American novelist Gary Shteyngart says he feels at home in Israel – not because
he is Jewish or even because he’s Russian, but because conflict is his familiar
“I go to peaceful places like Copenhagen and I just get
bored,” says the bestselling writer, who visited Israel last week for the third
International Writer’s Festival in the capital. “I grew up in a tumultuous
environment in the Soviet Union, so for me, unless there’s anger expressed all
the time I feel strange.”
Born in Leningrad, the author of three
award-winning works of fiction – The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (2002), which
he started writing as a senior at Oberlin College, Absurdistan (2006) and Super
Sad True Love Story (2010) – immigrated to New York with his parents when he was
seven years old.
Shteyngart, looking relaxed in jeans and a plaid shirt,
sat down with The Jerusalem Post during the festival in Mishkenot Sha’ananim
overlooking the Old City walls and talked about why HBO shows are the new novel,
his fear of technology and what it meant when he received the tag line “balding
traitor betrays motherland” from a Russian reviewer.
In all of his books,
Shteyngart, who grew up in Little Neck, Queens, and teaches in the MFA program
at Columbia University, places his immigrant protagonists in overblown
situations and uses satire to mock nationalism, institutions, overblown
religiosity and different ethnic groups. In Super Sad True Love Story, he
chronicles a love story between a Russian and a Korean, while poking fun at
little absurdities in their families, and says that nobody and nothing should be
untouchable in satirical writing.
“If there are limits then you haven’t
really done your job,” he says.
No limits also mean that when his father
asks whether his latest book will be “good for the Jews,” he can honestly say
that not only won’t it be good for the Jews, it won’t be good for
“I feel like I’ve been blessed with the ability to make fun of
everyone,” he says. “From a Shteyngart novel nobody comes out looking
The 39-year-old is changing pace from fiction and working on his
memoirs as well as an original pilot for HBO (what he says many talented writers
are doing these days), and says he would like in the future to try new
characters, like writing from the point of view of a non-Russian
In working on his memoirs, he is doing a great deal of family
research, traveling to Russia and learning about how his parents became the
people they are.
“One is never free from the past, which is stronger than
religion and country and the rest of it,” he says.
Still, he is not
losing the voice that catapulted him to literary fame.
“I think it’s
always important to remember yourself at your sort of most cowering, lowest
point, and for me that’s being a child in America [who] just emigrated from
Russia, being in Hebrew school, being beaten by the local Jews,” he says.
“That’s important to remember because that’s the interesting
Shteyngart has no shortage of material. In Super Sad, he creates
a dystopia in which society is a purely visual culture and nobody reads anymore
– a reality that Shteyngart feels already exists or is fast approaching. He
theorizes that when major empires are on the decline they turn into visual
cultures from literary ones, like the Roman Empire, for instance, and now the
Reading is one of the first casualties in such
“We’ve led a very luxurious century in America and it’s doubtful
that the next century will be as luxurious,” he says forebodingly.
drawing attention to the absurdity in everything, particularly religion and
nationalism, Shteyngart has seen a remarkable difference in reactions to his
writing from those people or countries that feel secure in their identities and
those that don’t.
He waited for American Jews, for instance, to take
serious offense to the Holocaust museum he created in Absurdistan, but they
didn’t. His intended meaning hit readers on some level, he said, but then they
On the other extreme, insecure “meganational enterprises” like
Russia, where he received the tagline “balding traitor betrays motherland,”
cannot handle being satirized.
The global trend of heightened
nationalism, coupled with scarcer resources and a rising tide of natural
disasters worries Shteyngart altogether. Gesturing to the row of Israeli flags
on the next building over, he says, “I love Israel very much, but I don’t think
we need a flag on every single piece of territory.”
In America too, he
says, seeing giant flags everywhere only points out the insecurity and fear of
the country, not its pride or happiness in itself.
“When you’re proud you
don’t need to say it,” he says. “We can’t be defined by a bunch of
AS HE travels around the world for speaking engagements,
Shteyngart sees the evidence of the visual culture he fathomed in Super Sad, as
he finds himself begging people to pick up a book.
“There’s such good
pornography now,” he says, that people argue, “Why should I read a book?” He
answers, “My books are fairly pornographic. Give them a try.”
technology that is killing his business, Shteyngart charges. Our brains are
overloaded from looking at the computer, tweeting, watching television and more
all day, he says, and people are so exhausted at the end of a work day that it’s
much easier to go for the visual stimulation, rather than retrain our brains to
sink into a good read, which takes work. Shteyngart says he falls victim to the
barrage of electronica too, though he also struggles to keep up with
“I’m a better twitterer than I am a writer,” he jokes. “That’s what
I’m known for. What I really need is to build a bigger Twitter
presence. Then the readers will follow.”
As of press time,
Shteyngart can boast 9,919 Twitter followers.
Shteyngart also understands
the nightly appeal of keeping up with shows like Mad Men, The Wire and Breaking
Bad, which he too enjoys, and praises for their novelistic storytelling – in
particular The Sopranos, when it was still on television.
however, he says, have become the center of intellectual culture.
than being well read, educated people are expected to know these
“When I saw The Sopranos I thought, Jesus Christ, this is
Flaubert on the screen,” he says. “The attention to dialogue is just
fantastic...as honest as you can get, as realistic as you can
get. That’s something I often find missing from literary
To make sure his dialogue sounds as authentic as possible,
Shteyngart says he always reads it out loud, and even took acting lessons with
Louise Lasser, an actress and Woody Allen’s ex-wife, to expand from just
being able to do great accents (especially the Russian one).
popularity of television, he’s still keeping the torch going for fiction, and
despite being a total pessimist when it comes to technology, the downfall of
countries, cultures and the environment, Shteyngart derives hope from his
Columbia students, who by reading critically and intelligently, restore his
faith in humankind. He, in turn, advises them on their craft.
can count among his pupils actor James Franco, and even featured his students in
a trailer on YouTube he filmed to promote Super Sad.
“I’m the kind of
writer who tells people ‘this is boring’ or ‘this is pretentious, don’t go
there,’” he says. “Boredom and pretention are the twin enemies of literary
fiction, especially in an MFA kind of format people forget that there’s a reader
out there who has to read this stuff.”
He also feels a mixture of
pessimism and optimism from his pack of loyal readers, which he estimates at a
quarter million people in Brooklyn, Seattle, Portland and Brookline,
“You can make ’em laugh, but you ain’t gonna teach ‘em
nothin’ new. Maybe you will.”
Shteyngart, who participated in a
Generation X writers panel at the festival and in a dialogue with Israeli short
story writer Etgar Keret, has been keeping readers entertained since he first
started writing as a young boy in yeshiva looking to make friends.
a Russian kid was the worst thing you could be,” he told the crowd at the event
Though after eight years in yeshiva, Shteyngart says he had
about enough of Judaism, including getting circumcised in the US, at the time he
immersed himself in the religion, including the practice of burning chametz
during Passover, which he says he became almost fanatical about.
became very religious, of course, because I wanted these people to love
“So I started writing a Torah of my own,”
Shteyngart recalls. He called it the “Ganorah,” and it was quite racy. Exodus
became Sexodus and Moses became quite the randy figure.
“That’s how I
made my first American friends,” he says. “That’s when I realized that writing
could be subversive and you could make friends by writing. I’ve been writing the
same kind of crap ever since.”