Read this: Little Failure

A few weeks ago, a friend asked me why I was still carrying around a copy of Little Failure, Gary Shteyngart’s memoir.

“You’ve been reading that for a really long time,” she said. “I thought you said it was good.”

She was right – that book has been in my bag for the better part of two months. That’s because I read it twice. And just for good measure, I read the last chapter a third time. It was too pretty not to.

Then, because she didn’t ask, I re-told her the story about the time that I met Mr. Shteyngart two years ago. A friend of mine had gone to high school with him and he introduced me at a bar on the Lower East Side. I repaid the favor by immediately spilling an entire gin and tonic in my own lap – a drink that I don’t even much like but ordered anyway because that was what everyone else was having and I didn’t want to stand out – the irony of which did not escape me as I brushed the ice cubes that came with it onto the floor.

“Where did your drink go?” my friend asked. “How did you finish that so fast?”

Honestly, I’m surprised he even had to start with those questions. You would think that after years of knowing me, he would have jumped ahead to, “How and where did you spill that?” Or maybe even just a simple, “In your purse or on your shoes?” If you must know, when I was trying to take off my coat in the crowded booth, I hooked my belt on the straw and tipped the whole thing over.

Not to be outdone, when my friend got up to get me another cocktail, he tripped on the leg of a chair, taking both it and him to the ground. If that sounds bad, well rest assured, it looked even worse.

“Let’s try to sit still,” I said to him when he came back to the table. It took some effort, but we nailed it.

Of course, after reading Little Failure, I realize that I probably shouldn’t have gotten quite so worked up about any of this. If nothing else, the book proves that Mr. Shteyngart knows a thing or two about making a scene. Even if he noticed my spilled drink, I doubt he would have thought anything of it – other than maybe to be disappointed by the waste of perfectly good gin.

In fact, the book read like one long, glorious spill. It’s the story of growing up as an immigrant in Queens – about the struggle to adjust and the attempt to fit in, neither of which ever really go away even after the author loses his accent and buys first-hand clothes. It’s a chronicle of all the usual teenage problems: the crippling embarrassment of familial dysfunction, the desperate need to make friends, the half-hearted attempt to live up to expectations. The section on his college years were my favorite, mostly because things seem to get better for the author. You’re rooting for him and just as he’s making some real progress, he crashes an Oldsmobile into a chain restaurant in Alabama. It’s perfect.

Of course, Mr. Shteyngart goes on to be an astounding success at the things that appear to be most important to him: he’s an accomplished writer; he falls in love and gets married; and he seems to come to a place of mutual understanding with his family. In other words, this book is pretty much the success story every awkward kid and ugly teenager and struggling young adult can hope for. It’s a fairy tale and an anthem for us all.

My summary can’t do Little Failure justice. It’s beautiful and beautifully written and I wish I met Gary Shteyngart today instead of two years ago so that I could tell him as much. Instead, I’ll give this advice to anyone: read the book. Read it twice. And as always, watch your step.


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