In Conversation with Gary Shteyngart
Interview by Samson Lahti-Parsell
Portrait by Mark Hartman
Pick any word in the title of Gary Shteyngart’s latest novel, Super Sad True Love Story, and it will underscore one of the book’s startling themes. It’s super because it’s full of fantastic things that we can only look forward to (or else look away from), such as the rise of social media and the ever-increasing dependency on technology. It’s sad because it’s hard to find a real winner in it, as everyone is characterized by their rank within categories such as “hotness” and “fuckability,” with a constant computer stream informing people of their depression meter and cholesterol levels. It’s true because much about this novel reverberates with the consciousness of a declining literate public and the Internet’s effect on literacy’s ruin. Of course, it’s still a work of love, in all its infantile, mature, idealistic and sometimes even cynical forms. And at the end of the day, it’s a story of fiction, though barely.
Born in Russia, raised in New York City, Gary cites the Russian masters, with their doorstop novels, as his early inspiration to write. Super Sad reflects the breadth of his dual heritage, blending the rich, dark sentimentality of Russian literature with the witty satire of postmodern American writing. He has the ability to combine moments of deep sorrow with moments of pure whimsy without lessening either. Varying greatly in tone from The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absurdistan—his two earlier novels, which are more traditional both in subject and form—Super Sad is told through diary entries, emails and texts, interspersed with messages from a monopolizing social media network named GlobalTeens, which hints at both Facebook and an obsession with youth culture. Characters are illiterate and afraid of being alone. They are disgusted at decay, smells and other natural human conditions. The country is in massive debt to the Chinese, and people are divided into categories of Lower Net Worth Individuals and Higher Net Worth Individuals. If this all sounds familiar, it is meant to. Gary creates a touching love story that is the only glimpse of hope amidst the carnage our civilization has created. The major theme at work here is disconnection, as human beings spiral away from meaningful forms of intimacy and communication into mass-messaged Tweets and updates. Recently named to The New Yorker’s prestigious 20 Under 40 list, Gary has emerged as one of the leading voices of a new generation of writers, authoring successful books while not so gently reminding us that fewer and fewer people will be reading them.
Samson Lahti-Parsell: Of your three books, which one was the most challenging for you
Gary Shteyngart: I would say Super Sad because of several factors. The first book, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, was very easy to write—not easy to write, I shouldn’t say that. Well, I wrote it in college. When you’re in your early twenties, you mostly write about yourself. And so it was more of an autobiographical novel. I tried not to make it the typical immigrant “they came, they saw, they conquered” kind of stuff. I tried to make it more interesting with little plot twists. All my novels are pretty plot driven. Absurdistan was more of an act of journalism. I went over to that part of the world [because] I wanted countries which have ethnic tension in them. One was Georgia, which has had huge secessionist movements, and then again there was Azerbaijan, one of the very oil rich countries, which had a war with Armenia.
But for Super Sad I was really interested in going further afield in a way I wasn’t entirely comfortable with because I didn’t know anything about science. So I had an intern who helped me out with the science aspect of it.
Samson: Your first two books have a very similar format. But with Super Sad it’s very different. The series of letters is somewhat how the novel got started as a form. It’s almost like you’ve gone back to the traditional with a completely futuristic, non-traditional story.
Gary: The epistolary novel is one that, yeah, I guess there aren’t too many of them left anymore. When you go to a restaurant, sometimes the trend these days, especially with the economy tanking, is comfort food. We want something comforting, a comforting format. But at the same time, you use all kinds of new ingredients to mess around with it. So you will put in things from Laos or Venezuela or whatever the hell—some way to tweak it. This is what we’re doing here with Super Sad; there’s a more comforting kind of format, that of the epistolary novel. Yet at the same time it’s a dystopian fiction. We are really trying to play around here.
Samson: Between The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Super Sad have you changed your approach to writing? Have you changed your methods for getting started or your methods for filling out a plot?
Gary: With a thing like Absurdistan, I remember writing down 37 plot points or something like that, 36 plot points. A whole bunch of things have to happen. Everything was plotted out very carefully. With Super Sad I had some general ideas of what was going to happen, but at the same time I wanted things to happen more with Lenny and Eunice sort of just talking to each other back and forth or talking, rather, past each other. For example, they go to dinner with Eunice’s parents, and Lenny thinks this is the best thing that is ever going to happen; he thinks he can really charm them. And then Eunice of course says, “No, stupid white guy doesn’t get the picture at all.”
Samson: When I describe your books to other people, I call you a mix between Joseph Heller, Philip Roth and Douglas Adams.
Gary: Those are all good things. At various points in my life, each one of those writers has been a kind of hero to me, so I think that’s a good combination. When I was in elementary school, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was a huge, huge thing for me. I remember even getting the video game.
Samson: Do you think you will ever move away from absurdity and satire?
Gary: Yeah, I’m going to change things around. You can’t do one thing forever—the same kind of satire. A good example is Evelyn Waugh. He wrote so many really, really funny books, which I think really stand the test of time. Some people may disagree, but I enjoyed his earlier very, very satiric and comedic works. And then he came out with Brideshead Revisited and, wow, it was such a different stance. I don’t think I’m going to keep doing the same thing over and over again, although I don’t want to abandon this form. I’ll certainly come back to it. George Saunders is a satirist, but he can be so heartbreaking in his satire. I’ve been thinking about that a lot. Having said that, each book is different. Super Sad is more heartfelt for me, because it wasn’t some abstract country blowing up. It was America. This is where I live. It wasn’t some country burning, it was the Walmarts. The Duane Reades were on fire. It makes for something different. It felt closer. The love story wasn’t just between Lenny and Eunice; it was also Lenny and Eunice’s love for their country and for their city.
Samson: In interviews I’ve read as research, some of your interviewers keep talking about this dystopian vision, and how at some point in the future our world is going to be like the one in Super Sad. It always missed the mark when I was reading them because you could make just a few superficial changes to today’s world and it’d be scary how much it’d look like the world of Super Sad.
Gary: Well, since the book came out there have been a bunch of people who keep forwarding me articles about this. I’ll give you one example—The New York Times actually published this one. They went to the Paris fashion shows and they mentioned that there were “onionskin” jeans in the show or something just like it, and they reference Super Sad. Even The Wall Street Journal asked me to come in and talk about currency fluctuations. You know we’re in some deep shit there.
We are in a very scary moment right now. And there’s some stuff that the book doesn’t really cover, which in some ways is even scarier than the other stuff. The big elephant in the room is of course global warming, which Super Sad doesn’t really address. But in terms of calamities that we can’t fully avoid, but we can try to avoid...it seems like the human race has given up a little bit in this stage of its development. People are all excited about the Internet and all the possibilities there. But the very question of our survival is at stake, and people are just shrugging their shoulders and saying, “We can’t handle that right now.”
I grew up in St. Petersburg, and after the collapse of communism, St. Petersburg went to hell in a handbasket very quickly—that’s one of the subjects of Absurdistan—and I remember there were posters in the city which had the tagline The City Is Tired. That’s kind of how the planet feels to me right now. There’s this kind of nihilism, this tiredness. Fatalism, not nihilism, may be best way to look at it, this sort of shrugging of shoulders. And in this country, in particular, because it’s clear to many people that unless something drastic changes, the next generation will not be as prosperous and as advanced as the previous. That’s not something we’re used to in this country.
Samson: On that note of fatalism, there are hints at a wider rebellion in Super Sad. Various friends of the book’s main character, Lenny, are engaged in subversive activity. One of his friends is cutting gay sex in with images of the meeting of the U.S. president and a dignitary from China. Then there’s Noah, who runs a webcam. There’s a suggestion of a wider rebellion that may be happening, but Lenny cannot quite connect with it. This is a major theme throughout Super Sad. Eunice is held back by family, by the pressures of the times, and Lenny is kind of an older character from a previous time. He can’t seem to connect with the idea that he is responsible or that he can advocate in a different direction.
Gary: Well, I’ve been writing what’s called “immigrant fiction.” This story is the first time I’ve had characters who, though children of immigrants, are both native-born. But there is an immigrant story in this book, and that’s the immigrant story of Lenny. He’s immigrating not from a different country but from a different planet. He’s an immigrant from the analog world where people read books, and he is forced to confront a world that’s entirely different from the one that he came from.
This is something that people of my generation and older are certainly facing in different ways. Some of course embrace everything. I myself have a Facebook page and all this stuff. But we are also a little bit wary. On my part there is not even a sense of nostalgia, but a sense of wishing that more remnants of the world from which I came remained. For example, the wish that my level of concentration, which used to be quite different from what it is right now, was the same. I’m sitting here now and there are two computers in front of
me and I’m getting all kinds of messages. I wish for that to come back and to reclaim a sense of wonder. Wonder that doesn’t come simply from little bings of information floating across the Internet.
Samson: The Internet is a huge thing in all your novels. How much do you think new media is replacing old media? I recall you said in one interview that people don’t read books anymore.
Gary: Well that’s not true. The worry isn’t that people stop reading books right now; it’s about what the future of books will be for the next generation or two. Some people think that Super Sad is in some ways a rebuttal to youth culture or that I don’t like youth. I think that’s the furthest thing from the truth. People are people and one generation doesn’t really matter to me from another. We are all confronted by the basic problems—the basic problems being family, love and relationships, and of course mortality. Those are the things we have to work around as we get older. And that’s not going to change 500 years from now or 500 years before our time. Those things are constants. But what does worry me is the ability of introspection: the ability to sit down and contemplate not just the world around us, but who we are. To me, novels or any long-form text require a lot of work. They require a deeper level of interactivity than the Internet even requires. There’s something that happens when you enter the mind of a human being through a book. You are allowed to assess your own existence in a very different way. What the Internet has been doing so far—who knows what the future may hold—is that it disrupts our ability to concentrate for long periods of time. I know people whose job it is to read books who find it hard to complete a novel. It’s becoming a rarer and rarer skill. And that’s something that worries me.
Samson: Poetry has kind of gone that way as well. Poetry is much more intense. With poetry you have to read the words very closely, pay attention and fill in gaps of context. And with the new medias coming out, we are bombarded with video and audio and text that morph into whatever we need them to with the click of a button. It seems like poetry is sliding farther back, and now novels are sliding back. Maybe novels in the future will be more chat exchanges then…
Gary: Well, the bestsellers in Japan have been cell phone novels. For quite a while now they have been written as text messages. Then they put together all the text messages and sell them, and they sell millions of copies. If Japan is any sense of the future, then that may be what awaits us.
Samson: There’s a really startling, clear “oomph” to your novels. There are no kid gloves when it comes to speaking about Halliburton or U.S. behavior overseas. George Carlin, in a famous routine about rights, basically says, ‘You’ve got no rights.’ You seem to picture that vision for the future of America—that rights could very easily just go away.
Gary: Some could say there is an innate pessimism to what I write, which maybe comes from my Ashkenazi, Soviet flavor. But look, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook—which has a personal crisis attached to it, but in many ways is a much more cheerful book than the two that followed—was written during the relatively happy days of the Clinton administration, when things seemed like they were… You know, life wasn’t bad. There wasn’t a particular reason for joy, and when you think about it there was a growing inequality in America and things of that nature, which are now coming back to bite us in the ass. But for the most part, there wasn’t this kind of pessimism. With Absurdistan, the pessimism, in my case, began—this was a post-9/11 novel, though I began writing it before 9/11—with a definite sense that we were messing up abroad in ways that were not good. Super Sad, obviously, takes things in a different direction. I think America is used to being the number one country, always has been. It will be a shock for this country not to be in a position of being the dominant force around the world, not just economically but culturally.
It’s so idiotically obvious sometimes what is to be done. You know that famous Lenin question: What is to be done? We need to concentrate on the infrastructure, which is decaying in this country. More importantly, we need to make sure that education in this country is the best in the world. It is nowhere near the best in the world right now. The book, which criticizes illiteracy, is roundaboutly criticizing where we’ve come to as a culture, where we celebrate stupidity and we malign any kind of intelligence. This is a huge problem in America. People think that this country’s success over the last century came from this driving American spirit. No, it came because we attracted the smartest people from around the world to come here and make this country what it is. When we celebrate stupidity—looking at the anti-immigration laws in Arizona, for example—this is really putting the nail in the coffin for us. This is not going to be good.
Samson: There’s this kind of push-pull in the U.S., and you show it really well with your character Noah in Super Sad, who is a very visceral character. He puts this whole other angle on the book. He acts as the only person who is not in a position of power, who is politically aware and discusses politics. He opens up this whole world of anger. It could be Rubenstein, it could be Bush or it could be Obama, it doesn’t matter.
Gary: The problem with Noah’s anger is that it’s emotional. There’s no thought behind it. And it has to be emotional because that’s what’s left of the media—[the media] has to be personal and emotional. I think Amy Greenberg is an even better example of this. People are dying in Central Park and she’s talking about her muffin-top, because that’s the only way she’s going to get hits.
As much as I’m worried about the decline of reading, of fiction, of literature, I’m doubly worried about what has already been happening to journalism. The way journalism has degraded itself into just another form of entertainment, which it used to be in the early days of our republic. Then it became this wonderful fact-checking institution: the downfall of Richard Nixon, the Pentagon Papers...all these things were such a huge part. And now what? This is a very difficult moment. Mainstream journalism is following ten steps behind—ten steps behind WikiLeaks, ten steps behind everything else. Then of course you have these ideological entertainment conglomerates, like Fox News, that are creating a whole new environment that is very scary.
Samson: There are these moments that are very, very funny in Super Sad. There are people that are emoting with the protest march in the background. They’re using scenes of real human misery and real human struggle as simply a background to whine about their ex-girlfriend or their pimples. There are two ways of reading that: one being that the person on the camera is incredibly shallow, which is definitely a good way; the other being that if you lived in a security state like the one in the book, you wouldn’t actually be able to sign on and say, “Hey everybody, there’s a rebellion going on. You should join up.” You might only be able to show it in the background.
Gary: Well in 1984 the horror was Big Brother, because he invaded people’s privacy. Nowadays, there’s a voluntary Big Brother happening. The authoritarian society in Super Sad is for the most part fairly inept. It can’t spell things. It can’t keep the Williamsburg Bridge afloat. It sucks. Left to its own devices, it really wouldn’t accomplish much terror. But the terror comes from the fact that everyone is uploading their data, there’s no privacy and everything is just for show. So it’s not that we’re being attacked by Big Brother, it’s that we’ve invited him.