Meg Wolitzer's most recent novel is The Interestings.
What's potentially more troubling than a memoirist out for revenge? One who's only out for truth. Gary Shteyngart's dazzling, highly enjoyable book is the story of his life — a story that he owns, along with all the details. Yet, as an only child who immigrated from Leningrad to Queens with his parents in 1979, with no brothers or sisters to provide narrative distraction, he not only provides an intimate look at himself, he also by necessity put his parents under a fairly strong magnifying lens.
His mother's brand of parenting involves "loving" put-downs — she dubs him "Failurchka" — which means, roughly, "little failure"; and his father's involves inducing this son to climb to the top of the wooden ladder he's installed in a part of the living room called the Athletic Corner, in order to bulk up little Gary's strength and end his fear of heights. When Gary gets to the top — bang, the father knocks him down, a fact that goes forgotten for a very, very long time.
And yet Gary describes his father as his best friend. How can both be true? Because they are, and I really felt the pull of contradictions in this memoir. Shteyngart knows that families are about nothing if not ambivalence. The life of this little family is described with the kind of detail and pathos found in the best fiction — and, apparently, the best memoir. There's little Gary with his rickety teeth and ugly clothes; and look, there's his father eating a raw garlic sandwich. Much self-loathing ensues in this book, and I couldn't help but be reminded of the way Woody Allen has often portrayed himself onscreen.
There are plenty of humiliations on display. "I don't have much choice in pals, but there's a one-eyed girl in our building complex whom I have sort of befriended. She's tiny and scrappy, and poor just like us. We're suspicious of each other at first, but I'm an immigrant and she has one eye, so we're even."
What makes this memoir a rich, gratifying piece of writing is that in addition to the self-loathing, which might have felt shticky if allowed to dominate, there's also pride, confidence and exuberance. And brilliance, which makes small, glittering appearances along the way. In Italy, en route to the U.S., Shteyngart writes of his six-year-old self:
I interrupt the lackadaisical Rusian tour guide as the Medici Chapel. "Excuse me," my nerdish voice rings out across the marble. 'I believe you are not correct, Guide. That is Michelangelo's Allegory of Night. And this is the Allegory of Day.'
Silence. The guide consults his literature. 'I believe the boy is right.'
If the humiliated hang on long enough (and they also happen to be brilliant and original), they sometimes grow up to claim their rightful power. In this memoir, the unfurling of that power is thrilling and Shteyngart takes note of his transition: "When I turn fourteen," he writes, "I lose my Russian accent. I can, in theory, walk up to a girl and the words "Oh, hi there" would not sound like Okht Hyzer, possibly the name of a Turkish politician." For someone whose English is extremely spotty in childhood, his adult sentences are muscular and acrobatic, as though they have spent some time in the Athletic Corner of the Shteyngarts' apartment.
The twilight years of Shteyngart's youth feel as if they're spent in oblivion: the copious pot smoking at Stuyvesant High School, and the even more copious pot smoking at Oberlin; and then the heavy, self-destructive drinking. "If alcohol obliterates me," says Shteyngart, "the pot unpeels me." What is he trying to block out? The mother and father with their moments of Russian tough-love cruelty? This memoir celebrates ambivalence, whether it's the kind felt toward his parents, or toward the schools where he studies, or doesn't study.
At Oberlin, Shteyngart gets caught up in the PC nature of his new education:
I learn how to speak effectively within my new milieu. I master an Oberlin technique called "As a."
"As a woman, I think..." "As a woman of color, I would speculate... As a hermaphrodite." "As a beagle in a former life."
"Only what will I say? Whom will I speak for? I raise my hand. "As an immigrant... Pause. All eyes on me.
...I have shed every last vestige of the Hebrew school nudnik and the Stuyvesant clown. The things I say in class are no longer meant to be funny or satiric or ironic; they're meant to celebrate my own importance, forged in the crucible of our collective importance.
But luckily, the moment of preening self-importance isn't where we leave the author at the end. Instead, he keeps on growing. This is a mature book in all the important ways: evenhanded toward the parents who raised him, and not trying to score points or twist the knife, but just trying to understand and get down the truth. The self-criticism feels equally evenhanded, nuanced and uneasy-making. Maybe a good deal of this is because adult Gary Shteyngart undergoes psychoanalysis. And though he doesn't elaborate about his treatment at great length, his four-times a week couch experience was a life-changer.
The relationship between being funny and serious in books has always been tricky. If you're too funny, they say you're not serious. If you're too serious, you certainly can't be funny. But Shteyngart's humor comes out of the most serious material, and vice versa. He has always been a natural entertainer, and has even made a clownish book trailer for his memoir, with cameos by Jonathan Franzen as his psychoanalyst, and James Franco as his supposed "husband," the two of them in matching pink bathrobes. But the trailer, while maybe it will draw some readers to the book, isn't at all like it in tone or intent. 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.