By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by: Jonathan Todd Ross
Little Failure may seem like a humorous anecdote to some but it is also about the angst and hardship of immigration. At the age of 38, Gary Shteyngart’s “…Memoir” seems hubristic. Little Failure is a case in point, but the author shows more self-loathing than excessive self-pride in his story of coming from Russia to New York at the age of six to become an American.
Shteyngart has the good fortune of going to a Jewish grade school, Solomon Schechter, to help him transition from being a Russian speaking immigrant to an English-speaking writer. Solomon Schechter, more than most American schools, appreciates and works on transitioning children from one culture to another. Shteyngart does not fairly credit Solomon Schechter’s help in his immigrant transition but it seems fair to suggest being part of a smaller culture helps transition to a completely different and larger culture.
Shteyngart writes a great deal about his relationship with his father and mother that resonate in some ways with all boys growing into manhood. Both parents love their son. In Shteyngart’s memoir, his father tells imaginative stories, but also physically punishes his son for perceived insubordination and bad behavior. Shteyngart remembers passive/aggressive actions by his mother; e.g. a habit of not talking to him as a way of punishing perceived transgressions.
As with most maturing male children, Shteyngart is obsessed with sex. He covets attention of older men as father figures. He desires women that never give him a serious look until he is 20 years old. He compensates for inattention by being a class clown; which is one of many coping mechanisms used by children with low self-esteem.
Sthteyngart writes that he is the apple of his grandmother’s eye and his parents have high expectations for him. Sthteyngart is expected to excel in school to become a doctor or lawyer. However, he finds he does not have enough interest or ability to achieve those goals and turns to writing. He goes to Oberlin College, partly because of a girl, but primarily because it offers escape from home and the potential for meeting his parent’s expectation. He takes two majors, the first is political science and, presumably, the second is English or literature. The political science is for his parent’s push for law school. His other major is to feed his natural interest.
Sthteyngart becomes something of a hippie; i.e. smoking dope, drinking, and generally goofing off but he manages to keep his grades high enough to satisfy his parents and feed his ambition to be a writer. He actively supports the first Bush’s election campaign as a confirmed Republican. He covets a financial patron, a father figure, to support his vices and the pursuit of writing. He turns to psychoanalysis for better understanding of his inner-life. He believes psychoanalysis helps him cope with his insecurities. After a few odd sexual relationships, he marries and is moderately successful as a writer.
Shteyngart’s first book (not Little Failure) is published with good reviews. The best that can be said about Little Failure is that it tells a story of growing to manhood in 20th century America. Little Failure is as its title says, a memoir, but it seems more like displaced hubris than any revelation about growing up; or a teaser to read one of Shteyngart’s novels. Aside from the immigrant parts of Shteyngart’s life, little new coming-of-age’ ground is broken; i.e. few teaching-moments are harvested.
The closest Americans come to being native are Indians. Genuine natives preceded written history. We are all immigrants. Sad to think how President Trump is deluded by a belief that immigrants are likely terrorists when many terrorists are American born and bred.