Gary Shteyngart by Nathan Gelgud, 2014.
Scroll down for Nathan Gelgud's main illustration inspired by Shteyngart's new book.
In his new memoir Little Failure, a twenty-something Gary Shteyngart visits the (now closed) Strand Book Store Annex in downtown Manhattan on his two-hour lunch breaks. "In 1996," he points out, "people still read books and the city could support an extra branch of the legendary Strand in the Financial District, which is to say that stockbrokers, secretaries, government functionaries -- everybody back then was expected to have some kind of inner life."
This sounds a bit cynical or nostalgic, but it’s fair: the Strand Annex was a fun place to visit, in large part because its presence on that street always felt surprising, no matter how many times you visited. At the Annex, Shteyngart encounters a panic-attack inducing image of the Chesme Church, which stands in St. Petersburg, Russia. It was built in 1780 to honor the Russian victory in the Battle of Chesma of 1770, an important naval battle fought against the Ottoman Empire. It’s built in the Gothic Revival style, and it looks like a large, elaborate pink and white cake that would stand unwanted but occasionally admired in the window of an eager bakery.
Twenty-something Shteyngart is taking lunch breaks in the Financial District because he’s working at an immigrant resettlement agency job which his mom procured for him upon "realizing that I was never going to amount to much." The title of the book comes from his mother’s nickname for him, which might have something to do with Shteyngart’s self-deprecating humor and his years in intense therapy.
Young Shteyngart harbors dreams of becoming a writer, which is why he’s in the Strand Annex, sorting through discounted titles "looking for someone just like me on the back cover: a young goateed boulevardier, a desperately urban person, obsessed with the Orwells and Dos Passoses." When he comes upon the book St. Petersburg: Architecture of the Tsars, he's driven to panic -- the sensation that his "nervous, twitching body will never find rest, or maybe that it will find eternal rest all too soon, that is to say pass out and die." In his acclaimed novels, and in this memoir, Shteyngart is good at writing about a lot of different things, but especially discomfort.
His Russian roots and the memories attached to the St. Petersburg church play a big part in Shteyngart's unease, and the scene in the Strand is a perfect cross-section of Little Failure in many ways. It encompasses his Russian childhood, his hope that the woman he loves would be impressed if he owned the architecture book, his aspirations as a writer, and his parents’ expectations. Throughout the memoir, he weaves in and out of these themes, using anecdotes in ways that are masterful and discomfiting, structured and frenetic. His funny jokes about maladjustment should ensure that copies of Little Failure won’t someday end up in a dusty remainder bin at a used bookstore. But if they did, he would write about it with insight.