Humor, writes Gary Shteyngart in his engrossing memoir, Little Failure, is “the last resort of the besieged Jew, especially when he is placed among his own kind.” Shteyngart knows what it means to be besieged — by the ghosts of relatives killed in Russia during World War II, and by the American culture into which he is thrust in 1978 at the age of 7 when his Jewish parents are allowed to emigrate from the Soviet Union. To be lifted from “fourteen shades of Stalin-era beige” and dropped into Technicolor America is as vertiginous to the young Igor (rechristened Gary to save him some physical and psychological torment) as the dissolution of the Soviet Union will be to millions of people some 13 years later.
As a memoirist, the award-winning Shteyngart is unflinchingly honest. He arrives in New York convinced that he is crossing the threshold of the Soviet Union’s most implacable enemy. Not only is his family poor and dependent on charity, but Shteyngart is a diminutive and nerdy asthmatic who speaks less than a dozen words of English and bears an unpronounceable surname. His overprotective mother spies danger around every corner and sews Gary’s mittens to his coat so they won’t get lost. Against this foolproof recipe for peer ridicule and angst, Shteyngart deploys a precocious mind and an acute sense of humor. By turns poignant and hilarious, Little Failure contains echoes of Franz Kafka, the Marx Brothers, and Philip Roth. —Brian Tanguay
UCSB Arts & Lectures’ An Evening with Gary Shteyngart takes place Thursday, April 10, 8 p.m., at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. Free. Call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.