"MEMOIR" IS A SOPPY TERM, all too often slapped onto personal accounts of adversity, spiritual epiphany, maybe some hard-won sobriety or a bit of non-prurient sex stuff. It promises a story: X overcomes Y, finds the way to Z.
But X, Y, and Z are all mixed up in novelist Gary Shteyngart's Little Failure, which is perhaps more accurately billed as an "autobiography," something dustier and more pragmatic; it's an accounting of the facts on the ground, narrative be damned.
Sure, there are plenty of stories in Little Failure: of Shteyngart's childhood in Soviet Russia, his emigration to Queens, his childhood as a nerdy outcast turned drug-addled teen, his boozy, disreputable 20s, and through it all, the complicated love of his very-Russian parents. But these stories are strung together by sheer chronology, rather than serving some greater narrative about Gary sobering up, or Gary becoming a writer, or Gary forgiving his parents—though these things all happen, more or less.
It's refreshing, this throw-it-all-at-the-wall approach, and if certain family-history-dense portions of the book drag, Shteyngart is too funny a writer to allow things to lull for long.
To choose one example from a book full of them, his pen is particularly poisonous on the subject of his alma mater, Oberlin, "established in 1833 so that people who couldn't otherwise find love, the emotional invalids and Elephant Men of the world, could do so." And "Oberlin is something nice you do for your child when you're rich." Shteyngart's humor has an edge, and that edge is Russian: "As I march my relatives onto the pages of this book, please remember that I am also marching them toward their graves and that they will most likely meet their ends in some of the worst ways imaginable," he writes early on. Context noted.
Among its throughlines, Little Failure does, in fact, chart Shteyngart's journey as a writer, from early stories written at the encouragement of his grandmother, to the publication of his first novel The Russian Debutante's Handbook, to the writing of Little Failure itself. But I wouldn't call this a memoir about the development of a writer—except insofar as it tacitly acknowledges that the story of the writer is the story of the life itself, in all its funny, heartbreaking, and profane complexity.