My sister called from New York with an imperative: “Read this book — Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart.”
She said she was confused at first, but after persevering, she figured she had “got it.” And she wanted to know what my conclusion would be.
So I found the book at the JCC’s Tycher Library and began to read. I must admit, I haven’t finished it yet. I haven’t even gotten very far — just about 100 pages out of a whopping 350. But I already understand what she meant by “getting it.”
Little Failure is a rough Russian translation of what two concerned parents called their puny, asthmatic baby soon after they brought him home. His first six years were a constant battle between childish desires for a normal childhood and adult worries about health. And then, at seven, this “little failure” was transplanted, with those parents, to America, one family among the many “rescued” Soviets we all worked so hard to bring here and resettle some 40 years ago.
Currently, my “pleasure” reading has been almost entirely Philip Roth. I’m trying to understand how one man could write in one lifetime some 30 books, every one of prize-winning quality. Where does all that productivity come from? Now, I think Roth is a useful tool to help me figure out Shteyngart. And vice versa.
No writer of fiction makes things up out of whole cloth. Writers write what they know, what they’ve gleaned from their own experiences. Roth’s most honored novels have grown out of his own life experiences. Shteyngart has already written a trio of novels, none of which I’ve read (yet), but all of which hint to me by their very titles that they must have his sharp wit and cutting-edge irony, most of the latter directed at himself. I can’t imagine otherwise about The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, or Absurdistan, or Super Sad Love Story. These came relatively early, but were after he’d honed his English skills to the same sharp points he jabs the reader with in Little Failure. This autobiographic memoir was written in 2014, many years after he landed here in the United States.
I don’t think I’m stretching — at least not too far — to read a kinship into the works of these two talented but very different writers. Both are born Jews, but disaffected in their different ways. Both were adored sons of overprotective mothers, and grew up to kick over the traces that are still so much shining through their writings. Roth, who created a fictional “hero” who grew up to marry Miss New Jersey, writes a biting tale of one of his own wives; Shteyngart has chosen a Korean woman as his life partner. Both draw themes from and about their childhoods — even when their characters are adults: the old neighborhoods, current events of their growing-up days (for Roth, Hebrew school and polio, among others; for Shteyngart, the overpowering figure of Lenin coupled with food shortages and primitive medicine). I wonder if they have ever met. I think they should…
It’s as dangerous to judge a book one hasn’t finished reading as it is to do what the old saw says not to: judge it by its cover. But I’ll try. The covers of Roth’s books, for the most part, give only the merest pictorial hint of what’s within. But Shteyngart’s memoir is quite different; here is a little boy “driving” a little car, but he’s not looking at whatever road is ahead — he’s staring sideways, at the reader, with dark eyes set into a face that might be either serious or sad, depending on the viewer’s interpretation.
My sister is an astute reader. I want to ask her what she thinks of that cover photo (one of many childhood photos of Shteyngart scattered throughout this book). But I’ll wait until I’ve finished Little Failure and can tell her — I hope — that I also “got it.”