Little Failure...Not. Professor Gary Shteyngart's Super True Memoir of Life from Communism to Capitalism

Jan. 13, 2014Bookmark and Share
Gary Shteyngart
Gary Shteyngart

When Gary Shteyngart became a professor of writing at Columbia in 2007, he finally fulfilled his immigrant parents’ Ivy League dreams. As he recounts in his new memoir, Little Failure, Shteyngart’s high school grades weren’t stellar enough to gain him admission to a top college, which meant he had failed himself, his parents and his future: “We may as well not have come here,” he writes in the book.

Now, after publishing three award-winning, critically acclaimed works of fiction, Shteyngart has turned his acerbic lens on himself to tell the tale of his family’s journey from Russia to America in a way that is both heartbreaking and hilarious. His memoir is a visceral portrait of the immigrant experience, celebrating and skewering all he holds dear: family, literature, women and the homes he has had in the former Soviet Union and in the United States.

Shteyngart has written a memoir far earlier than most writers. “I may be 41 in American years, but I’m about 74 in Russian years, since Russians only live till about age 60,” he said.

“The book is the story of two failing superpowers. I started in one, then came to the next,” he said. “Everywhere I go seems to fall apart. I guess China won’t let me in.” Perhaps not, given the book’s title, which refers to the nickname—Failurchka—that his mother gave him after a series of drug- and alcohol-fueled antics at Stuyvesant High School and at Oberlin College.

Born Igor Shteyngart in Leningrad in 1972, his parents uprooted the family seven years later, moving to New York City as part of the wave of Soviet Jewry allowed to emigrate under an agreement between Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev. They settled in Queens, which, “after a childhood spent in the Soviet Union is the equivalent to stumbling off a monochromatic cliff and landing in a pool of pure Technicolor,” he writes.

One of the family’s first decisions was to change Shteyngart’s birth name because “Igor is Frankenstein’s assistant, and I have enough problems already” trying to assimilate at a Hebrew day school as an anxious, asthmatic, hard-to-understand outsider. The name Gary, by contrast, conjures the ultra-American actor Gary Cooper.

Shteyngart’s account of his dislocation and search for self-identity continues through college, after which he spent his early adulthood lurching from one failed relationship to the next and writing draft after draft of his first novel. The book also traces his fraught relationship with his father, a depressive who yearned to be an opera singer but became an engineer; and his mother, who bickers frequently with both her husband and son.

'Little Failure' cover
Image courtesy of Gary Shteyngart

Enter Chang-rae Lee, a Korean-American novelist whose books center on the immigrant experience. Lee convinced Shteyngart to enroll in the creative writing program at Hunter College that he then directed. (Lee is now a professor at Princeton, where he directs the creative writing program.) It was Lee who got Shteyngart his first book deal, which resulted in the 2002 publication of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. Two other highly praised novels followed, Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story.

Little Failure wouldn’t have been possible without Chang-rae,” said Shteyngart. “He sat me down and said, ‘Gary, you can continue writing comedies of manners or you can write something about family, where blood is invested in every situation.’ Those are words I still live by. I took this book as far and as honestly as I possibly could.”

At Columbia, Shteyngart teaches two courses every spring in the Writing Program at the School of the Arts: a fiction workshop and a class on immigrant writing called “Strangers in A Strange Land.” One of his students several years ago was actor James Franco, who has had starring roles in Shteyngart's comical "book trailers," or videos, about Little Failure, and Super Sad True Love Story.

“I love my students,” he said. “They are so smart and well-read. And that’s what really sets Columbia’s graduate writing program apart. Students here are not only writing, but also reading. You can’t become a good writer unless you are a well-developed reader.” As a final thought, Shteyngart adds, “I love Columbia with all my heart. I just wish there was one good restaurant in the neighborhood.”

—By Eve Glasberg

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Milestones

Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies Rashid Khalidi, won the 2014 Lionel Trilling Book Award for Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East.

Allison Lewko, assistant professor of computer science, was named to the annual Forbes 30 under 30 list in the science and health care category for her work designing encryption algorithms and keeping data secure.

Victor P. Goldberg, Jerome L. Greene Professor of Transactional Law, has been elected to the American Law Institute.

The Record