I first heard Gary Shteyngart speak at the Skirball in 2010, on the book tour for his novel Super Sad True Love Story. That evening, at the end of his reading, I dutifully made my way to the signing table to get my copy autographed.
“Ah, to Jennifer,” Shteyngart said, smiling and raising one eyebrow as he signed my book—the raised brow he employs occasionally when photographed. (Years later, I would learn the significance of my name to Gary, the cause of that raised eyebrow, but I am getting ahead of myself …). That elevated brow boomeranged back at me a few years later, in the headshot sent to promote Shteyngart’s January 16 reading of his new memoir, Little Failure—again at the Skirball. There was that same damn eyebrow arching over the rim of Gary’s eyeglasses, a straight gaze into the camera, a smirky half-grin, chin cupped in hand.
Ever since I saw him at that first Skirball talk, Shteyngart has always just seemed THERE. Every few months I’d come across one of his really funny short stories in the New Yorker, Travel + Leisure, or the New York Times.
And the guy sure has a way with the literary blurb! It feels like for nearly every book I’ve even considered reading in the past year or so, Shteyngart has already been there, read it, and come up with a hilarious, tweet-worthy blurb. There’s even a Tumblr feed dedicated to his masterful blurbs.
This went on for YEARS. So in December, in preparation for his upcoming Skirball reading, I cracked open the preview proof of Little Failure with anticipation. After all, Andy Borowitz, an eminent judge of funniness, declared the book to be “hilarious and moving” in the New York Times. I expected some witty, excellent writing and a good social misfit story. I also expected a lot of weirdness. Gary did not disappoint.
When asked about the book by friends and colleagues, I’ve shared that the author was clearly a spoiled little brat who freely exhibited intolerance, mean-spiritedness, and selfishness. His own father nicknamed him Snotty. But there’s also a unique brilliance to this little brat; Shteyngart is a gifted storyteller. His bio has elements of the classic American Dream immigrant story, but with unusual twists. The memoir might also have been titled Super Sad True Love Story! Indeed, I found it more compelling and affecting than that novel, not least because it’s real life. As Shteyngart told Terry Gross at NPR, “There are scenes of cruelty between all of us, but it made me love my parents much more because I thought, ‘My God. Where did you come from? What a place you came from with Hitler and Stalin and the lies. I can’t believe you did as well as you did.’” Yes, I can confirm that I felt like shedding a few tears as I read the story of poor Snotty. And then later, the sincere desire to slap him.
Little Failure is a rich and charming book. Archival black-and-white family photos illustrate Shteyngart’s life stages. Each chapter starts off with an awkward image of Gary’s family or the author himself with some nebbishy hairstyle or outfit. Also, pictures of his college girlfriend, Jennifer. (Now I get it!) As with most memoirs, the inclusion of these photos adds an element of sincerity and relatability to the experience of reading Little Failure. Who hasn’t felt a little more empathy for a person after seeing his or her baby pictures?
I’m happy to recommend this book, and look forward to the return of Gary Shteyngart (and his eyebrow) to the Skirball on Thursday, January 16.