I love the process of finding new books almost as much as I love reading them. I have a ridiculous pile of books to read that only ever seems to grow, no matter how much time I have to read. I live near a wonderful second hand bookshop that I visit far too often and never walk out empty handed. I spend hours reading book reviews from The New Yorker, The Guardian, the LA Review of Books, The New York Times and The Independent. I follow a stream of publishers and booksellers on Twitter. I have a wonderful bunch of extremely generous bookish friends who not only have fantastic recommendations but also share a love of reading and sharing. And despite all this, I still get wildly excited by new books. So when this amazing promotional video for Little Failure did the rounds online late last year, I knew I had to read it.
Gary Shteyngart’s fourth book Little Failure is a funny and heartfelt memoir. It focuses on identity through his family’s immigration from the Soviet Union to the United States, but is also a beautiful recounting of awkward teenage years as we discover who we are, that are parents are crazy, and what on earth we’re going to do with the rest of our lives. Like many immigrant stories, it’s one of luck, of heartbreak, of new and lost identities, of family and of food.
“Unbeknownst to me, the Soviet Union is falling apart. The grain harvests have been terrible; there is hardly enough grain to feed the masses or keep them fully drunk. Meanwhile, in the United States a grassroots movement to free Soviet Jews from their polyester captivity has gained momentum”.
What America brings is choice: of types of cereal, of housing, of education. This is not without struggle, of course. Family members are left behind, sacrifices are made, and in the late 1970’s it’s not easy being Russian in America, especially as a physically and emotionally fragile child. It’s through Shteyngart’s imagination that he navigates childhood in an unfamiliar place and as an awkward teen with few friends. Slowly, he turns things around. He moves schools and is no longer just the Russian kid – suddenly he one of hundreds of immigrants and it is no longer an identifier. “This is my new happiness. Their complete indifference”.
We learn very early on that the Shteyngart’s are perfect material for a sitcom, a film or in this case, a memoir. The staged portraits of Gary as a child that announce each new chapter are a thing of wonder. Their attitudes to each other and the world around them are warped at best. But despite this, they are a strong unit. Gary knows his parents are crazy and he sees this in his make up. But the love and understanding that he shows for them, what they have done for him, shines through the humour:
“If the war hadn’t happened,” my father says, “my parents would have had two, three children.” Rarely, but sometimes, the differences between us collapse as quickly as the Soviet Union’s defences on June 22, 1941. Like my father, I am also an only child.
“Your mother and I should have had another baby,” my father says of that absence. “But we didn’t get along in America.”
But what makes Little Failure shine through the humour is the heart. Shteyngart plays the clown and still comes across as the awkward child in the playground as an adult, but he also makes some beautifully astute observations. He is an awful teenager and clichéd college student in so many ways, but his reflection on this I found incredibly touching:
“I am a kind of joke, but the question is: what kind? My job is to keep everyone guessing. Because what I do is part performance art, part ineloquent plea for help, part unprocessed outer-borough aggression, part just me being a jackass”.
It’s this honesty that drew me to Gary and kept me reading. As I was reading I knew he was an awful and clichéd teenager in the way I knew I was at the time but hey, isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing? The beauty of Little Failure is that you want Shteyngart to prove everyone wrong. I know he’s a published author – I bought the book off the shelf – but I kept finding myself cheering him on in the same way that I cheer on my ridiculously flawed but much loved football team. They are the perennial underdog and I want them to succeed. I won’t believe it if and when they eventually do, in the same way that I know Shteyngart probably doesn’t quite believe his success either. But that’s what I love: the vulnerability, the honesty and the ability to look at yourself and laugh. It’s what makes Little Failure a wonderful book, and Shteyngart an author to read much further.
There are some wonderful moments in Little Failure regarding food: it becomes a signifier for Shteyngart. From the dark rye bread sandwiches of unspreadable butter and chunks of raw garlic to fight off yet another illness as a child, to the awkward journey of discovering what American food is and is not depending on how much money you have to spend, to some wonderful nostalgia around the food cooked by Gary’s mother and grandmother. I spoke in my post about Judy Blume and Lena Dunham’s In Conversation about the affect my grandmother had on my love of food, and again I was reminded of this reading Little Failure. But as I read about Shteyngart’s childhood, I thought back to what my Mum used to cook for me. Whenever it was my birthday, or for some reason or other I was eligible for a treat, I would get to decide what I wanted Mum to cook for our family for dinner. This was almost always met with the same response: lasanga for dinner and lemon pudding for dessert. As an adult, not only does gooey melted cheese provide me with that homely sense of comfort it does to us all, it also reminds me of being treated to my favourite meal, made lovingly by my Mum.
With eggplants in season and the weather starting to change, I tried to make a somewhat healthier and lighter version of the traditional stodgy white sauce and beef lasagne by turning to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recipe for Melanzane Parmigiana from his wonderful cookbook River Cottage Veg Every Day. Layers of eggplant are held together with long strings of silken mozzarella, balanced out by a tart tomato sauce. Serving this with a large fresh green salad, as recommended here, particularly when served with a tangy vinaigrette dressing, also helps to counter the indulgence of all that cheese and helps you think that you might actually be more of a grown up than you thought.