Reviews > Published on January 8th, 2014

Bookshots: 'Little Failure: A Memoir' by Gary Shteyngart

Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review


Little Failure: A Memoir

Who wrote it:

The kind of book that makes you think, but not too hard at first; some of the themes will sneak up quietly at work or dinner, hours after you’ve set it down.

Russian-American novelist, Gary Shteyngart. Shteyngart also wrote Super Sad True Love Story, Absurdistan, and The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.

Plot in a Box:

Through a comedic lens, Shteyngart studies many painful subjects, transitioning between his Soviet childhood and a calamitous yet successful adult life in the United States.

Invent a new title for this book:

They Loved Me Like Devils

Read this if you like:

I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley or Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson.

Meet the book's lead:

Gary Shteyngart himself, formally Igor Shteyngart (or neither of those names, thanks to a spelling error back in the Soviet Union).

Said lead would be portrayed in a movie by:

Possibly a young Woody Allen.

Setting: Would you want to live here?

The author says at one point that there are far worse things than a Soviet childhood, but I think I’ll pass.

What was your favorite sentence?

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.

The Verdict:

Little Failure is the kind of book that makes you think, but not too hard at first; some of the themes will sneak up quietly at work or dinner, hours after you’ve set it down.

But it’s also genuinely funny, due mostly to the author’s unflinching honesty. There's something very sincere about the trips he takes down memory lane, back to a shabby Leningrad of the 1970s. Shteyngart offers up all the embarrassments of his childhood as fodder, as well as his later life’s minor and major disappointments. In between are all the travails of immigrant life in a country that Gary originally believed to be a cultural nemesis.  

The result is a very personal portrait of a flawed and eccentric but loving family. As a reader, you see them in their living room on Thanksgiving, you read postcards and leaf through old photo albums. Little Failure is a bit like looking at a macroscopic image, and for that it’s hard not to admire the author’s bravery in bearing the most private aspects of his life, blemishes and all. Frank and self-depreciating, the book succeeds despite the relative youth of its author; Shteyngart may be young to pen a memoir, but it’s all good news. Hopefully, it just means that there’s more to come.  

Despite the humor that serves to drive the pace on briskly, there is a melancholic nature to the memoir as well. Anyone who’s ever had parents will find areas to identify with Shteyngart and his quest to meet their expectations, if such a thing is truly possible. The truth is, I would never want to invent a new title for this book, because the one it has says it all: even when Gary’s parents are calling him by a term of endearment—Failurchka, or Little Failure—it’s half tainted with dejection. And yet Shteyngart somehow struggles through, giving his readers not only the successful novels they may already be acquainted with, but also the joy of the knowledge that his first story was called Lenin and His Magical Goose.  

Complex and witty, I couldn’t have asked for a better book to begin 2014 with than Little Failure.  

About the author

Leah Dearborn is a Boston-based writer with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in international relations from UMass Boston. She started writing for LitReactor in 2013 while paying her way through journalism school and hopping between bookstore jobs (R.I.P. Borders). In the years since, she’s written articles about everything from colonial poisoning plots to city council plans for using owls as pest control. If it’s a little strange, she’s probably interested.

Reedsy Marketplace UI

1 million authors trust the professionals on Reedsy. Come meet them.

Enter your email or get started with a social account: