Book Review : Little Failure by Gary Sheyngart

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Life is constantly changing for Gary. Born a Soviet citizen, he becomes a citizen of the USA. Named Igor by his parents, he changes to Gary in his adopted homeland, for reasons which are obvious to any native English speaker. Even his city of birth keeps changing its name….from  the original St Petersburg to Petrograd to Leningrad….and finally back to St Petersburg again. No wonder he is confused!

Little Failure is the autobiography of US and jewish author Gary Shteyngart. The title comes from his parents’ nickname for him as a child . A constant source of disappointment to them, his nickname eventually becomes Failurchka ,coined by his mother in a melding of Russian and English.

Nothing he does seems right. On a parents evening a teacher gushes to Gary’s father :

‘Gary is very smart. We hear he reads Dostoevsky in the original.’

‘Phh,’ Papa said ‘Only Chekhov’

Born in 1972 ,Gary and his parents emigrate to the USA in 1979 under Jimmy Carter’s exchange programme….the Soviet Union is given grain , after another crop failure, in exchange for exit visas for Soviet jews. They arrive at JFK via East Berlin and a stay in Italy :

Coming to America after a childhood spent in the Soviet Union is equivalent to stumbling off a monochromatic cliff and landing in a pool of pure Technicolor.

Much of the humour and indeed pathos of the book comes from Gary and his family’s attempts to understand and adapt to American culture. Gary undergoes a circumcision,with a hole cut into the front of his underpants by his mother to prevent post-operative chafing. The family receive a letter telling them that they have won $10,000,000 …their dreams have come true! They dream of what they can now afford to buy, and to send back to the beleaguered family still left behind in the USSR. Gary’s parents then find out the brutal truth…it’s a scam :

In Russia the government was constantly telling us lies – wheat harvest is up, Uzbek baby goats give milk at an all-time high, Soviet crickets learn to sing The Internationale in honour of Brezhnev visit to local hay field – but we cannot imagine they would lie to our faces like that here in America, the Land of This and the Home of That.

Igor had been too sickly to go to school in Leningrad but Gary is soon enrolled in the Solomon Schlechter School of Queens where his lack of English and lack of understanding of American culture make it hard for him to integrate. He reflects on SSSQ, as it is known,after watching the ABC post-apocalyptic TV film The Day After  :

My research indicated that two of the Soviet missiles would target JFK and La Guardia airports in Queens. SSSQ is geographically equidistant from the two airports, and the school’s glass-heavy modernist structure would probably buckle and split into shards  from the initial blasts, burning up the siddur prayer books like so many blue pancakes, and certainly the subsequent radiation would kill everyone with the exception of the rotund, self -insulated Rabbi Sofer.

So far so good.

It is at SSSQ that a sympathetic teacher first discovers Gary’s talent for story-telling and at the end of each lesson he is asked to read from his Asimov-inspired space story The Chalenge [sic] which at last brings him some acceptance amongst his peers.

Gary’s childhood is over-shadowed too by his parents’ bitter arguments often over the relatives, some in the US ,some left in the USSR, and their dramatic threats of divorce. After making it into high achieving Stuyvesant , his parents have hopes of an Ivy League college and law school. He drifts however and we follow his journey through academic underachievement into  a minor liberal arts college via a dabbling with alcohol and drugs and some unsuccessful love affairs

Each chapter of the book charts a different phase in the author’s development and is prefaced with a photograph of him at that time. It is an entertaining look at growing up through the eyes of a classic outsider…..however there is a serious side to all this. A near breakdown propels Gary , at the insistence of a friend, into therapy. He is finally able to make a reacquaintance with the land of his birth and eventually to persuade his parents to come with him on a trip to St Petersburg. There they are each able to confront some of their demons. As Gary’s mum says:

I only really beat you up once……and I was so sad afterward. I guess that from the start I was an American mama.

This is a wonderful book full of humour , humanity and compassion.I haven’t read any of Shteyngarts’s novels but will definitely do so now.

Little Failure is a must read……

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