Lit­tle Fail­ure: A Memoir

By – January 2, 2014

With his mem­oir Lit­tle Fail­ure, acclaimed nov­el­ist Gary Shteyn­gart brings the read­er through his asth­mat­ic child­hood in St. Peters­burg, Rus­sia and across the ocean as his fam­i­ly immi­grates to the Unit­ed States. We watch lit­tle Gary, née Igor, fum­ble through inte­gra­tion into Amer­i­can life and grap­ple with simul­ta­ne­ous love, devo­tion, and hatred for his par­ents, whom he per­ceives to be eter­nal­ly dis­ap­point­ed in him. Though Shteyn­gart con­tin­ues to floun­der at the Solomon Schechter School of Queens, the high­ly com­pet­i­tive Stuyvesant High School and then Ober­lin Col­lege, he con­sis­tent­ly returns to writ­ing as his anchor, and through writ­ing he ulti­mate­ly escapes his lit­tle fail­ure” status.

Gary Shteyngart’s sto­ry nev­er feels mon­u­men­tal, or even unusu­al — many before him have expe­ri­enced the alien­ation of the immi­grant expe­ri­ence and the chal­lenges of com­ing-of-age. Lone­li­ness, com­pli­cat­ed by self-med­ica­tion, com­plex fam­i­ly rela­tion­ships, and lack of sense of self are com­mon themes in lit­er­a­ture and in life — but it is Shteyngart’s pre­cise, hilar­i­ous, and imag­i­na­tive writ­ing style that makes Lit­tle Fail­ure a worth­while read. Through his well-craft­ed prose, the read­er gains a nuanced under­stand­ing of his par­tic­u­lar jour­ney from a sick­ly but high­ly cre­ative child to an under­achiev­ing, self-loathing, and unmoored young man, to the world-class author, Colum­bia pro­fes­sor, and some­what self-actu­al­ized adult. Read­ers famil­iar with Shteyngart’s nov­els will find extra enjoy­ment in Lit­tle Fail­ure as they dis­cov­er the sim­i­lar­i­ties between Igor/Gary’s own jour­ney and those of his protagonists.

Danielle Min­dess is Edu­ca­tion Coor­di­na­tor for the Doe Fund’s Ready, Will­ing & Able pro­gram in New York City. She grad­u­at­ed with a B.A. in The­ater Stud­ies from Emory University.

Discussion Questions

JBC Book Clubs Dis­cus­sion Questions

  • Did read­ing this book change the way you view Shteyn­gart’s novels?
  • Were you able to sep­a­rate the author from his char­ac­ters while read­ing this book?
  • Shteyn­gart seems to have found a way to make peace with his par­ents – as a read­er, were you able to accept them, flaws and all, as well?
  • In the book, Shteyn­gart writes In Hebrew school … I was ridiculed for being an inau­then­tic Amer­i­can, and now [in col­lege] I am being charged with being an inau­then­tic Russ­ian. I do not yet under­stand that this very para­dox is the true sub­ject of so-called immi­grant fic­tion.” Do you agree?
  • Shteyn­gart vows that, as opposed to his nov­els, in his mem­oir, The laugh­ter would be inter­mit­tent. There would be no safe­ty.” Do you think he kept his promise?
  • What do you think of Gary’s rela­tion­ships with his mentors?
  • Why do you think Shteyn­gart chose to call the book Lit­tle Failure”?
  • What did the return trip to Rus­sia do for the Shteyn­garts, for Gary, and for the book as a whole?

JBC Book Clubs ques­tions © Jew­ish Book Coun­cil, Inc., 2014