A first work of nonfiction by an acclaimed novelist finds the delicate balance between sidesplitting and heartbreaking.
"Survival," writes Absurdistan novelist Gary Shteyngart in his new memoir, Little Failure, requires "replacing the love of the beautiful with the love of what is funny, humor being the last resort of the besieged Jew." In this richly anecdotal memoir of his family's move from the Soviet Union to Queens, New York, in 1979, and their subsequent
(mis-)adventures, Shteyngart makes ample use of his gifts as a humorist. Young Gary, whose name was changed from the Russian Igor at a family council—"Igor is Frankenstein's assistant, and I have enough problems already"—puzzles over his grandma's antiquated television set, which "catches either picture or sound"; yearns in vain at McDonald's for the "sixty-nine-cent hamburger" while his parents and their friends unabashedly spread out their "ethnic meal" of soft-boiled eggs and beet salad; and shares his parents' wild excitement over Publishers Clearing House's promise of millions. But the comedy is bittersweet: Beneath the surface flow the dark undercurrents of a legacy of Nazi invasions, of displacement, of Russia's brutal past. Shteyngart adroitly juxtaposes chilling recollections of a terrifying folk remedy for his childhood asthma and a painful circumcision at age 8 with hilarious riffs on losing his Russian accent and the time his father accidentally took him to see the X-rated movie Emmanuelle, thinking that because it was French, "it must be very cultured." Still, long after the laughter fades, there lingers the image of a lonely, sickly child who learns to write to express a message "both desperate and common": "Please love me."
— Olga Grushin