parents and being unable to finish The Pyramids of Prague, my main sorrow consisted of my loneliness. My first girlfriend ever, a fellow Oberlin student, an attractive, curly-haired white girl from North Carolina, had gone down south to live with a handsome drummer in his van. I would spend four years after graduating college without so much as kissing a girl. Breasts and backsides and caresses and the words "I love you, Gary" lived on only in abstract memory. Unless I'm telling you otherwise, I am completely in love with everyone around me for the rest of this book.

And then there was the price tag of Architecture of the Tsars—ninety-five dollars, marked down to sixty dollars—this would buy me just under forty-three chicken cutlets over at my parents' house. My mother always practiced tough love with me when it came to matters fiscal. When her failure showed up for dinner one night, she gave me a packet of chicken cutlets, Kiev style, meaning stuffed with butter. Gratefully, I accepted the chicken, but Mama told me each cutlet was worth "approximately one dollar forty." I tried to buy fourteen cutlets for seventeen dollars, but she charged me a full twenty, inclusive of a roll of Saran Wrap in which to store the poultry. A decade later, when I had stopped drinking so much, the knowledge that my parents would not stand by me and that I had to go at life furiously and alone drove me to perform terrifying amounts of work.

I twirled through the pages of the monumental Architecture of the Tsars, examining all those familiar childhood landmarks, feeling the vulgar nostalgia, the poshlost' Nabokov so despised. Here was the General Staff Arch with its twisted perspectives giving out onto the creamery of Palace Square, the creamery of the Winter Palace as seen from the glorious golden spike of the Admiralty, the glorious spike of the Admiralty as seen from the creamery of the Winter Palace, the Winter Palace and the Admiralty as seen from atop a beer truck, and so on in an endless tourist whirlwind.

I was looking at page 90.

"Ginger ale in my skull" is how Tony Soprano describes the first signs of a panic attack to his psychiatrist. There's dryness and wetness all at once, but in all the wrong places, as if the armpits and the mouth have embarked upon a cultural exchange. There's the substitution of a slightly different film from the one you've been watching, so that the mind is constantly recalculating for the unfamiliar colors, the strange, threatening snatches of conversation. Why are we suddenly in Bangladesh? the mind says. When have we joined the mission to Mars? Why are we floating on a cloud of black pepper toward an NBC rainbow? Add to that the supposition that your nervous, twitching body will never find rest, or maybe that it will find eternal rest all too soon, that is to say pass out and die, and you have the makings of a hyperventilating breakdown. That's what I was experiencing.

And here's what I was looking at as my brain rolled around its stony cavity: a church. The Chesme Church on Lensovet (Leningrad Soviet) Street in the Moskovsky District of the city formerly known as Leningrad. Eight years later I would describe it thusly for a Travel + Leisure article:

The raspberry and white candy box of the Chesme Church is an outrageous example of the neo-Gothic in Russia, made all the more precious by its location between the worst hotel in the world and a particularly gray Soviet block. The eye reels at the church's dazzling conceit, its mad collection of seemingly sugarcoated spires and crenellations, its utter edibility. Here is a building more pastry than edifice.

But in 1996 I did not have the wherewithal to spin clever prose. I had not yet undergone twelve years of four-times-a-week psychoanalysis that would make of me a sleekly rational animal, able to quantify, catalog, and retreat casually from most sources of pain, save one. I beheld the tiny scale of the church; the photographer had framed it between two trees, and there was a stretch of potholed asphalt in front of its diminutive entrance. It looked vaguely like a child overdressed for a ceremony. Like a little red-faced, tiny-bellied failure. It looked like how I felt.

I began to master the panic attack. I put the book down with sweaty hands. I thought of the girl that I loved at the time, that not-so-gentle censor of my bookshelf and my tastes; I thought about how she was taller than me and how her teeth were gray and straight, purposeful like the rest of her.

And then I wasn't thinking of her at all.

The memories were queuing. The church. My father. What did Papa look like when we were younger? I saw the big brows, the near-Sephardic skin tone, the harried expression of someone to whom life had been invariably unkind. But no, that was my father in the present day. When I imagined my early father, my preimmigrant father, I always bathed myself in his untrammeled love for me. I would think of him as just this awkward man, childish and bright, happy to have a little sidekick named Igor (my pre-Gary Russian name), palling around with this Igoryochek who is not judgmental or anti-Semitic, a tiny fellow warrior, first against the indignities of the Soviet Union and then against those of moving to America, the great uprooting of language and familiarity.

There he was, Early Father and Igoryochek, and we had just gone to the church in the book! The joyous raspberry Popsicle of Chesme Church, some five blocks away from our Leningrad apartment, a pink baroque ornament amidst the fourteen shades of Stalin-era beige. It wasn't a church in Soviet days but a naval museum dedicated, if memory serves correctly (and please let it serve correctly), to the victorious Battle of Chesme in 1770, during which the Orthodox Russians really gave it to those sonofabitch Turks. The interior of the sacred space back then (now it is once again a fully functional church) was crammed with a young boy's delight—maquettes of gallant eighteenth-century fighting ships.

Allow me to stay with the theme of early Papa and the Turks for just a few pages more. Let me introduce some new vocabulary to help me complete this quest. Dacha is the Russian word for country house, and as spoken by my parents it might as well have meant the "Loving Grace of God." When summer warmth finally broke the grip of the lifeless Leningrad winter and lackluster spring, they schlepped me around to an endless series of dachas in the former Soviet Union. A mushroom- ridden village near Daugavpils, Latvia; beautifully wooded Sestroretsk on the Gulf of Finland; the infamous Yalta in the Crimea (Stalin, Churchill, and FDR signed some kind of real estate deal here); Sukhumi, today a wrecked Black Sea resort in a breakaway part of Georgia. I was taught to prostrate myself before the sun, giver of life, grower of bananas, and thank it for every cruel, burning ray. My mother's favorite childhood diminutive for me? Little Failure? No! It was Solnyshko. Little Sun!

Photographs from this era show a tired group of women in bathing suits and a Marcel Proust-looking boy in a kind of Warsaw Pact Speedo (that would be me) staring ahead into the limitless future while the Black Sea gently tickles their feet. Soviet vacationing was a rough, exhausting business. In the Crimea, we would wake up early in the morning to join a line for yogurt, cherries, and other edibles. All around us KGB colonels and party officials would be living it up in their snazzy waterfront digs while the rest of us stood weary-eyed beneath the miserable sun waiting to snag a loaf of bread. I had a pet that year, a gaily colored wind-up mechanical rooster, whom I would show off to everyone on the food line. "His name is Pyotr Petrovich Roosterovich," I would declare with uncharacteristic swagger. "As you can see he has a limp, because he was injured in the Great Patriotic War." My mother, fearful that there would be anti-Semites queuing for cherries (they have to eat, too, you know), would whisper for me to be quiet or there would be no Little Red Riding Hood chocolate candy for dessert.


Excerpted from Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart. Copyright © 2014 Gary Shteyngart. Excerpted by permission of Random House LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Little Failure: A Memoir 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed Little Failure. I have been a fan of Gary’s novels and was interested to see how he does with real life stories. I was not disappointed. Gary has a wonderful writing style with a great sense of self-deprecating wit and charm. His story is interesting and well written.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I like how this book moves back and forth through time. It is a very interesting memoir. I liked it a lot more than I expected. Eager to read one of Gary’s novels now. The immigrant life is very interesting. The descriptions of the neighborhoods he lived in are spot on.
juliusa More than 1 year ago
WOW!! Now that I am done crying (having finished the book so quickly),  can only say that this memoir is possibly one if the best I have read in recent memory. It is utterly truthful and real. It hits close to home for us, as we live in Rego Park, Queens and I teach in Douglaston/Little Neck. Gary has the neighborhoods and lifestyle down , and he knows the people who live in them. We have lived here for years with our family, and have seen the influx of people from Russia who came here when Carter and Brezhnev agreed to let people move out of Russia (we demonstrated for it as well). And while we have seen Rego Park become a home for so many form Russia, we never always knew their stories. Of course over time we learned much, but this book solidifies it, and the effect it has had on the children of the brave people who came here.  A MUST READ, but will cry your heat out! Beautiful and brilliant!
Mustang15 More than 1 year ago
It felt as though only part of his story was told. I got the feeling the book's theme was somewhat disjointed. The myriad Russian translations are not required
royandronnie More than 1 year ago
You might remember my title as a quotation from "Amadeus--" a criticism that there was just too much going on. That was my problem with "Little Failure:" from the start, it jumps at utter random from one part of the author's life to the other, all the while hinting at mysterious childhood traumas that undoubtedly weren't going to be revealed until the final chapter. It was also setting up as one of those "glass half empty" memoirs. I didn't hang around long enough to find out.
bookchickdi More than 1 year ago
I hadn't read any of Shteyngart's novels, but have seen his howlingly funny book trailers online. This is such a rich, funny book, and anyone who enjoys reading about the immigrant experience should put this on their TBR list. His vivid writing brings his childhood in Russia to life and his stories of his parents fighting (he always feared they would divorce), his grandmother's fierce devotion to him, his striving for acceptance from his new American classmates and how that led him to a life as a writer are fascinating.I think Americans take for granted how many people want to come here to live, the sacrifices they make and how hard they work to fit in and build a good life for their families. Reading Little Failure will remind you of that.Shteyngart's book is brutally honest in quest for acceptance from his classmates, his search for love in college, and his many missteps on the road to writing success. He lays himself out there for all to see. At the end of the book, he takes his parents back to Russia, and this section of the book is very moving.Shteyngart is a brilliant writer, each sentence perfectly constructed to convey his idea. Even if you haven't read his fiction (like me), if you like the memoir genre and you like to laugh, this book is for you.
JustMyTwoCents More than 1 year ago
This was an interesting memoir that made me want to better understand Russian history. Also, although I found I could empathize with the author, it was also hard to like him at times in his life.  The same for his parents. Probably one of those--you really had to live it to understand sort of scenarios. It was a stark reminder that we are very much a product of our upbringing and our familial history. Worth reading. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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gloriafeit More than 1 year ago
Born in a birthing house in Leningrad on July 5, 1972, Igor Semyonovich (his pre-Gary Russian name)) Shteyngart’s early years are difficult, as is his relationship with his parents: His mother goes through long periods giving him the silent treatment; his father belittles him and, frequently, beats him. His nickname becomes “Failurchka,” or Little Failure. His mother, who looks half Jewish, which, given the place and time, is too Jewish by half, teaches piano at a kindergarten; his father, seven years her senior, is a mechanical engineer.” In 1978 Soviet Jews are finally able to leave for Israel, the US and Canada. And the Shteyngarts soon do. Except for his mother’s sister, who was not allowed to emigrate from Russia until after Gorbachev took power (an unbearable separation for his mother). He arrives in the US at seven, poverty-stricken, severely asthmatic, with very bad teeth and “doubly handicapped, living in a world where [he] speaks neither the actual language, English, nor that second and almost just as important language, television” (which they cannot afford). He knows early on that he wants to be a writer (part of the equation being that he must find a way to ‘bridge that gap between being a Russian and being loved”), and begins his first unpublished novel in English in 1982, at ten. A good scholar, his young adult years see him becoming less a “melancholic Austrian” and more of an “alcoholic and doped-up urban gorilla.” But don’t think for a moment that the book is down-beat. Though certainly poignant, the author displays much of the humor for which he is as well-known as he is for his wonderful writing. After the family’s arrival in the US, he eventually attends a Jewish day school, Solomon Schechter School of Queens, followed by the prestigious Stuyvesant High School in lower Manhattan at 15 and then Oberlin College, from which he graduates in 1995 (with 2/3 of what will be his first novel finished). Of course, he has since published two others, all of which have been very well received. In the 1980’s the family spend their summers at a Russian bungalow colony in the Catskill Mountains. He suffers occasional panic attacks, and spends 12 years in four-times-a week psychoanalysis. He is no longer impoverished, nor asthmatic, and his teeth have been fixed. He is and has been very ambivalent about Russia. But by the end, everything comes full circle, and in 1999 he returns to the country of his birth, where he visits almost every other year since. In 2011, at 38, his parents join him. It is his mother’s “first visit in 24 years, since her mother died, and my father in thirty-two years, or from the time he left the Soviet Union in 1979. We are coming home. Together.” A thoroughly enjoyable, compelling, ultimately very funny and touching book, and highly recommended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I did not think was that funny. In many ways Gary Shteyngart has had a hard life. The more interesting parts are about the Russian immigrant experience.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I did not like this book, he is very unlikable and I am thinking maybe writing a memoir was not a good idea. He is a real jerk