Gary Shteyngart has dedicated his memoir, Little Failure, to his parents and his psychoanalyst—a good springboard for this deeply introspective and moving look at his past. Without his parents, there would be no Gary; without psychoanalysis, there would be no memoir. Or at least not this one.
“On so 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,” Shteyngart writes. “In this book, I promised myself I would not point the finger. My laughter would be intermittent. There would be no safety.”
Of course, there is laughter—this is Shteyngart, after all—but the humor here serves more to bring emotion into sharper relief than to protect from it. At the opening, we meet just-out-of-college Gary, standing in the Strand Bookstore, looking at an image of a Russian church and having a panic attack. It will take us the length of the book to fully decode why.
Shteyngart’s three novels (The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story) feature Russian Jewish immigrants to America, and much of his memoir grapples with his own history as a Russian Jew in Queens, N.Y., where he and his parents immigrated when he was 7.
Coming to a new country with a different language is universally dislocating, and Shteyngart spares us no discomfort, from the arbitrary choice of “Gary” to replace his birth name, Igor, to the separation from his grandmother to his alienation and humiliation in school. “In a way, my experience at Hebrew school prepared me for any kind of criticism,” he says now. “Once you’re dehumanized for so long, it’s all gravy after that.”
But Shteyngart’s upbringing involved a particularly queasy blend of desire and dismay. Little Failure takes its name from the childhood nickname Shteyngart’s mother bestowed on him: Failurchka. “When you’re an immigrant, failure and success are such huge words,” he says. “When you’re told that you’re a failure by your parents, it becomes something humongous. It becomes your identity, in a way.”
His mother also masterfully employed the silent treatment. “Apparently during one especially long period of making me unexist, I started screaming to her, ‘If you won’t speak to me, luchshe ne zhit’!’ It is better not to live! And then I cried for hours, oh how I cried,” Shteyngart writes. “Luchshe ne zhit’! my mother likes to replay dramatically at Thanksgiving dinners, her hands spread out like Hamlet giving a soliloquy, perhaps because, in addition to being funny in her mind, the two-day-long silent treatment did what it was supposed to do. It made the child want to commit suicide without her love.”
And his father beat him. The book details the pummels to the head; little Gary’s retreats into his room; his attempts not to cry; his hot, liquid failure. But most incisively, there’s this: “And the child is holding tight to the dizzying smacks, because each one is saying You’re mine and You’ll always love me, each one is a connection to the child that can never be broken.” When his father stopped beating him, Shteyngart felt a hollow loss.
But there was also love. There were “the quiet sausage-and-kasha rhythms of the weekend,” the sweet nicknames—“little son,” “little one.” There was closeness: boundary-less closeness. “And each circle of love,” he writes, “binds me closer to her, to them, every subsequent betrayal and misjudgment will bind me even closer.” The inner push-pull bloomed into dysfunction: Shteyngart turned to alcohol and pot and aggressive humor as a means of self-protection. In college, he earned the nickname “Scary Gary.” (Better than “Little Failure”?) After college, he sent his new, married girlfriend an email with a slip that says it all: “I am your disposal.”
“If alcohol obliterates me, the pot unpeels me. Down to the nub,” he writes of high school, when the drugging took off. “But what if the nub’s no good either?”
But the turmoil also bloomed into writing. As a child, Shteyngart wrote a book for his grandmother, Lenin and His Magical Goose (“I am saying, Grandmother, please love me”); at school, he wrote a book called The Chalenge, which his teacher asked him to read aloud, to his classmates’ delight. “I’m still a hated freak,” he writes. “But here’s what I’m doing: I am redefining the terms under which I am a hated freak.”
“I didn’t feel that there was constant love coming my way from the world, certainly not when I got to America,” Shteyngart says now. “And as I discovered, writing was the only way that I could have friends in this country, make any kind of lasting relationships. It was the part I could play and win something for it, because everything else failed so miserably.”
Like the psychoanalytic process, writing Little Failure was an act of not only telling a life story, but making sense of it in the process—of cleaning house. “I write a lot about a similar theme, Soviet Jews, and I figured maybe it was time to sort of clear the decks a little bit and begin writing about something else,” Shteyngart explains. “But first I have to really use up a lot of material that has been percolating for so long and that has ended up in one way or another in so many of my previous books.”
Writing the book also gave Shteyngart an excuse to interview his parents about their collective past in the guise of researcher rather than simply son. His parents “were not entirely pleased by the fact that they were going to be featured in a nonfiction book,” he says. “But when we sat down, they were incredibly generous. They talked and talked and talked, and it felt like they were unburdening themselves as well.” The research process—which also involved renewing contacts with old friends Shteyngart hadn’t spoken to in decades—culminated in a trip to Russia with his parents, during which his father revealed long-buried aspects of their shared history. That trip, Shtyengart says, “left me quite depressed, because I thought that—it was almost more than I had bargained for, figuring out certain parts of my life.” The revelations close the loop on the psychological mystery at Little Failure’s beginning.
Now that he has gotten close to the real nub of his story, Shteyngart hopes to open up new avenues of creative exploration. Inevitably, “some of this stuff will creep up,” he says of his childhood, but now he’d like to work inside other genres—a thriller, maybe?—and to write a book set from a woman’s perspective. New phase.
It’s also worth noting that, 12 years after he began, his psychoanalytic treatment is coming to an end.
Jessica Gross is a writer based in New York City.