AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And now a note to all you parents out there. Stop and ask yourself, could the next thing you say or do come around to embarrass you in a few decades when your child writes a memoir? Case in point, writer Gary Shteyngart's latest book. It's called "Little Failure." Here's Meg Wolitzer with a review.
MEG WOLITZER: In 1979, Gary Shteyngart and his parents moved from Leningrad to Queens. Shteyngart was an only child. So when he puts himself under a microscope, with no sibling to provide distraction, his parents get the same close-up treatment. It's not always pretty. His mother's brand of parenting involves loving put-downs. She calls him failurchka, which kind of means little failure. His father's involved installing a wooden ladder in their living room. He's hoping to bulk up little Gary and end his fear of heights. When Gary gets to the top, bang, the father knocks him down. And yet, Gary describes his father as his best friend. How can both be true? Because they are.
Shteyngart knows that families are about nothing if not ambivalence, and he describes his own with the kind of detail that you only find in the best fiction. We begin in a place of much self-loathing and there are plenty of humiliations on display. To illustrate them, Shteyngart has included a helpful series of photos. We learn about little Gary with his rickety teeth and ugly clothes, and his father who eats raw garlic sandwiches. I don't have much choice in pals, he writes, but there's a one-eyed girl in our building complex whom I have sort of befriended. We're suspicious of each other at first, but I'm an immigrant and she has one eye, so we're even.
Too much of this kind of thing might have felt shticky but it's balanced out by the author's pride, exuberance and sophisticated humor. And if the humiliated hang on long enough, and if they also happen to be brilliant and original, they sometimes grow up to claim their rightful power. When I turn 14, 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.
The teenage years of the book feel as if they're spent in oblivion. Copious pot smoking and then heavy, destructive drinking. It can get a little repetitive. And what is he trying to block out? The mother and father with their Russian, tough-love cruelty? Not exactly. This is a mature book in all the important ways: evenhanded toward his parents and not trying to score points or twist the knife. In the end, he's able to use this book to celebrate the ambivalence in his life. And for him, that's a win.
"Little Failure" is an immigrant story. It's also about coming of age, becoming a writer, and becoming a mensch. And in each of these ways, it is unambivalently a success.
CORNISH: The book is "Little Failure" by Gary Shteyngart. It was reviewed by Meg Wolitzer. Her latest novel is "The Interestings."
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