Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart, book review: Wonderful life of a refugee with a love of stories


At the Jaipur literary festival last year as the sandwich filling in the two hunks of chewy flavoursome sourdough writers, Gary Shteyngart and Howard Jacobson, I have good reason to hate them. The audience sat unappreciatively waiting for me to finish so they could get back to Gary and Howard who performed the Jewish shtick to Indians who had never heard the jokes before. Ideally this review could be an early entry for next year’s Hatchet Job prize, set up to reward the most wounding literary criticism. I’d love to stick it to Shteyngart despite the many hotel drinks we shared afterwards.

The great flaw of the Hatchet Job prize lies in its internal contradiction, that it's easier to write with amusing malice of a book that's no good than it is to say why something works. Shteyngart, the author of three novels, has written a memoir, a story of how a small family of Soviet Jews survived the 20th century, learning how to smile "fully, with teeth, in the American manner". If you want to know what I think of this book, the answer is: "Trust me, it's wonderful, you should read it, and coming from me, who died on the platform at a literary festival next to him, that's all you need to know."

So what's good about it? Obviously it's funny; what Russian Jew isn't? Then there are the illustrations. He has tracked his progress from Soviet babyhood to American slacker in a series of family photographs in which he appears as "a Marcel Proust-looking boy in a kind of Warsaw Pact Speedo... staring into the limitless future." A family portrait from 1940 in the Ukraine depicts women in tight satin dresses and suited men glancing to their left. "Just about everyone is going to die soon," the caption reads.

The Shteyngarts were the Grain Jews, part of an exchange in the '70s where the USSR got wheat to eat and the USA got scientists and forged them into the inventors of Google (or taxi drivers). As soon as they landed in America, the Shteyngarts became Republicans, the teenage Gary worked on George Bush Senior's election campaign. He's plonked into both elementary school and Hebrew school with no English and becomes the second most bullied kid in the class, a failure even at being a failure. He overcomes this the classic way. By telling stories and making people laugh. He fails to get into law school and goes to the liberal arts college, Oberlin. A mistake. "Oberlin is something nice you do for your child when you're rich... But I'm still a hungry, Kiełbasa-fuelled, fucked-up refugee."

Twenty-six million died on the Russian side in the Second World War. Shteyngart's grandfather was killed in February 1943 at Leningrad. As his grandson writes on a family trip there: "It is not an exaggeration to say that those of us who are Russian, or Russian American, or Russian anything, are the offspring of these battles." Shteyngart's story is that of the pain of the refugee and the immigrant, of the agonising fault-lines between parents and children. For it is his parents' epithet – the little failure – that haunts him. They remain Republicans, cemented into hatred of Lenin-land but remaining creatures of it.

On that trip back to the old country, he understands why his father had screamed that it was better his son be a homosexual than submit to the psychoanalyst's couch. For he too had been victim of the Soviet "psychiatric" institution. This ménage a trois, of father, mother and son, are bound together by chains of love. Without his parents' memories; without the anger and hurt, there is no story. The son is a literary star, not a lawyer or a doctor, explicable Soviet jobs. Writing never got any Russian Jew into anything but trouble. Yet, daringly, the Shteyngarts try an American smile, what do they have to lose, when Lenin is at the breaker's yard and there are more members of the Bush family along any minute?