“The next year I get the present every boy wants. A circumcision.” Shteyngart starts out the ninth chapter of his memoir by recalling the ritual operation that most boys receive within a week after they’re born, but which he underwent at age eight. It isn’t for the sake of shock value that Shteyngart tells us about the customary snipping required by Jewish law, but were barred from receiving in the Soviet Union.
It isn’t like the scene in his second novel, Absurdistan, where Shteyngart’s protagonist, Misha, receives the same ritual cut, drunk and 18 years old (although Misha does wake up in a hospital gown with a hole “cut in its lower region,” much like Shteyngart’s mother “cut a hole in my underwear so my broken penis will not have to touch polyester.”). It might seem like a memory included to make the reader chuckle — Shteyngart tells me that he realized he was funny at an early age — but the circumcision scene in his memoir is a telling moment that sums up the immigrant experience of making sacrifices for the sake of a new homeland.
It’s scenes like this that not only sum up the experience of coming to America and assimilating, but also highlight Gary Shteyngart’s unique strengths as a storyteller — what makes Little Failure the type of memoir you can’t help loving, page after page. We learn about the author’s family’s history, his own brief flirtations with being a George Bush Sr. Republican, his days at Oberlin College, and what propels us through all of it is Shteyngart’s familiar voice. Little Failure succeeds twofold, as an immigrant’s memoir as well as a literary memoir, but ultimately it’s a great book because it is the author’s true story, the story from which all his past stories sprung.
What really defines Shteyngart’s work, and will be interesting to see as his work evolves, however, isn’t the Shteyngart character or the Shteyngart experiences transformed into fiction; instead, the author has a unique ability to balance humor, tenderness, and melancholy without falling prey to crass jokes or boorish cheap shots. That takes intuition. “It’s been my life’s work, so all I’ve been trying to do is find that balance,” he says, discussing his own evolution over his three novels. By his second novel, he tells me, “I was already kind of depressed by the world, and my tone shifted more to sadness.” But since he’s Gary Shteyngart, the self-proclaimed “second most-hated boy” in his Jewish day school, there’s always humor, because he’s an author that always falls back on what he knows.