Little Failure: A Memoir [NOOK Book]

Overview

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR “SO FAR” BY TIME AND THE WASHINGTON POST • NAMED ONE OF KIRKUS REVIEWS’ “NEW BOOKS DESTINED TO BECOME CLASSICS” • SHORTLISTED FOR THE SPEAR’S BOOK AWARD IN MEMOIR

After three acclaimed novels, Gary Shteyngart turns to memoir in a candid, witty, deeply poignant account of his life so far. Shteyngart shares his American immigrant experience, moving back and forth through time ...

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Little Failure: A Memoir

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Overview

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR “SO FAR” BY TIME AND THE WASHINGTON POST • NAMED ONE OF KIRKUS REVIEWS’ “NEW BOOKS DESTINED TO BECOME CLASSICS” • SHORTLISTED FOR THE SPEAR’S BOOK AWARD IN MEMOIR

After three acclaimed novels, Gary Shteyngart turns to memoir in a candid, witty, deeply poignant account of his life so far. Shteyngart shares his American immigrant experience, moving back and forth through time and memory with self-deprecating humor, moving insights, and literary bravado. The result is a resonant story of family and belonging that feels epic and intimate and distinctly his own.

Born Igor Shteyngart in Leningrad during the twilight of the Soviet Union, the curious, diminutive, asthmatic boy grew up with a persistent sense of yearning—for food, for acceptance, for words—desires that would follow him into adulthood. At five, Igor wrote his first novel, Lenin and His Magical Goose, and his grandmother paid him a slice of cheese for every page.

In the late 1970s, world events changed Igor’s life. Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev made a deal: exchange grain for the safe passage of Soviet Jews to America—a country Igor viewed as the enemy. Along the way, Igor became Gary so that he would suffer one or two fewer beatings from other kids. Coming to the United States from the Soviet Union was equivalent to stumbling off a monochromatic cliff and landing in a pool of pure Technicolor.

Shteyngart’s loving but mismatched parents dreamed that he would become a lawyer or at least a “conscientious toiler” on Wall Street, something their distracted son was simply not cut out to do. Fusing English and Russian, his mother created the term Failurchka—Little Failure—which she applied to her son. With love. Mostly.

As a result, Shteyngart operated on a theory that he would fail at everything he tried. At being a writer, at being a boyfriend, and, most important, at being a worthwhile human being.

Swinging between a Soviet home life and American aspirations, Shteyngart found himself living in two contradictory worlds, all the while wishing that he could find a real home in one. And somebody to love him. And somebody to lend him sixty-nine cents for a McDonald’s hamburger.

Provocative, hilarious, and inventive, Little Failure reveals a deeper vein of emotion in Gary Shteyngart’s prose. It is a memoir of an immigrant family coming to America, as told by a lifelong misfit who forged from his imagination an essential literary voice and, against all odds, a place in the world.

Praise for Little Failure

“[A] keenly observed tale of exile, coming-of-age and family love: It’s raw, comic and deeply affecting, a testament to Mr. Shteyngart’s abilities to write with both self-mocking humor and introspective wisdom, sharp-edged sarcasm and aching—and yes, Chekhovian—tenderness.”—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“Dazzling . . . Little Failure is 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

“What a beautiful mess! . . . [Shteyngart has] not just his own distinct identity, but all the loose ends and unresolved contradictions out of which great literature is made.” —Charles Simic, The New York Review of Books

“As vivid, original and funny as [anything] contemporary U.S. literature has to offer.”Los Angeles Times




From the Hardcover edition.
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  • Little Failure: A Memoir
    Little Failure: A Memoir  

Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

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.

Library Journal
12/01/2013
Instead of the incisive, satirical novel that readers might expect from Shteyngart (Super Sad True Love Story), this refreshing memoir makes it clear that for a writer in his 40s, he has produced enough material to fill volumes. Shteyngart unleashes a storm of lacerating humor upon himself and everything (and everyone) that made him who he is. As an immigrant, a misfit, and a lonely kid yearning to fit in, the author brings to life a quintessentially American story. This fascinating look into the making of a prominent literary voice is difficult to put down. VERDICT Poignant, vitriolic, wistful, always moving and painfully honest, this memoir is a substantial contribution. Shteyngart is well known for writing book blurbs for other authors; expect to see some heavy hitters getting behind this memoir, a self-examination that is entertaining and devastating in equal measure. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 7/22/13.]—Audrey Snowden, Orrington P.L., ME
The New York Times Book Review - Andy Borowitz
…hilarious and moving…Little Failure is so packed with humor, it's easy to overlook the rage, but it's there, and it's part of what makes the book so compelling…Thanks to Little Failure, the army of readers who love Gary Shteyngart is about to get bigger.
The New York Times - Michiko Kakutani
Of the many enormously gifted authors now writing about the immigrant experience…Gary Shteyngart is undoubtedly the funniest…[His] evocative new memoir…is as entertaining as it's moving…he poignantly conveys his parents' hard-fought efforts to make new lives for themselves in America, while using humor to chronicle his own difficulties in trying to bridge the dislocations of two cultures…the closing chapter, recounting a 2011 return trip with his parents to Russia, provides a fitting end to this keenly observed tale of exile, coming-of-age and family love: It's raw, comic and deeply affecting, a testament to Mr. Shteyngart's abilities to write with both self-mocking humor and introspective wisdom, sharp-edged sarcasm and aching—and yes, Chekhovian—tenderness.
Publishers Weekly
★ 10/28/2013
One afternoon in 1996, a book titled St. Petersburg: Architecture of the Tsars becomes Shteyngart's madeleine, carrying him back in time and memory to his childhood in St. Petersburg and launching him on a career of writing about the past in his novels (Absurdistan). In his typical laugh-aloud approach, the acclaimed novelist carries us with him on his journey, from his birth in Leningrad and his decision to become a writer at age five to his immigration to America and his family's settling in New York City in 1979. Adolescent misadventure, his days at Oberlin College, his psychoanalysis, and his struggles after college to wend his way through the workaday world toward becoming a writer round out the trip. Shteyngart spends much of his pre-adolescence glued to the television set, watching shows like Gilligan's Island, which causes him to ask himself questions about American culture: "Is it really possible that a country as powerful as the United States would not be able to locate two of its best citizens lost at sea, to wit the millionaire and his wife?" Shteyngart's self-deprecating humor contains the sharp-edged twist of the knife of melancholy in this take of a young man "desperately trying to have a history, a past." (Jan.)
From the Publisher
“[A] keenly observed tale of exile, coming-of-age and family love: It’s raw, comic and deeply affecting, a testament to Mr. Shteyngart’s abilities to write with both self-mocking humor and introspective wisdom, sharp-edged sarcasm and aching—and yes, Chekhovian—tenderness.”—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“Dazzling . . . Little Failure is 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
 
“Hilarious and moving . . . The army of readers who love Gary Shteyngart is about to get bigger.”The New York Times Book Review
 
“An ecstatic depiction of survival, guilt and perseverance . . . Russia gave birth to that master of English-language prose named Vladimir Nabokov. Half a century later, another writer who grew up with Cyrillic characters is gleefully writing American English as vivid, original and funny as any that contemporary U.S. literature has to offer.”Los Angeles Times
 
“What a beautiful mess! . . . [Shteyngart has] not just his own distinct identity, but all the loose ends and unresolved contradictions out of which great literature is made.” —Charles Simic, The New York Review of Books

“The tragic story of what makes a great comic writer.”—Lev Grossman, Time
 
“Hilarious . . . an affectionate take on growing up in gray Leningrad and Technicolor Queens.”People

“Shteyngart is a great writer—there’s no arguing his literary merit—but he’s also very, very funny, which is a rare quality in literature these days.”GQ

“Literary gold . . . [a] bruisingly funny memoir.”Vogue

“Funny, unflinching, and, title notwithstanding, a giant success . . . The innate humor of Shteyngart’s storytelling is dotted with touching sadness, all of it amounting to an engrossing look at his distinct, multilayered Gary-ness.”Entertainment Weekly

“Shteyngart possesses a rare trait for a serious novelist: he is funny—and not just knowing-nod, wry-smile funny, but laugh-aloud, drink-no-liquids-while-reading funny.”The Economist

“Shteyngart’s achingly honest, bittersweet comic memoir is a winner.”Vanity Fair
 
“[Little Failure] might just be the funniest, most unflinching memoir ever about coming to America.”W Magazine

Little Failure . . . puts the lure in failure.”The Wall Street Journal

“[A] touching, insightful memoir . . . [Shteyngart] nimbly achieves the noble Nabokovian goal of letting sentiment in without ever becoming sentimental.”The Washington Post
 
“A near-perfect account of the churning state of one man’s inner life.”The Sunday Times (London)

“Moving . . . and laugh-out-loud funny.”USA Today

“[Shteyngart is] the Chekhov-Roth-Apatow of Queens.”The Millions
 
“Surely some enterprising scholar is already gnawing at the question of why two of the brilliant outliers of American writing were Russian immigrants. One, of course, was the great Vladimir Nabokov. The other is the youngish Shteyngart. They both have the qualities of sly humor, secret griefs.”San Francisco Chronicle

“[Little Failure] finds the delicate balance between sidesplitting and heartbreaking.”O: The Oprah Magazine
 
“Funny, heartbreaking and soul-baring  . . . [Shteyngart is] one of his generation’s most original and exhilarating writers.”The Seattle Times

“[A] stellar memoir.”Parade

“[Shteyngart] has dismantled the armor of his humor to give readers his most tender and affecting gift yet: himself.”The Boston Globe

“[Shteyngart is] a successor to no less than Saul Bellow and Philip Roth.”The Christian Science Monitor
 
“[Shteyngart’s] irrepressible humor disguises a Nabokovian love of the English language and an astute grasp of human psychology.”Newsweek

“Shteyngart uses his immigrant experience, together with some of the wisdom of Russia’s cultural past, to capture a generation of middle-class Americans . . . and give us a beautifully rendered world of orange-coloured cheese puffs and Cold War menace.”The Times Literary Supplement

“If you thought his fiction was funny, read Shteyngart’s memoir, Little Failure. As you might expect, he’s no less neurotic than his characters.”New York
 
“The very best memoirs perfectly toe the line between heartbreak and humor, and Shteyngart does just that.”Esquire
 
“Frenetically funny, even overwhelmingly enjoyable.”Financial Times

“[Little Failure] should become a classic of the immigrant narrative genre.”The Miami Herald
 
Little Failure is terrific—the author’s funniest, saddest and most honest work to date. [It’s] a powerful and often moving portrait of a troubled man’s creative origins, comparable in intent (and sometimes in quality) to some of the genre’s high-water marks, and owing particular debts to W. G. Sebald, Thomas Bernhard and, most significantly, Vladimir Nabokov, whose name Shteyngart often invokes.”The Guardian (UK)

“There is no better comic writer alive than Mr. Shteyngart. . . . And yet it’s [his] past, and the tension it creates with the cushy interior life that America affords, that makes him a much more interesting novelist than his American peers.”The New York Observer

“Ever wonder how a Russian émigré with a wicked sense of humor becomes a great American novelist? In his new memoir, Gary Shteyngart tells his craziest, funniest, super-saddest tale yet: his own.”—Francine Prose, Interview

“[Shteyngart’s] best work to date.”The Moscow Times

“Shteyngart seems to have made a deal with some minor devil (a daredevil?) stipulating that if he exposed every crack and fissure in himself, laid bare every misstep, f***up, and psychic flaw, his memoir would be a deep and original book. If so, the payoff here was absolutely worth it.”—Kate Christensen, Bookforum

“By turns naive and cynical, hyper-intelligent and comically immature, empathetic on the page and unfeeling off it, his self-portrait of a Soviet Jew transplanted aged seven from Leningrad to Eighties America is a masterpiece of comic deprecation.”The Telegraph (UK)

“This Shteyngart, sad and longing and desperate for connection (with his parents, with his readers), seems the most fully human person this author has ever created.”The Jewish Daily Forward
 
“The best memoirs are ones that are perfectly individuated, particular—and yet somehow speak to every reader’s life, every reader’s family. This is one of those rare books.”New Statesman

“Many, many people in this world have received blurbs from Gary Shteyngart, but I happen not to be one of them. So you can trust me when I say: Little Failure is a delight.”—Zadie Smith, New York Times bestselling author of NW and White Teeth
 
“Gary Shteyngart has written a memoir for the ages. I spat laughter on the first page and closed the last with wet eyes.”—Mary Karr, bestselling author of Lit and The Liars’ Club
 
Little Failure is told with fearlessness, wisdom and the wit that you’d expect from one of America’s funniest novelists.”—Carl Hiaasen, New York Times bestselling author of Bad Monkey
 
“Portnoy meets Chekhov meets Shteyngart! What could be better?”—Adam Gopnik, New York Times bestselling author of The Table Comes First and Paris to the Moon

“If you, like me, have often wondered, ‘How did Gary Shteyngart get like that?,’ Little Failure is the heartfelt, moving, and truly engaging memoir that explains it all. Dr. Freud would be proud.”—Nathan Englander, author of What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

Kirkus Reviews
★ 2013-11-12
An immigrant's memoir like few others, with as sharp an edge and as much stylistic audacity as the author's well-received novels. The Russian-American novelist writes that after completing this memoir, he reread his three novels (Super Sad True Love Story, 2010, etc.) and was "shocked by the overlaps between fiction and reality....On many occasions in my novels I have approached a certain truth only to turn away from it, only to point my finger and laugh at it and then scurry back to safety. In this book I promised myself I would not point the finger. My laughter would be intermittent. There would be no safety." That observation minimizes just how funny this memoir frequently is, but it suggests that the richest, most complex character the author has ever rendered on the page is the one once known to his family as "Little Igor" and later tagged with "Scary Gary" by his Oberlin College classmates, with whom he recalls an incident, likely among many, in which he was "the drunkest, the stonedest, and, naturally, the scariest." Fueled by "the rage and humor that are our chief inheritance," Shteyngart traces his family history from the atrocities suffered in Stalinist Russia, through his difficulties assimilating as the "Red Nerd" of schoolboy America, through the asthma and panic attacks, alcoholism and psychoanalysis that preceded his literary breakthrough. He writes of the patronage of Korean-American novelist Chang-Rae Lee, who recruited him for a new creative writing program at Hunter College, helped him get a book deal for a novel he'd despaired over ever publishing and had "severely shaken my perception of what fiction about immigrants can get away with." Ever since, he's been getting away with as much as he dares. Though fans of the author's fiction will find illumination, a memoir this compelling and entertaining--one that frequently collapses the distinction between comedy and tragedy--should expand his readership beyond those who have loved his novels.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812995336
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/7/2014
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 17,297
  • File size: 5 MB

Meet the Author

Gary Shteyngart
Gary Shteyngart was born in Leningrad in 1972 and came to the United States seven years later. He is the author of the novels Super Sad True Love Story, which won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize and was selected as one of the best books of the year by more than forty news journals and magazines around the world; Absurdistan, which was chosen as one of the ten best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review and Time magazine; and The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, winner of the Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction and the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, GQ, Travel + Leisure, The New York Times Magazine, and many other publications and has been translated into twenty-six languages. Shteyngart lives in New York City.


From the Hardcover edition.

Biography

In the hilariously skewed world of Gary Shteyngart, reality and absurdity trot gleefully hand-in-hand. His debut novel, The Russian Debutante's Handbook, finds a Jewish/Soviet ne'er-do-well on a manic search for fortune and fame against the backdrops of New York City and the fictional European city of Prava. Absurdistan, Shteyngart's sophomore effort, ups the level of wackiness. The obese, gluttonous Misha Vainberg devours Western pop culture, lusts after a sultry Latina from the South Bronx, and stumbles into the position of Minister of Multicultural Affairs in the volatile, oil-rich nation of Absurdistan. While Shteyngart's wickedly whimsical prose and searing satire have been almost universally praised, he sees his work not as goofy flights of fancy but as a rather accurate vision of the contemporary global society.

"This is a reality book," Shteyngart declared to The Austinist, "and the reality is that we are becoming Absurdistan with each passing day. Look, you have a government that spies on its own citizens, is basically an oil kleptocracy, the government serves the oil interest, just the way it does in Russia."

Shteyngart's keen insights into world politics, particularly the current climate of America, are what elevate his novels above mere farce. Born in Leningrad, Russia, during the Cold War, but living the majority of his life in New York, the novelist has experienced life in the two contrasting nations that most influence his work. Along the way, he earned a degree in politics from Oberlin College in Ohio. Shteyngart is also a devoted traveler, and a stint in Prague sparked his first book. "I spent too much time in all these different places," he explained. "[W]hen I was in college, I really wanted to go back to Russia and my Mom, who was paying my bills at the time said, ‘Over my dead body, they'll eat you alive there. Look at you. You're a little Jew, they'll kill ya.' And I said ‘Uh, alright.' So I went to Prague with my girlfriend at the time and that became The Russian Debutante's [Handbook]."

The Russian Debutante's Handbook was greeted with a seemingly ceaseless string of laudatory reviews. From Vanity Fair to The New York Times to Book Magazine, Steyngart was regarded as a major new talent with a decidedly unique style. Because his debut was subject to so much acclaim, Steyngart felt that its success negatively affected the response to Absurdistan. "You know it's really interesting there are some people who love the first book...so much that they hate the second book because the tone is so different," he said. Of course, one would never know based on some of the most prominent responses to Absurdistan. The Washington Post celebrated the book's "sharp insights into the absurdity of the modern world," and Publisher's Weekly cheered that Misha Vainberg is a "sympathetic protagonist worthy of comparison to America's enduring literary heroes.'

Not to be deterred by a minority of naysayers, Shteyngart is already hard at work on his third novel, which features the tellingly named character Jerry Shteynfarb from Absurdistan. "[M]y next book [takes place] partly in Albany -- but set in the year 2040, when it's called All-Holy Albany Rensselaer," he told Forward, "and it's a small religious protectorate under the command of a Korean Rev. Cho. My hero, Jerry Shteynfarb, is 65 years old, married to one of Reverend Cho's daughters and trying to eke out a survival. That's going to be the next project."

Good To Know

What would Shteyngart be doing if he wasn't an acclaimed novelist? Well, he says he'd like to be an urban planner. One of his first jobs was as a janitor in a nuclear reactor.

Shteyngart began Absurdistan only a few days before 9/11, and briefly shelved the book after the tragic event.

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    1. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      1972
    2. Place of Birth:
      Leningrad, USSR
    1. Education:
      B.A., Oberlin College, 1995

Read an Excerpt

1.

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.

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Interviews & Essays

Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Gary Shteyngart

Gary Shteyngart presents a winning face to the world: as furry and friendly as a character in an Ed Koren cartoon. The protagonists in his novels are lovable in the extreme, always playful no matter how riddled by anxiety or depression or a sense of worthlessness. This has proved an addictive elixir for millions of readers in more than two dozen languages the world over, making Shteyngart so popular among his peers that his recent publicity video also stars Jonathan Franzen and James Franco in comedic roles.

The B&N Review set out to discover if he's really that lovable in person, or at least to see if some of it might rub off on us. The occasion is the publication of Little Failure, a memoir set partly in his hometown of Leningrad, partly in the middle-class enclave of Little Neck, Queens (where he shares his "outsider's angst" with other high school–aged émigrés: "pimply Russians, Koreans, Chinese, Indians"), partly on the campus of Oberlin College in Ohio, and partly on the Lower East Side. It's a good read: He avoids the "bullshit laughter and hairy ethnic weeping" of some immigrant literature while also managing to charm the birds from the trees. Could he possibly be so winning in real life? Read on. —Daniel Asa Rose

The Barnes & Noble Review: We learn from Little Failure that your childhood name was Igor. May I call you Igor for the duration of this interview?

Gary Shteyngart: You can call me anything. As long as you call me.

BNR: Ba-da-boom. But your parents also called you Iggy, as well as the Red Hamster and Little Failure. I assume you received more than your share of nicknames because you were an only child. Would you have become a writer if you hadn't been an only child?

GS: If I had siblings, I would have been a lawyer. Instead this writing crap happened.

BNR: By calling you Little Failure, was your mother merely being playful, or was there a degree of ambivalence toward you in it?

GS: Ambivalence? She was telling me that in her eyes I had failed her.

BNR: It strikes me that only a man well assured of his worldly success would choose such a title. Or do you actually see yourself that way?

GS: Once you're [perceived as] a failure, you're always a failure. Success never fully registers for more than a couple of hours. The upside is you're always striving to be better, even as you're failing inside.

BNR: You were adorably photogenic as a kid, by evidence of the childhood photos that begin each chapter. How do you hope readers will react to those photos? GS: I cried a lot when I was taken to those Soviet photo studios. In one of the photos I'm bawling while I'm holding a new Soviet invention, the phone.

BNR: On the other hand, your grown-up protagonists have always been critical of their physical appearance. In your previous book, Super Sad True Love Story (2010), you adumbrate "the overstated nose," "the bushy eyebrows that could count as separate organisms." In that spirit I'd like to offer that your lips look kinda like you were suckled by a platypus. Are your features becoming more rubbery with age?

GS: By rubbery, do you mean ugly? [Sob]

BNR: On the contrary — lovable! In fact, with the possible exception of Jonathan Ames, I can think of few writers who manage to create a persona half as lovable as yours. Was it as effortless to construct that persona as it seems?

GS: It took a lot of focus groups to construct this lovable persona. But I'm glad you like it!

BNR: Do you ever find it constricting?

GS: Please, people would pay good money for this kind of persona. I find my 5' 6" frame constricting.

BNR: The persona seems to have worked: There's a noticeably lower amount of sexual starvation in these pages than in your earlier books. Is this because you're writing here mostly about your prepubescent self or that you're now happily married?

GS: I just didn't get any love until I got to Oberlin. That's where the loveless go to get some.

BNR: You have a genial presence, yet in LF you reference internal rage several times. Is there a more dangerous Igor lurking inside the benign one?

GS: I work hard on not letting the Inner Igor out, but he's a very small presence amidst the landscape of Big Outer Gary.

BNR: On the dust jacket of The Russian Debutante's Handbook (2002), no less an observer than David Gates blurbed that you have "the manic humor of the deeply melancholy." Is he correct?

GS: So melancholy I can hardly move some mornings.

BNR: Have you been able to locate the source of that melancholy?

GS: I'm a SAP, a Soviet Ashkenazi Pessimist. When you're a SAP melancholy's a walk in the park.

BNR: Do you think you'll be able to repair that trait someday, or will you still be melancholic at age ninety?

GS: If you think I'm gonna live to age ninety, you need to stop reading science fiction.

BNR: Which if any of the following descriptions of your protagonists from various books applies to you?

  1. "Small, embarrassed, Jewish, foreigner, accent" (The Russian Debutante's Handbook, p. 78)
  2. "unworthy, always unworthy" (Super Sad True Love Story, p. 67)
  3. "the dull pain of being somehow insufficient. Of being half- formed" (Russian Debutante's Handbook, p. 78)
GS: None of the above. I change from year to year. I'll figure out who I am by the next book. Stay tuned.

BNR: Does that mean there's a sequel in the works? What will it be called?

GS: "Enormous Honking Failure: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Mom."

BNR: Toward the end of Little Failure, your mentor, John, says, "You have to decide to take yourself seriously, not in a phony self-pitying way, but in a serious, dignified way." Was that good advice?

GS: That was great advice. It's rare to meet someone in your life who cares about you enough to tell you the truth.

BNR: In Super Sad True Love Story you ask, "Why is it so hard to be a grown-up man in this world?" Among today's writers, whom do you deem to be a grown-up?

GS: All of them!

BNR: But really, name names. If you could emulate one of your cohorts...

GS: Jhumpa Lahiri is pretty grown up. Toni Morrison. I guess it's only writers who are women.

BNR: Readers may be surprised to learn that you were Republican as a youngster. Is there ever a moment today when you still wished you were?

GS: I have friends of all political persuasions, but I love being center-left.

BNR: You write in this book that "the old stereotype of Jews as the People of the Book dies a quiet daily death around us." As a Jew, how do you feel about that?

GS: I'm okay with it. Not everyone has to be bookish. Some Jews like hang-gliding and I think that's great.

BNR: Would you ever go hang-gliding yourself?

GS: I'm hang-gliding right now!

BNR: As disclosed in Little Failure, you spent a considerable time undergoing psychoanalysis. Ever check in with your shrink these days?

GS: I'm still in psychoanalysis. But it's only been twelve years, four days a week. In my circle of writers that's peanuts.

BNR: You joke that one downside to psychoanalysis is that it robs you of four hours a week that could be spent looking oneself up on the Web. How much time, realistically, do you spend looking yourself up?

GS: I don't even have a Google Alert, if you can believe that.

BNR: One last question, if I may, for the literary gossip mongers among us. In this book you seem to be no fan of the legendary editor Gordon Lish, whom you call "the master" of a "terse, indecipherable" style. Care to elaborate?

GS: Absolutely no comment.

BNR: Wise man. Thank you, Igor. I am returning you to Gary now.

—January 3, 2014
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 9, 2014

    I Also Recommend:

    I really enjoyed Little Failure. I have been a fan of Gary¿s nov

    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.

    8 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 29, 2014

    I Also Recommend:

    I like how this book moves back and forth through time. It is a

    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.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 25, 2014

    WOW!! Now that I am done crying (having finished the book so qui

    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 beware..you will cry your heat out! Beautiful and brilliant!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 26, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    Born in a birthing house in Leningrad on July 5, 1972, Igor Semy

    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.

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  • Posted March 10, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    I hadn't read any of Shteyngart's novels, but have seen his howl

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 7, 2014

    I did not think was that funny. In many ways Gary Shteyngart h

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 22, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 22, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

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